Exclusive: NHL 18 brings youth, creativity, and fun to video-game hockey

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      Today during the NHL Awards, EA Sports revealed full details of upcoming title NHL 18, coming on September 15 to PS4 and Xbox One. 

      A couple of weeks ago, at the EA Play event that took place in Los Angeles, I sat down with producer Sean Ramjagsingh to get a look at what's coming in the next iteration of the hockey video game.

      He explained that the development team in Burnaby has been working to inject NHL 18 with the kind of creativity that is part of the "new NHL", which is filled with young players who have speed and skill and execute moves that used to be relegated to pond and pick-up hockey. 

      The toe drags and between-the-leg passes used by players like Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid—the Edmonton Oilers player is on the cover of NHL 18—are not, Ramjagsingh explained, "hot-dogging" but are really tactical moves to make plays that otherwise wouldn't be possible. 

      You can actually pull off those moves in NHL 18, but they are not triggered animation sequences. In this next edition of the hockey sim, gamers have more control over player skill and creativity than ever before. 

      Skilled gamers can use the "skill stick" functionality of the NHL games to get the puck to their skates and back to their stick, but Ramjagsingh said they also came up with a way for all players—including those, like me, with rudimentary skills—to carry out those kinds of slick moves with simpler button combinations.

      In a short game of NHL 18, in which Ramjagsingh routed me, I made a couple of between-the-skates dekes on players and even threw a behind-the-back pass.

      The game's artificial intelligence (AI) is also improved, allowing players to make use of the open ice in ways that weren't previously possible. I was able to make bank passes off the boards and play the puck into open space toward which a teammate was heading. It all makes for a more realistic hockey experience.

      NHL Threes is fast-paced and frenzied hockey

      Sometimes, though, it's fun to just hit the ice and have some fun, and that's where NHL Threes comes in. It's a completely new mode in NHL 18 and was inspired by the fast pace of three-on-three overtime.

      NHL Threes is a modified game that takes place on an ice surface that is 75 percent of the size of a normal rink. There are no face-offs except at the beginning of a period. After a goal, the team that was scored on simply gets possession of the puck in its end. 

      Threes is glorious fun. Players can set the game to end after three periods have elapsed or can keep playing until a certain score has been reached. And multi-goal pucks are also part of Threes, so players who are behind can even the score quickly by netting a two- or three-goal puck.

      Ramjagsingh explained that Threes comes with a campaign mode, and playing it unlocks players, uniforms, and mascots.

      NHL 18 improves multiplayer options

      The experience of three-on-three hockey is throughout NHL 18

      Although the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) supports full six-on-six play, many gamers have difficulty getting enough people to play together without needing to use AI-controlled players, so in addition to overtime in regular games, the EASHL will get a three-on-three mode. 

      It's only one way, Ramjagsingh said, that NHL 18 is improving on the multiplayer experience.

      The game will also support full drop-in and drop-out and all possible configurations of couch and online play. 

      NHL 18 is also tying in with the expansion of the real NHL with the addition of the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Players will be able to draft their own version of the Golden Knights and even create their own team as part of the game's franchise mode. 

      The public beta for the game will happen starting July 25 and will include NHL Threes, EA Sports Hockey League, and Online Vs. mode. Register here.