Reader, I’m gonna level with you: I don’t care for sports. The most I’ve ever been invested in a sport was reading about Gryffindor win the Inter-House Quidditch Cup or guiding my misfits to freedom in Pyre. I grew up in small-town America, where football, soccer, and baseball were a way of life. I tried my hand at soccer and enjoyed it, but that enjoyment quickly soured to resentment thanks to bullying. That resentment eventually manifested in a complete disinterest in all things sports. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself curious about some forms of athleticism and even more curious about what video games do with various sports – how developers present and package sports, what they choose to focus on, and whether or not they’re accommodating to newcomers.
I decided that it was time for me to fill in a particularly deep genre gap for and play some sports games. Given that I live in the snowy fantasy land that is Minnesota and that I love watching people beat the hell out of each other, hockey was the obvious go-to: the one that would lead me into the shallow end of the icy pond and show me how to doggy paddle. With that impression in mind, I picked up NHL 19 and decided to spend a week playing it and writing about my experience for my fellow scrubs who are intimidated by the genre but also curious.
Here’s how my week with NHL 19 is going, in all its misery and glory.
Day 1: Interference
How hard can hockey be? There’s a stick. There’s a puck. There’s a goal. You get the puck into the goal that is not your goal. Simple. As the title screen loads for NHL 19, I’m feeling good about this experience, especially since the first menu that greets me is an accessibility loadout that lets you adjust sliders and options to tailor the game to your skill level.
How kind! Why yes, I will choose rookie. How nice of the game to ease me in. So far, so good. Let’s load into the main game now.
Oh. Okay. That’s a lot. Wow. That’s … hockey’s just one game, right? Intimidating, but okay. I’ve got this.
Let’s do franchise mode. I’ve always wanted to own a franchise. I would have settled for Dairy Queen, but a hockey team is good. Sure.
Why is there so much? WHY?
I just wanted to hit a puck with a stick.
Okay. We’re just … we’re just gonna head out of this. That’s for the best, I think.
Heading back into the main screen, I see a season mode far below franchise mode. Loading into that, I find something more in line with what I expected: You take a team through an entire season of NHL play, with far less emphasis on management-driven systems (though you can still trade players). I am a simple, impulsive man so I choose the Minnesota Wild for no other reason than I live in Minnesota. Our managing editor Matt Bertz later tells me this is a grievous error, and upon further examination of the team’s hideous Mountain Dew-like color scheme, I realize he might be right. But we’re here, reader. You, me, and the Minnesota Wild. We’ve committed to this. We’re going to ride this train to hell.
I load into the first match and am paired up against the Chicago Blackhawks. Within seconds of the game, the basics become obvious: Jump from body to body as you pursue the puck down the ice, with two buttons dedicated to hitting the puck. One is for wrist shots (when you’re aiming for accuracy over speed), the other for snap shots (vice versa). The first of the three periods is brutal. I don’t get scored on, but I’m having a hell of a time just keeping control of the puck. The few times I do manage, I’m slapping it against the steel of the goal or watching it sail smoothly into the goalie’s hand.
The second period is even worse. As I fumble through memorizing the control scheme, the Blackhawks get a few snap shots off on me, scoring two goals within seconds of one another. Booooooo. I’m just not enjoying this experience at all. The physics are weird, the controls seemingly unresponsive, and the commentators are so annoying. I hit the last intermission and wonder how anyone could find this game fun.
Loading into the third period, I quickly find my answer. The adjustment period finishes, and my fingers go where they’re supposed to when they’re supposed as I nimbly jump between characters and pass the puck back and forth. After the failures of the previous periods, I finally develop a strategy other than desperately passing and shooting when we’re all bunched together at the opposing goal. We zig and zag down the line, passing pucks between Blackhawk players and then shooting a few feet from the goal. The first few attempts don’t pan out, but as the clock ticks down to three minutes, my proper lad and Wild captain Mikko Koivu SLAMS the puck from a distance and sends it soaring into the corner of the net. The crowd goes wild. The commentators call it a howitzer. My players all cheer and hug as fans stamp their feet and our weirdo mascot does an awkward dance. I notice dimly seconds after I’ve done it that I’ve put my fist in the air and hollered in celebration.
We still lose, of course, but that moment of exhilaration makes it all worthwhile. I went from hopeless idiot to hopeless idiot who’s capable of scoring a single goal! I’m like Rocky, but also better than Rocky, because I didn’t get hit in the face.
Eat it, Balboa.
Day 2: Three’s Company
Reader, I’m in deep. After several games in season mode, with a fair share of wins and losses, I’ve started keeping a page of notes. It looks like this:
I think I might like hockey. A lot. At least the video game version of it. The initially frustrating controls have become exercises in mastering grace in twitchy situations. The frustration of clanging the puck against the steel frame of the goal over and over again upended by the uproarious exhilaration of finally sending the puck ripping into the net. There’s also the gradual enjoyment I’m having of learning terms as new penalties and phrases flash across screen, causing me to shake my head and ask myself what the heck “offside” and “slashing” mean.
My favorite games are often those that teach their rules in interesting ways, with lessons often connected to an engaging progression system. Challenges in games like Destiny or Far Cry that reward you for using tools from your offensive arsenal in certain ways are a great example of that. However, what I love about playing NHL 19 as a total newbie is how compelling this onslaught of new terms and rules are. It’s overwhelming at first to a degree, with me having to constantly stop and do a few seconds worth of research to see why a play of mine got flagged or to understand why the game’s praising me for pulling off a certain kind of shot or move. However, the satisfaction of constantly learning something new is engaging.
To me, it’s a different strand of what I love about inhabiting a universe like Mass Effect. Yes, a sports game is entirely different than a sci-fi RPG but both experiences come down to parading a series of questions before the player, at least for someone who’s new to both games, like me. Discovering the answers to “Why do the Geth invade worlds and who built the Citadel?” produce the same kind of entertainment as learning the different intricacies of hockey — the rules, the great players, the various reputations attached to different teams. Both experiences, as thematically separate as they are, are united by learning and developing an appreciation for the culture you’re inhabiting as a player. It doesn’t matter if that culture is sports-focused or an elaborate fantastical universe — you still have to acclimate yourself to those worlds.
Garrus would probably be a Sharks fan, yeah? Yeah.
It also feels nice to win, of course. That’s an obvious statement, but if you play games a lot, you often become desensitized to doing well in a game. However, as someone dabbling in a genre I’m not experienced in, it really does feel like I’m pulling off a magic track anytime I nail a shot or even pull off a saucer pass assist one of my teammates turns into a game-winning slap shot. I’m not great, of course. I doubt I’d last long in an online match against another player, but I’m outwitting and outpacing the A.I. more often than not.
However, as we discovered last time, NHL 2019 is a game with a lot of modes. Eventually I decide to pull out of season mode and try some other ones. After all, I want to do more than just play hockey. I want to explore all of NHL 19’s offerings and see how many variations it can create from the base game and how compelling all those are. With that in mind, I pick at random and load into NHL Threes.
What is Threes? The easiest way to think about it is a more arcadey version of the base game, hockey’s answer to NBA Jam. Threes reduces the players from five to three, speeds up the clock, shrinks the ice rink, gets rid of a lot of the rules and penalties, and introduces a whole ton of modifiers. The mode adds randomness, like a player on one of the teams being replaced halfway through the match by a mascot, and is inherently more wacky than anything else in NHL 19. The announcer is more of the BoomShakaLakka variety than an ESPN talking head, demanding the audience make noise or obnoxiously yelling about how you just missed your shot. As fun as this all sounds, I’m not really a big fan of the mode.
The reduced player-set up combined with a smaller rink and sped up clock are enticing changes that, on their own, make for a great way to play a version of hockey that whittles down the game to its basics. However, the random elements really disrupt the game in a way that’s not fun or fair. For example, random periods will have “money puck” modifiers, meaning the next goal will give the team that scores it two points, not one. While this might make for an exciting upset win, I think the unbalancing of the game in this mode makes it lose a lot of its luster for me. Also, I’m not good at it, which means it’s automatically bad. Obviously.
Day 3: A Star Is Born
At long last, I think I can safely say that I am no longer a rookie — technically anyway. I’ve progressed far enough in my hockey journey to grasp the moment-by-moment fundamentals beyond a rudimentary understanding of the game. I’ve won some games, know the definitions of some penalties and plays (we’re going to crash the F&# out of this net my fellow pucksters), so I’m feeling cocky. With that in mind, I’m switching the difficulty up from Rookie to Semi-pro and changing the control setting to “Skill Stick.” Skill Stick is apparently the default one that most avid NHL 19 players use, so it makes sense to embrace that.
Switching back to season mode, I play a few Wild games to get a handle on the differences. Semi-pro doesn’t actually play that different in terms of opposing A.I. They’re a little faster but not overly aggressive. It’s more of a difficulty nudge than a spike. However, the control scheme change is a big shift that takes a few games to fully get used to. Basically, the two buttons dedicated to slap shots and wrist shots in Hybrid are replaced by giving the player full control over the stick with your controller’s right analog stick. A wrist shot is as quick as slapping the analog stick with your thumb, while pulling off a slapper requires you to take a half-second (a dangerous amount of time on the ice) and follow through with back to forward push. If you’re doing that while you’re moving at high speeds, chances are your hockey stick won’t connect with the puck, so I need to practice to get the hang of slappers.
All that said, after those transitory blues pass, I actually prefer Skill Stick. Sure, Hybrid controls make it easier to technically pull off a shot, but using the stick gives (at least the illusion) of more control over my shots. In any case, I’m doing far better than when I started the game. I go on a four-game winning streak with the Wild before deciding to switch over to a mode called World of Chel, a glowing tile in the overstuffed main menu. After a brief Google search to ease my curiosity (apparently “Chel” is an inside joke about how the ending of NHL sounds when said aloud: “EnAyChel”), I click into the mode.
To my delight I discover it’s a character-based mode where you make your own skater and customize him with various bits of gear. I don’t spend much time in the character customization menu, though there are plenty of options when it comes to facial structure, hair, and eye color:
I just decide to go with my mental image of a generic skater, which is this guy:
After that, I select Start and find myself greeted with yet another series of menus and game types. Only one of them is offline-focused, and while I’m feeling pretty good about my performance, I don’t think I’m ready for multiplayer yet. I select the offline option, something called Pro Am, and am led into a screen filled with a bunch of mini tournaments pitting you against A.I. teams. I pick one of them and load into a prep screen including….skill loadouts!? My heart sinks as I remember how Threes’ great minimalist design was ruined by its oddly implemented random elements. However, upon closer inspection, the skills you can equip (and earn by playing matches in World of Chel and leveling up) are tiny stat boosters.
Nothing that’s going to throw off the game as badly as money pucks do. I quickly put together my loadout and hop into the match.
So, uh, some big surprises! Apparently Pro Am, if you’re curious and clueless like me, translates to Professional-Amateur. Like its name implies, the mode has hobbyists (you and your team) playing against NHL stars. Cool, cool. So what does this setup mean in terms of actual gameplay? Well, a few big things basically:
1. The clock is much shorter. Every period is two minutes.
2. There are only three skaters on each team (outside of the goalie).
3. Neither team wears a uniform. Everyone is just wearing whatever they want, usually a hoodie or winter jacket.
Those are all major differences, especially the uniform thing because it makes it hard to know who’s on which team. Not immediately knowing who your teammates are can make passing the puck a surprisingly tricky issue during heated moments. However, the biggest difference between Pro Am and the other modes I’ve played so far is that you’re controlling only one player, the guy or girl you made in the character creator. There is no hopping from player to player. In a sudden fit of realism, you’re confined to one puck-slapping-mortal coil. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite compelling. However, the transition is definitely a big one. During key moments in my first few matches, I’d try to jump from a body and end up signaling that I wanted a pass (which was quickly intercepted, of course). None of these instances thwarted my games during Pro Am, as my team soared to victory each time pretty easily, but the chaos is definitely noticeable during the adjustment period.
I actually dig Pro Am a fair bit. The mode boils hockey down to its essentials and doesn’t really tamper with that setup by throwing in odd elements for the sake of spicing things up (like Threes does). Getting in five or more matches done in an hour feels really nice too, compared to the more sluggishly paced regular matches.
You receive goofy loot for playing, too, so that’s pretty rad. You earn experience in World of Chel for winning matches. Every time you level up you get, I’m not joking here, a loot bag filled with a bunch of gear that you have to manually unzip. Really. I’m dead serious.
Click here to watch embedded media
Pro Am’s probably my favorite mode so far; it’s basically a nice balance between realism and arcade. It doesn’t hurt that the World Of Chel has a long tail thanks to the surprising amount of cosmetics you can get across all its mode, which run the gamut from team logos to goofy casual clothes to wear during Pro Am matches.
Here’s my current guy.
Now that…that is the face of a champion.
Day 4: Puck And Punishment
Reader, I regret to inform you I have been, as they say, “called out.” Managing editor Matthew Bertz, one of the three hockey fanatics in our offices, recently took to the comments section of this piece to disparage my beautiful character-created son Hal Jackson. This is what he said:
Usually my soul is steel and pride indestructible. However, given my vulnerability and anxiety in engaging in this new icy venture, Bertz’s words have cut me deep. As a result, Hal Jackson is dead. I have killed him. He has been deleted from the NHL and from life itself. Congratulations, Bertz. I hope you’re happy with yourself.
In his place, I’ve constructed a newer man, a better one, a man who represents everything that hockey is about. Grit. Determination. And grace in all things but especially punching people in the face. Meet Woody Wiffles, the man, some would say hero, we’ll be journeying through Pro Career Mode with.
So what is Pro Career mode? Like Pro Am, you’re confined to playing with one character-created avatar (in my case, my demi-god Woody), but this time you’re taking the character through a pro season of hockey — starting even before the season, with you having to show you’ve got the skills. After creating your character, you’re randomly placed on a junior hockey team and have to compete in a tournament. Your performance is graded and then you’re drafted by one of the NHL teams. You can also skip ahead to drafting if you want but, reader, I’m a journalist who’s quite serious about his work. We’re going to do this thing and we’re going to do it properly.
I load into the game and find myself greeted with a minimized version of the game’s standard career mode menu. I simulate the season as other teams play against each other before Woody and the Barrie Colts go up against The Regina Pats. I hit the ice and expect to blow through the game given my experience with Pro Am. I quickly pay the price for my arrogance. The Pats are vicious, much faster and coordinated than any team I’ve played against. They check us into the boards, intercept passes with grace, and basically dance around us. Furthermore, I’m really sloppy with Woody. My standard strategy of blocking passes and poking the puck is backfiring massively, with Woody collecting penalties and being sent to the box over and over again.
A curious thing about the box: you actually go to there as the player and sit there in first-person. You’re also expected to change lines and sit on the bench whenever the coach tells you to do so. You can breeze through these periods with a skip button that simulates the match while you’re not in it, but it’s a fascinating experience that really draws attention to the necessity of teamwork. The coach, presented as a text box with various statistics as well as praises and suggestions for improvement, does a great job go honing in on your successes and failures. The coach even goes so far as to set goals for your player throughout the season, encouraging you to gain experience in various categories like offense, teamplay, and so on. Pro Career mode is essentially just Hockey RPG, and I’m really digging it.
You gain experience in-match for pulling off basic actions competently or exceptionally. Get a great shot off on the goalie? Even if it doesn’t result in a goal, a green notification pops up to award you 25 EXP. Same for passing, doing a massive body hit, signaling your team appropriately, and changing lines when your coach tells you to. After the match, you get a readout screen that looks like this, informing you of your successes as well as areas you need to improve on:
Turns out Woody is really bad at playing well with others. I keep accidentally causing penalties so, as the next few matches unfold, I try new strategies. Instead of poking the opposing team constantly, I try and put distance between us, and focus on blocking shots by sticking my stick out in front of our goalie when the puck is near. This actually results in quite a few saves. I’m pretty impressed with how fluidly the coaching mechanic actually teaches you to teach yourself new strategies. Also, the tension when you’re in the box, looking on powerless as your teammates go after the puck is great. At one point, I was on the bench after scoring a goal and then, after simulating the next five minutes, went on the ice to find we were tired. The same thing happened in the next game except our team got two on the opposing team, essentially giving us a victory. While other bits of randomness in NHL 19’s setup are annoying, this one feels like a natural part of the game. You can’t carry your team, after all. Success depends on everyone’s efforts, not just your own.
In the end, despite losing one of the matches, Woody and the Colts take the cup, which is great for Woody because it means he ends up being #18 when the draft comes around. And we end up playing for (drum roll please) these folks!
I have no idea if The Blue Jackets are a good team. I ask Bertz and he says they’re decent. I don’t know if I can trust him, but it’s not much like I have much of a choice. Woody and I are on the edge of glory and ready to prove ourselves.
Day 5: The Kid Stays In The Picture
Y’all. Pro Career mode is ROUGH. Not in a bad way. It’s just crushing though, difficulty-wise. After being drafted by The Blue Jackets, the first four games of the preseason are total losses. However, I don’t feel too bad about it, oddly enough.
So much of Pro Career mode is individual-focused. It’s not about how the team does but instead how the player contributes. For example, the first game I play, which pits us against the Hurricanes, is pretty lousy all around. I keep messing up passes and getting into fights so that I’m basically out most of the game. However, in the games after that, my performance picks up.
I’m passing well, delivering big hits, and even scoring a handful of goals. However, during the simulated periods when I’m in the box, The Blue Jackets keep getting points scored on them. It’s a weird situation because I feel like, and the various post-game statistics show, that I’m doing my part. And yet we keep losing because of things beyond my control, namely that our goalie is AWFUL.
So far Pro Career is the mode that excites and rankles me the most. I don’t think it’s the best part of my NHL 19 experience so far (that’d be Pro Am) but it’s one where I’m never bored. I’m either on the edge of my seat in anticipation of us scoring a goal or seated firmly in despair as our goalie just lets someone walk the puck in.
I think Pro Career does a really good job of simulating you as someone desperate to impress onlookers and eager to be a valuable part of a team. I wish I had more time to spend with the mode to see it until the end, but it apparently goes on forever and I just don’t have that much time in a week. Instead, I think it’s time to take things to a new level.
We’re gonna go online.
Day 6: The Human Condition
Up until this point, all I’ve done play is play with and against A.I. players. I’ve played a ton of modes in NHL 19 but my only compatriots have been the game’s computer. Today, that changes. Hockey experts Matt Bertz, Matt Kato, and Kim Wallace have offered to let me play a handful of games in multiplayer to get a sense of what it’s like to play with real human beings. Given that for the past three years I’ve listened to this trio speak in a language of pucks, player trades, and penalties that is finally becoming understandable to me, I could not be in better company.
Bertz sets up the lobby and sends the rest of us invites. Things don’t get off to a smooth start, with the game disconnecting at least one of us when we go from the lobby into a match prep screen. On the third attempt, we all manage to stay together. Each of us picks a portion (I go with right wing) and the rest of our team is filled out with random players from the internet. As the match launches and we’re taken to an outdoor skating rink somewhere in the snowy mountains, I feel a slight touch of anxiety in my stomach. These are my friends, after all. It’s one thing to embarrass yourself with a poor performance in front of strangers but if I screw up here, I’m sure I’ll be doomed to listen to glee-filled accounts of my glorious failures in the office for the months, if not years to come. I am determined to not mess things up.
And surprisingly, things go pretty well! We lose our first match but it’s a close one and, more importantly, a fun one. The ones multiplayer plays just like Pro Am, with every player on our team marked with a color-coded circle. I’m blue, Kato is green, and so on and so forth. It takes a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to all the colors swirling about but when I do, I play pretty decently according to my coworkers. They are polite, cheering me on when I pull off a pass or slam an opponent into a wall, and they’re reassuring when I make an obvious blunder, like slapping a puck directly into an opponent’s stick.
Voice chat adds a whole new layer of frenzy to the already chaotic game as well as enjoyment. The constant influx of pass requests as well as reactionary comments to players getting in fights, penalties called, or shots on the goal add another layer of constant engagement that’s missing from playing against A.I. foes. We end up losing by a point (and the next game by several points) but overall, that doesn’t matter. The social dynamics combined with the frantic energy of the sport makes this scenario one of the most enjoyable bits of NHL 19 I’ve played so far. I even leave our matches feeling like I did my part in contributing instead of falling over myself every which way.
There might just be hope for me yet.
Join me next time as I return to confront my old nemesis: Franchise mode.