When it comes to EA Sports' NHL series, last year's NHL 23 was one of the biggest disappointments we've experienced thus far. It wasn't a bad game (which is why we gave it a 6/10 here at Pure Xbox), but it still felt like it barely made any strides forward whatsoever, and we ultimately grew tired of it very quickly. NHL 24 bucks that trend by finally implementing some fairly comprehensive changes on the ice, and the issue this time is that while some of them are great additions to the series, others miss the mark. Still, at least there's more ambition this year!
The biggest new feature in NHL 24 is something called the Exhaust Engine, which has a heavy impact on gameplay across all modes. You know those moments in real-world NHL games where it feels like a team is on the powerplay even though they aren't? When they're peppering the goal with shots and cycling the puck with ease while the other team desperately tries to clear the zone and make a line change? That's what the Exhaust Engine aims to replicate, and it does a pretty good job for the most part. The more consecutive time you spend in the offensive zone, the more the other team begins to wear out, and eventually you reach a "Full Pressure" scenario where you get around 30 seconds to try and capitalise on your dominance. It might sound a little overpowered, and it can perhaps feel that way at times, but in general it's a pretty balanced feature that leads to some authentic and thrilling out-of-your-seat moments.
There are some other changes to gameplay that we're fond of as well. The new Vision Passing system allows you to choose precisely who you want to pass to at any given time, and it can be activated simply by holding down one button. Hitting is different this year too, implementing a new physics system and requiring you to either nudge the right-stick forward for a small hit, or pull it back and then release it forward for a potentially huge check. The hitting feels a bit too overpowered in EASHL games right now, but otherwise we're liking the enhanced risk-reward element of the new system along with its replay-worthy collisions.
The one big gameplay change that we can't wrap our heads around is the optional new control scheme called "Total Control", which is largely the same as the popular "Skill Stick" but it maps various skill moves to the face buttons instead. In NHL 23, pulling off a lacrosse-style "Michigan" goal was suitably difficult to pull off, but in NHL 24 it's literally just one button press. It's still not an easy move to score with, but it just looks silly when your opponents (and teammates!) are attempting this unrealistic move on a semi-regular basis because of the ease of access. It might look cool the first time you see it, but it gets old very quickly.
In terms of audio and presentation, NHL 24 is definitely a significant improvement over NHL 23. The team at EA Sports have integrated some really cool ideas this year such as animated boards, licensed music including Darude's Sandstorm and Zombie Nation's Kernkraft 400, flashing light displays, much improved crowd chants and reactions, and a great new colour commentator in Cheryl Pounder. On their own, these might not sound like game-changing additions, but collectively they really help to deliver a heightened sense of immersion. Something that doesn't work for us is the new celebration camera, which awkwardly cuts away for a zoomed-in, unskippable celebration that feels out of place, and we're also still disappointed that many pre-game and mid-game cutscenes have been absent since NHL 23. They're a bit better this year, but even in the Stanley Cup Finals, all you get is a few seconds of a generic intro before the opening face-off. Come on EA, you can do better than that!
As for game modes, the focus has undoubtedly been on Hockey Ultimate Team and World of CHEL for NHL 24. The main new feature for HUT is something called "Moments", which tasks you with completing a bunch of historical challenges to earn rewards, while World of CHEL has undergone somewhat of a refresh with a new menu system (it's still slow though!), a Battle Pass, more streamlined customisation features and various other quality-of-life improvements. One of the coolest new features for the EA Sports Hockey League is the ability to allow "drop-in" players to fill in for absent members of your club. Sadly, offline is mostly unchanged compared to NHL 23, so you'll get almost the exact same experience in Franchise Mode and Be a Pro. The latter feels desperate for an overhaul at this point.
NHL 24 feels like a positive step in a new direction, but there's more work to be done. The gameplay this year is really good, bolstered by the inventive new Exhaust Engine feature, and we're also liking a lot of the new presentation improvements. Because of all this, we're willing to overlook some of the new features that haven't worked so well, and now it's up to EA to listen to the community and shape their feedback into something truly special with next year's entry. This is a good game that will keep us entertained far longer than NHL 23 ever did, and we're very intrigued as to what the future holds for NHL 25 and beyond.