The sport of hockey is, for the most part, the lowest in popularity of the four major American sports. It could even be fifth, with American soccer gaining a much larger following as of late. Outside of Canada and Eastern Europe, the sport has seen of a decline in their fanbase, though a loyal following. So it’s a bit surprising that EA has found a way to make a terrific game based on a sport that so few people actually care about. That being said, they’ve managed to do it with EA Sports NHL ‘19. With some major upgrades, the NHL franchise has quietly made strides towards becoming the pinnacle of the EA Sports series of games.

Aside from the standard upgrades of yearly sports games, NHL ‘19 has made some really effective additions to its catalogue. The cosmetic upgrades are still there; the updated graphics, accurate rosters and improved modes are all there. What’s also there is an improved social hub, fun new modes and other major improvements to enjoy.

The most noticeable upgrade to this year’s entry into the series is the upgraded locomotion and physics engine. In previous versions, players felt more like slowly curving bricks moving across the ice. Now, they move like actual hockey players, which is a massive improvement. The players move effortlessly across the ice, making quick cuts and with supreme agility. Adding “Real Player Motion” technology, what previously felt like a frustrating slog is now quick, sleek and effortless. Just this feature alone greatly improves the game experience, and we’re only getting started.

Other EA sports franchises, such as Madden and FIFA, have put their main focus on either narrative storytelling (to varying degrees) or the Ultimate Team mode. NHL ‘19 has a Hockey Ultimate Team, but that mode is just one feature of many. The biggest new look comes from their newly-minted “World of Chel”, a social hub that focuses on an arcade-style of online play. This hub allows for players to interact with both the A.I. and other players in several modes. There’s a competitive 1v1 mode against an A.I. goalie, a rule relaxed 3v3 mode, and so much more.

These arcade modes are the crown jewel of NHL ‘19, with the infinitely fun EASHL leagues providing multiple ways of having a ball on the ice. The “Threes” mode pits players against one another or against A.I. in challenges and pick-up games. The second is the “Ones” mode, which puts you in a competitive skills competition against an A.I. goalkeeper. It’s a great time. The “World of Chel” also allows for a massive amount of customization, with loot-crate like hockey bags serving as rewards. Combining the several play styles, accessories and traits of the main game, this allows players to randomly unlock aesthetic prizes and special items as they continue to gain experience. It still feels a bit lacking in certain aspects, but this new mode adds a lot to love.

Even with all that, there’s even more to the game. The franchise mode has been updated, adding better scouting, as well as custom leagues and expansion modes. Coming after the introduction of the Las Vegas Golden Knights to the league last year, this is a welcome addition.

With improved graphics, a plethora of additional features and a revamped physics engine, NHL ‘19 is throwing their hat in the ring as the best of EA’s sports franchises. Whereas Madden and FIFA have stagnated a bit, NHL has not only put itself on the same level, quality-wise, but it may be even better than its more popular counterparts.

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