‘NHL 21’ Franchise Mode is kind of busted, but gets the job done

James O'Brien
·7 min read

When it comes to judging “NHL 21” in general and its Franchise Mode in specific, it’s crucial to consider expectations.

Judging by how some react to the mere mention of EA Sports’ NHL games online, we can get this out of the way. If you didn’t like recent EA Sports NHL games, you’re probably not going to like “NHL 21.” (Go ahead and rehash those “glorified roster update” takes now.)

But, for those who find some level of enjoyment out of the games — or haven’t bought one in a while –what about “NHL 21,” and its Franchise Mode to be specific?

Well, it depends.

Will you like Franchise Mode in “NHL 21?” Did you like previous ones?

Look, there are a lot of reasons — some fair, some frustrating — why “NHL 21” didn’t make a giant leap with its updated Franchise Mode. Rolling all of those out would probably be about as tedious as scrolling through the menus of “NHL 21,” which sometimes respond about as quickly as Hal Gill slogging through the third minute of a nightmare shift.

But, the bottom line is that not a whole lot has changed.

Actually, some of the stuff worked better in “NHL 20.” While a patch is likely coming, scouting can be really janky. I, for one, have mostly given up trying to manually scout goalies. Good thing goalies aren’t very important, right? (Laughs nervously.)

When you see holdover modes have new mistakes, it’s clear that something’s creaky. It sort of feels like someone needs to take the code for Franchise Mode in “NHL 21” and blow its dust out, like an old Nintendo cartridge.

Biggest change: a decent trade deadline that needs some work

If you’re looking for a Franchise Mode change to put in bold font for “NHL 21,” it’s the revamped trade deadline.

To be honest, I groaned at first when I saw that they were going with a second-by-second approach. Even if it wasn’t real-time, one could see why that could get boring. Yet, after spending some time with it, it’s an improvement over the whole-lotta-nothing trade deadline of “NHL 20.”

Then again, as quaint as it is to see a Blackberry,* I’m not 100-percent sure that this is even better than the format from way back in “NHL 10.” Kind of adorable:

NHL 21 Franchise Mode review Blackberry NHL 10 Be a GM
NHL 21 Franchise Mode review Blackberry NHL 10 Be a GM

The trade deadline portion of Franchise Mode in “NHL 21” carries some of the holdover headaches from a game that needs a refresher. Much like how EA Sports revamped scouting in recent years, by encouraging you to “get in the weeds,” that also means you’re burrowing deep into the menus. Unfortunately, those menus are slow and clunky. Basically it highlights the criticized parts of Hal Gill, without all of the shot-blocking and imposing-size goodness.

(What I’m really trying to say is: sorry Hal Gill, but you keep coming up.)

* – Considering the Jim Balsillie – Coyotes mess, it’s shocking to see an actual, branded BlackBerry. What would an NHL-themed knockoff end up being called?

Yet … fun can be had

Like others, I can supply a buffet of gripes about different facets of “NHL 21,” Franchise Mode included.

But I’ll also firmly admit that I’ve poured many hours into these titles, and will do the same with “NHL 21.”

Sure, some of that might be a “comfort food” feeling. By muscle memory alone, I can play these games reasonably well in just about any mental state. No need for a tutorial, which seems to be a huge part of just about every blockbuster video game.

For every gimmicky change, there’s a nice innovation. Maybe updates will smooth this out, but right now, skating feels more dynamic. You can burn a defender if they challenge you at the blueline far more here, and it can feel great when you do.

Also, as you go deeper into Franchise Mode, funny things happen. I’ve seen Alex Ovechkin coaching the opposing team. Jonathan Toews earned multiple Jack Adams deep into an “NHL 20” Franchise Mode run. I’m sorry, but if Coach Ovechkin can’t get you to smile, what can?

Relaxing the price

One thing I can’t help but wonder is: do people get so mad about video games like these because they paid full price? Maybe my most pressing advice, of all, is: don’t pay full price for “NHL 21” (or most video games) unless you simply can’t wait.

Heck, “NHL 94 Rewind” served as maybe the lone example of a pre-order perk that would justify such an investment, and it looks like EA Sports will solve that issue soon, too.

Beyond Nintendo games, most titles go on sale fairly soon after they’re released. Sometimes they drop in price so soon, people get really mad about it.

And, even by those standards, you could play “NHL 21” for cheap, and ultimately take the good and the bad with Franchise Mode and other features.

  • EA Play, formerly EA Access, provides 10-hour “trials” of games. Even with a time sink like Franchise Mode in “NHL 21,” you should be able to get a taste of whether or not it’s worth a purchase. EA Play is the company’s version of a Netflix-style subscription service, so its fee (sometimes $5 per month, sometimes less) sure beats a $60 gamble.

  • Off the bat, you’d get those 10 hours to try such games to see if they’re worth it. Maybe just as importantly, other NHL games have gone in the “vault,” usually close to playoff time.

Once a game is in that “vault,” it’s available with the subscription — not just for 10 hours.

So, if you see “NHL 21” and/or its Franchise Mode as just a rehash, you can just play the previous version for less. Angst reduced! Maybe!

So, “NHL 21” and its Franchise Mode can be good, with caveats

To summarize: no, “NHL 21” doesn’t innovate with its Franchise Mode. Some of the shortcomings are glaring. I wouldn’t recommend spending full price for it … or frankly many video games. (Maybe just the shooters where, if you wait too long, you’ll be humiliated against those wily teenagers rather than more modestly outclassed?)

But, if you don’t pay full price to play Franchise mode in “NHL 21?” That’s where I can recommend it.

Again, it’s crucial to actually like the game. That’s where that 10 hour trial could come in handy. If you’re gritting your teeth at the wonky A.I. (understandable) or outdated graphics (fair)? Then divest, and sure, vent online.

In the interest of honesty, though, I’ve shrugged off most of my beefs with these games, and ultimately sunk an existentially troubling number of hours into them. I’ve already continued this pattern with Franchise Mode in “NHL 21,” despite a lack of freshness or differences. Maybe you will too?

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

‘NHL 21’ Franchise Mode is kind of busted, but gets the job done originally appeared on NBCSports.com