As a lifelong hockey fan, I have a special place in my heart for EA’s NHL video game series. I grew up playing the legendary NHL 94 with my friends, on the Sega Genesis system, making those one-timers, and always picking Jeremy Roenick because, for some reason, he couldn’t be knocked off the puck. Then, the series moved to real stick-handling in NHL 07, using the “Sports Skill Stick.” I learned the game all over again, and grew to love it even more.
And like most fans, it pains me to say that I found last year’s NHL to be a big disappointment. In order to make the tight development schedule in the change-over, the EA NHL team was forced to scale back a lot of the modes that made the game great. Season Mode was scrapped, although you could play a version of it in Be a GM. Be a Pro was not quite the same either – you couldn’t work your way up through junior anymore, which took away a lot of the fun of “earning” your spot on a Pro team.
Needless to say, the folks at EA’s Vancouver studio had a big challenge with this year’s NHL game; they needed to win back the fans and right a ship that had gone off course, and save a video game franchise that is among the industry’s most high-profile. And it comes as a big relief for me to say that I think that, with NHL 16, they have done just that. Yes, NHL fans, start planning that parade – this year’s game has restored our beloved modes to their original glory, and brought back the ones that were missing last year. Plus, there are some nice improvements and additions that, believe it or not, actually make this one of the best NHLs yet. After playing NHL 16, all I can say is, “welcome back.”
First off, Season Mode is back, period. You can once again jump right in, and play as your favorite team, and edit away to your heart’s content. Want to trade that sieve goalie who drives you nuts in real life? Done. Want your team to finally win that Stanley Cup they haven’t won since, oh … 1967? Yeah, that’s right, you can do that too. And there is a full selection of hockey leagues to choose from – besides the NHL, you can choose a host of minor and junior leagues including the AHL, WHL, OHL, and QMJHL. There are even the European leagues including the Swiss, German and Scandinavian leagues. No KHL though – I guess that’s understandable. But I will say, it was disappointing not to see women’s hockey leagues, real players, or teams represented. You can, oddly, choose a female head for your player, but that is the only nod to women’s hockey in NHL 16. It feels a bit out of step with the times, especially when we have had such major strides in other games, most notably FIFA 16.
“The team at EA have really nailed the experience of being in a real NHL career, and you will feel like a genuine hockey star once you get immersed into it.”
The Be a Pro mode is back, and it is improved this year. I was glad to see that you can now work your way up through a junior team before being drafted into the NHL. For me, this was definitely the strongest single-player mode in the game. It is so deep, from the authentic shift-simulation, which once again allows you to sim to your next shift, to the on-ice visual hints (we’ll get to that more later), to the valuable coach feedback between shifts. The team at EA have really nailed the experience of being in a real NHL career, and you will feel like a genuine hockey star once you get immersed into it.
My only quibble is with the interactions with coaches and the team. It is done through static dialogue boxes and still images, rather than animations. I know such a small touch would have required EA to put in a lot more time and resources, but it would have been a nice touch of authenticity. Hey, the NBA games are doing it, so why not?
Part of why Be a Pro is such a fun mode, though, is the way you feel like you are working your way up, getting experience, receiving coaching and feedback, and improving, just like a real player. And in NHL 16, that process has been made even more robust and compete with the extensive visual on-ice training that has been added this year. As you skate on the ice, a coloured box appears above your player at various times, giving you suggestions as to when and where you should pass, or when to call for a pass. It also tells you what buttons to push to achieve the suggested move – for example, if it is urging you to poke-check, it tells you to press L1. When you look at the net, you’ll notice that it also has suggested targets for making that perfect shot. There are a lot of contextually-specific visual tips in the game, including ones for when you play the goalie.
Now, I know a lot of you will be reading that and saying, “oh no.” You might be one of those insanely-good players for whom this kind of “training wheels” idea would be only an annoyance. Well, if you are that person, don’t worry – you can turn it off. But for players like myself, who get along fine, but are looking to improve, this new feature is a big help. And I suspect there are a lot of others out there like me – we know the controls, but when things get hectic, our minds get overloaded and we start to mash buttons. This new on-ice trainer really helped to train me to stick with the proper controls, even in crazy moments in front of the net – and I found that I got a lot better very quickly as a result.
In fact, I got the sense that a major push this year from the EA NHL team was to make the game more open to those who want to learn and improve. The visual training was one way, and another was in the expanded Practice mode. Now, you can practice not just individually against the Goalie, you can do Team Practice, with as many as 5 offensive players against 1 to 5 players on defense. Different scenarios are offered, including Breakout, Offensive Zone and Rush, that allow you to hone your skills in almost any possible game situation.
“Again, this new addition, like a lot of the training improvements to NHL 16, didn’t feel like an unnecessary gimmick; it brought real improvement to my game.”
As someone who has worked with the Practice mode quite a bit in previous versions, I was really happy to see the expanded options this year. One-on-one against the Goalie is ok, but let’s face it, it is not a situation you are going to see much when you play a game. I found it useful to set up man-advantage Offensive Zone practices, where I could get the time and space to think about how to set up one-timers, or work on my cycling. Again, this new addition, like a lot of the training improvements to NHL 16, didn’t feel like an unnecessary gimmick; it brought real improvement to my game.
Once you have taken advantage of all this training, and you feel like you are ready to take it online, you are going to love NHL 16. Why? The EA Sports Hockey League is also back. There was a reason this was probably the game’s most popular mode the last time it appeared – it is so much freakin’ fun. In case you are unfamiliar with the EASHL, it is a mode in which you play online as part of a team of other humans. You can drop-in, so if you want to play as an individual, and join strangers in an online game, you can do that. Each of you play a certain position, so the game is more about teamwork and positioning, rather than straight-out scoring prowess. Plus, this year, they have added another layer, in which you choose a Class of position as well. Will you be an Offensive Defenseman, or a Stay-at-Home Defenseman? A Two-Way Forward, or a Sniper? Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, so now the EASHL is even better than it ever was – which is really saying something.
When the EASHL is working as intended, I don’t see how they could have made it any better. There are currently some issues with lagging and stuttering when online – hopefully, these issues can be worked out. There is also the odd time that I found it hard to tell who had the puck, since there is nothing to indicate it, as there is when you play by yourself. But other than that, I have to give credit to EA; the EASHL is an amazing sports gaming achievement.
If you want more, there are lots more modes to NHL 16 as well. There is Online Head-to Head, and Online Shootout. There is the Hockey Ultimate Team mode, in which you earn cards in a fantasy-like experience. If you have a group of friends who play NHL 16, you can try Online Team play, with up to 6 on a team. You can set up your own customized Playoff. There is even an NHL Moments Live mode, in which you play-out scenarios from the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons (I personally loved preserving the Canucks’ shutout in “Blank the Bluejackets”). With all of the different ways to play NHL 16, it’s as if the team at EA are directly responding to last year’s criticism. “Here,” they seem to be saying, “you want your modes back? You got em – ALL of em!” There is so much to discover and to do in NHL 16 that I can’t imagine anyone feeling like they are limited in any way.
Lastly, there is the technical polish of NHL 16. Visually, this is a gorgeous game that takes character models, animations and textures to a new level, as we would expect with a game on the latest-gen consoles. Player faces are not quite photo-realistic, especially when you get a close-up, but they are very good. Gameplay animation is smooth and would definitely fool many people standing behind you into thinking that you were watching a game on TV instead of playing it. And this year, I saw lots of new details that really enhanced the realism, from Tampa Bay’s Tesla Coils, to the authentic mascots in each arena.
Gameplay is not changed from previous iterations – you still control with the same buttons as you did before. This may be a minus for some; I personally am fine with not fixing what ain’t broke. I still have the same issue with passing that I have had in previous NHLs – often I made what should have been a straightforward pass to a teammate on the wing, and it floated by him up the ice for icing. Hitting felt a bit better this year for some reason – I saw lots more big hits than usual, and checking on defense felt a bit smoother than I had experienced in the past.
In the area of sound, the developers at EA have had years to perfect the sounds and atmosphere of real NHL rinks, and it shows (or sounds?). Commentary is once-again provided by the team of Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro, and the overall feel of the “NBC Broadcast” is as realistic as ever. Eddie Olczyk’s lines do tend to have a one-note quality to them (he commented on the importance of “shooting from that area” a bit too often, I thought), and Doc, on rare occasions, failed to make any mention of blatant breakways. But overall, they were pretty on-the-money, considering they were mindless algorithms.
The team at EA NHL heard last year’s criticisms. And they did it right: they went out and got real fans, brought them in, and worked with them to address the problems with NHL 15. They did their homework – and wow, does it ever show. This is as complete an NHL experience as I think you can possibly get in a video game. With so many ways to play, it is almost like you are getting 4, 5, or more games for the price of one. And now, even the journeyman players, like me, who might have shied away in the past out of fear of getting owned online by the elite players, have no excuse not to play, as there are lots of built-in training features to help you improve. While it may not be perfect, and it still has some kinks to iron out, NHL 16 is the comeback the series needed, and it is a great title for those looking to jump back into the action. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my team is down in the third period, and my shift is coming up.
***A PS4 review copy was provided by the Publisher***
So much better than NHL 15
Plenty of modes
Announcing can get repetitive and miss the mark
Player faces could use some work
Interactions with coaches and the team poor