Everything old is new again

A lot of focus went into the style and physics of last year’s NHL title, and in some ways it paid off. A hockey video game had never looked or played better than NHL 15, but in order to stay on its yearly schedule, EA Canada had to make sacrifices and cut featues—a lot of features. To the chagrin of its long-time fans, many aspects only came back in patches well after the game’s launch, and some modes never returned at all. With another year to work, however, NHL 16 brings the series back up to the standards set in previous years—and with an extra coat of polish for good measure.

The biggest returning feature is the beloved EA Sports Hockey League online mode and the 6-on-6 gameplay EASHL is known for touts two key additions. The first of these improvements is online couch co-op. Now, you and a friend can play on the same console and drop into a match whenever you both want making communication and practicing together easier than ever.

The other is player classes. The NHL series has long featured a dozen classes for forwards, defensemen, and goalies in their single-player modes, but as a part of online player customization, you can now choose the class you want to play with in NHL 16‘s EASHL. Having a balanced team will be critical to victory, but nothing may be more important than who plays as your net minder.

For too long, goalies have been ineffective in EASHL and it was often due to the clunky controls more so than the players themselves. Therefore, NHL 16 has introduced brand-new goalie mechanics. With a click of a trigger, you can drop into a butterfly and make yourself “look big” in net, or flick the right-stick to dive in front of the open goal mouth for that spectacular blocker save at the last second. I messed around with the goalie controls offline as not to embarrass myself too badly with them in an actual EASHL game, and although I still gave up five goals in a Rangers 6-5 win over the computer-controlled Blackhawks, gameplay in the crease is definitely a step up from what we’ve seen in the past.

I actually got to test out EASHL online with a full complement of 12 players, and besides a little lag at the start of the first period, it was just as exciting as ever. I helped lead my team to a thrilling 7-5 win in a scorefest, during which I picked up both a Gordie Howe hat trick and a regular hat trick from my natural gaming position of left wing, and choosing to play as a power forward.

While the online focus will surely be on the rebirth of EASHL, Hockey Ultimate Team—the NHL series’ other beloved online mode—has undergone some changes, too. The majority of the experience remains relatively similar—including the UI for the mode, which still could use some work when it comes to making your lines and getting your team ready to play. But a totally refreshed single-player mode has been added, providing players a less pressure-filled situation to try those new lines out in, earn pucks (HUT’s online currency that allows you to earn packs featuring additional players), and move up through a whole new set of divisions.

The idea of a HUT single-player mode is a good one, and something fans have wanted for a while, but its implementation could’ve been so much better. Taking on a similar structure to the online version of the mode, single-player HUT has you play through divisions as you try to create a powerhouse fantasy team. By winning, you’ll move up until you reach the top. The problem is that only the Rookie difficulty setting is available at the start of the mode, since you need certain card requirements to unlock higher levels.

Sure, you could just buy new packs with real world currency, trying to get the cards you need, grind away online, or save up the daily puck rewards for playing on consecutive days. But if you want to get right into the mode, Rookie difficulty is just not fun at all for a veteran player of the series—so those unlock requirements were very frustrating to find.

I won my first four games in single-player HUT by a combined score of 97-6. No, that’s not a typo; I averaged well over 20 goals a game on Rookie. After that, I had no desire to play the mode ever again. Either HUT single-player needs to be balanced better so that Rookie offers a challenge, or the difficulty unlocks need to be done away with. After all, it’s a single-player mode in a sports game. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to decide how much of a challenge you want from the start.

Speaking of single-player modes, NHL 16 hasn’t forgotten about its offline suite of gameplay options when it comes to getting the game back up to speed. First off, all the solo modes you expect are there. NHL Moments Live remains exactly the same as last year, allowing you to again replay the previous season’s most impressive moments and either replicate or change history depending on the stipulation, and will feature new content as epic games happen over the course of the new season.

There’s also Be a Pro, where you can create your own prolific hockey superstar and follow him or her over the course of a 20-year career. This mode remains mostly the same, as well, but has improved coach feedback and training between games, and brings back “classic versus simulation” options that were missing from NHL 15. Basically, the difference between the two is whether or not you can simulate between your Pro’s on-ice shifts, creating two very differently paced experiences. Besides this, Be a Pro (along with the other game modes) has added playoff beards. A truly minor detail, but yes, you can now choose how your facial hair will grow if your team makes it into the playoffs.

If you prefer to have a more top-down view of your hockey franchise, there’s the classic Be a GM mode, where you can run the day-to-day operations of your franchise like a super-executive, trying to bring your team a Stanley Cup and maybe even build a dynasty. The big change that’s come here is a new Morale system. Inspired by the Martin St. Louis/Ryan Callahan trade between the Rangers and Lightning a couple years ago, players will now tell you in Be a GM when they are or are not happy, and can even demand a trade. This affects your overall team morale, which boosts your players’ stats when high and decreases them when low. If you start wheeling and dealing players, it could actually put a sense of dread in the locker room, but getting rid of a nuisance could be a game changer. These are things you’ll need to keep an eye on, and knowing the pulse of your dressing room is a fun new way to interact with your franchise.

Even though the modes are mostly about getting back to the old status quo, the overall gameplay has seen some significant changes. Sure, there’s the tweaking of physics and skating mechanics that we see from polishing the game on a year-to-year basis. Arenas are more realistic, too, with authentic goal songs added and the presentation package adjusted to fit in with NBC Sports’ real-life changes. And there are the aforementioned goalie controls.

In terms of how you play and learn the game, however, the new on-ice visual trainer is the biggest revision to NHL gameplay since the league added delayed offsides and the trapezoid behind the goal crease. Turn on this optional feature, and you’ll see a new overlay during gameplay that tells you very clearly where your passes would go, where your shots would hit on the net (if at all), and even tells you what kind of check to use on defense. More experienced players, such as myself, might scoff at this idea, thinking it’s just for newcomers to the franchise. But if you choose the adaptive training option—so NHL 16 picks up on your skillset dynamically—after just a couple games it’ll focus on more advanced aspects, and I found that even I still had a thing or two to learn. Thanks to the visual trainer’s advice, I have a better than 50-percent winning percentage in the faceoff circle for quite possibly the first time ever. My passing percentage is up, and while I’m not scoring so many more goals to make the game no longer entertaining (unless it’s single-player HUT), I’m definitely putting the biscuit in the basket at a better clip.

Without a doubt, NHL 16 is better than its direct predecessor. But when I look at the product as a whole, while there are some welcome new features—and some that need more work—NHL 16’s most significant points come from adding old stuff back in, making the experience come across more like it’s just catching up to what it was before the console generation shift. That said, NHL 16 feels like a welcome return to form for the series, as solid top to bottom as the ice we skate on.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.15.15
8.0
New aspects in NHL 16 like the on-ice trainer and the Morale system in Be a GM give the game some welcome layers of depth, and the actual gameplay is as good as ever. However, you can’t help but get the sense that the biggest additions to this year’s game just came from putting back features that were cut from last year’s title.
The Good The new morale system in Be a GM. The on-ice visual trainer will teach even longtime players something new. The return of so many features initially lost in the console shift.
The Bad Single player HUT seasons needs balancing. Even with all the new and returning features, it felt like too much of this year was spent playing catch-up.
The Ugly The fact someone might actually want to grow a playoff “beard” like Sidney Crosby’s.
NHL 16 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Online portions were tested at an event at EA Canada. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.
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