Tag Archive: hockey


It was announced tonight at the 2017 NHL Awards that NHL 18’s cover athlete this year is none other than Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid. And much like how the two-year pro from Richmond Hill, Ontario, has breathed life back into one of hockey’s premiere Canadian franchises, NHL 18 has looked to McDavid for inspiration in all the right ways. I was recently able to go hands-on with the game, and there were several major takeaways from my brief time with it that give a spark to the series’ style of play.

The first has to do with the gameplay itself. In an attempt to mimic McDavid, Auston Matthews, and the other tremendous young talents that have permeated hockey, pulling off stylish shots on net has never been easier. The fancy stickwork from previous games returns, but is now easier to do with more simplistic joystick movement which can be learned through a new series of tutorials. More importantly, however, is the increased repertoire for more skillful players. Kicking the puck off your skate to feed a backhand, turning the puck on edge and flipping it over the shoulder of a goalie, and the kind of no-look passes and shots that will leave defensemen and goalies alike befuddled are now represented here beautifully. As well, new reactions from every player on the ice will let you know just how impressive some of these moves are.

Of course, a feature many have long waited for is something to even the ice with all those offensive skill-stick superstars, and for the first time ever, the series is touting a defensive skill stick as well. That means when you’re skating backwards as the lone hope on a 2-on-1 back the other way, you can swing your stick back and forth and try to take away both the shot and the passing lane if you’re good enough. Or maybe just on the power play, by swinging your stick back and forth, you can kill off a few extra seconds as the defenseman on the point has to hesitate before he tries to pass it down low. This is a huge game changer for defensive players, and shows NHL 18 is making huge strides with stick play in the series.

Another major new element is a brand new game mode that feels like a throwback to the Wayne Gretzky or NHL Hitz days of arcade hockey. The brand new NHL Threes combines bone-crunching hits and crazy shots with the three-on-three play of the NHL’s relatively new overtime rules. To amp up the pace of play, the rink is smaller than a normal hockey rink, most penalties are turned off (and the few that are called always lead to a penalty shot), and there are never any faceoffs. If someone scores a goal, the other team automatically gets the puck when the action resumes. Some pucks are special, being worth two or three goals, or can even remove goals from your opposition. You know this mode is different from the second you start it up, with different announcers and a presentation package that resembles a carnival more than a hockey rink.

The 3-on-3 gameplay of the NHL’s overtime hockey rules aren’t just inspiring a new mode, though, as old modes are taking a cue from this faster style of play as well. The long time fan-favorite mode EASHL is now also going to tout a 3-on-3 mode to help accommodate the fans out there who have trouble finding a full squad of players on a nightly basis. This means not only will you have more games full entirely of human players now, but also the fast-paced action of the NHL overtime period will carry over into the entire EASHL experience from the start. If you’re fortunate enough to have a whole squad, don’t worry, the normal EASHL 6-on-6 action is still there—but for those of us with only a couple buddies ever around at the same time, this is exactly what we’ve been waiting for.

If none of these modes appeal to you, and you prefer to go for Franchise still instead, don’t worry, you’ve also got some new tweaks there. You can choose to play right from the get-go as the new Las Vegas Golden Knights and hold a fantasy draft that allows you to build your team out of the 30 pre-existing NHL franchises. Maybe you’ll help even things out by kicking off the 32nd NHL franchise and bring balance finally to the conferences. Or, be like me, and try to create a dynasty out of an original six team (let’s go Rangers). The choice is yours.

Hockey is undergoing a revolution right now in terms of playstyle and the talent that is flooding into the sport. After my brief hands-on time with NHL 18, it is my belief that this series is following suit with the fast, fun, frantic new NHL Threes mode, the new moves available to the game’s most skilled players, and even three-on-three gameplay making it’s way to EASHL. When hockey has a revolution, the NHL series has a renaissance, and it looks like this year is shaping up to be the perfect time for yet another one.

NHL 18 will release on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 sometime this fall.

Back before Wayne Gretzky exploded on the scene in 1979 to deke defenders into submission and spin-o-rama his way to a career highlighted by the most points in NHL history, hockey was brutal. Teams like Philadelphia’s Broad St. Bullies epitomized the rough and tumble style that fans came to love, and every team that had success in that era had at least a “goon” or two on the bench. It’s a mentality that has since all but left the NHL, but is still immortalized in old footage—and, now, a little arcade-style video game by the name of Old Time Hockey.

More than anything, Old Time Hockey is really a love-letter to the all-time classic comedy Slap Shot (which also focused on the brawling era of hockey). You control the Schuylkill Hinto Brews, one of ten teams in the Bush Hockey League. The Brews were primed for a great season—right up until the first regular season game when the Widowmakers went gunning for and subsequently injured the Brews’ three star forwards for the entire season. Wallowing in last place now, you take over the Brews just before Christmas when you get the news you have to make the playoffs. Otherwise, there’s a good chance the team will go under, alongside the nearby Hinto brewery from which they get their name.

The style of Old Time Hockey is as much a throwback as its premise. The game looks like it would fall more in line with the Wayne Gretzky arcade games on the N64 from 20 years ago than anything on the modern generation of consoles. The simple cel-shaded character models might be off-putting to some, but it served as a reminder to me of how things used to be, and worked well for a game that clearly wanted to go for a vintage look as much as possible. Simple blood effects splattering on the ice from every jaw-breaking fight and bone-crunching hip check only continues to emphasize the cartoony nature of the game.

The audio is great as well. I was almost tempted to just let the soundtrack play on repeat, with organ renditions of “The Addams Family Theme” and “Hava Nagila” really driving home the point of rundown local hockey arenas, along with Stompin’ Tom Collins’ “The Hockey Song” and The Donnybrooks’ “Old Time Hockey” setting the theme for when the puck finally drops. My only gripe came with the commentary, which becomes very repetitive very quickly, and lacks the charm or excitement a game like this would warrant from hockey fans.

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Unfortunately, while Old Time Hockey has style in spades, it truly lacks any real substance, caused by a bevy of questionable decisions and poor design. In a rarity for any sports game—arcade or simulation—the bulk of the game is centered on the story mode, which ends up being both the greatest boon and biggest detriment for Old Time Hockey. Continuing the love affair it has with Slap Shot, as you progress through the story mode, you’ll get little peeks at the character of your team—with newspaper clippings talking about beating up a mall Santa, drinking on the team bus, and trading a washing machine for a new enforcer—which flesh out the narrative of what you hope will still be a Cinderella season. This was a ton of fun to see, and even collectible trading cards talking about the personalities of the stars in the league can be earned to further flesh out these fictional skaters.

Once you actually get onto the ice, however, everything quickly falls apart. The controls are alarmingly stiff, and even with an early patch quickening the time that you get the puck off your stick, it’s still extremely slow by the standards of anyone who has played recent hockey games. There’s always the excuse that it was more accurate for hockey back in the day, but it’s a lot less fun when one-timers are nigh impossible, you lose possession because it takes so long to pass that an opponent knocks the puck away, or you whiff on a slap shot attempt because the follow-through takes forever. And, the lack of responsiveness with the controls permeates the defensive side of the puck as well. Hits can be extremely difficult to line up, and even with being able to hook and trip opponents with the ref sparingly blowing a whistle, it still feels like you can’t skate quickly enough to ever effectively corral that ever-elusive loose puck.

Part of this might stem from the simple animation most players have. Every player shares the same set of animations, and once you start picking up the patterns, it’s easy to spam certain maneuvers in order to try to at least give yourself an advantage. A perfect example is the goaltenders, who can never be controlled by a human. They only have two passing animations, making it easy to predict where they’ll send the puck after making a save—which allows you to gather it before your opponent and get an unintended second-chance opportunity. It’s one of those moments where you appreciate how far games have come over the years, because even though “glitch goals” have never been completely eradicated even in modern hockey games, blatant gameplay tells like this are something I haven’t seen in decades, and would rather stay in the past.

Another aspect that had me scratching my head was the control scheme options. It’s great that Old Time Hockey offers an arcade-y two-button system, a more sim-heavy NHL game style scheme, and even a one-handed “beer mode” where everything is assigned to one side of the controller so you can drink with the other. The problem comes with the fact that you have to play story mode with the NHL-style system, and until you beat story mode, you can only play exhibition with the arcade or beer controls. It just seems pointless to have this content be separated by the mode you’re playing.

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And, that leads me to the worst aspect of Old Time Hockey and its story mode: each game in that mode has objectives for you to overcome. A few are optional, but most are mandatory, and unless you beat every mandatory objective in a game, no matter whether you win or lose, you have to replay the game over and over again. Some of the objectives are easy, like get two hits with one of your players, or take eight slap shots over the course of game. Others can be infuriating, however, and you’ll often have to replay games repeatedly, forcibly increasing the length of playtime with little to no progress being made. The worst for me was trying to provoke the opposing goalie into a fight, particularly because—again, pointing back to the shoddy controls—it’s not as easy to score in Old Time Hockey as you would think.

Part of this also stems from the fact that basic hockey abilities like slap shots, hip checks, and even fighting at one point are all locked behind objectives and tutorials that you don’t get until later in the story. I thought the game was honestly broken when I started playing, when all I could do was pass and take wrist shots. It’s damned near impossible to win—and definitely not fun to play—when you have to grind for the most basic of abilities that any hockey player should be able to do.

The only thing more maddening than all this, though, is when it seems you’re finally going to overcome an objective—and then, the game crashes. Old Time Hockey crashes a lot; the day-one patch allayed this a little bit, because they frequently would happen off faceoffs, but as of writing this review they still happen in the middle of the action, like when taking a slap shot from the point or making an epic hip check in neutral ice. It’s absolutely soul crushing when you’ve finally achieved every objective, are winning the game, and are basically waiting for the clock to hit all zeroes when you get booted back to the PlayStation UI with an error number. Hopefully another patch can help the stability of the game, but right now it’s a nightmare waiting to happen.

Besides story mode, there is also a local versus option for Old Time Hockey, but it lacks and sort of online play. This could, again, be part of the throwback style, forcing you to experience the game with a friend on a couch, but I’m not sure I want to force my friends to experience this. Otherwise, they might not be my friends anymore.

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Old Time Hockey was a great idea, but it has way too many shortcomings once you actually start playing the game to be enjoyed. It handles poorly, the story mode objectives are ridiculous, and the game crashes make the headaches far outweigh the little fun to be had here. If you really want to experience hockey from a bygone era, your time and money would be better spent watching Slap Shot again.

Publisher: V7 Entertainment • Developer: V7 Entertainment • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 03.28.17
3.0
Old Time Hockey is more style than substance. Its heart was in the right place, but shoddy controls, glitches, and poor gameplay design make this an arcade-style game hockey fans just don’t need in their lives.
The Good The style and soundtrack is a throwback in the best ways possible.
The Bad Stiff controls, repetitive commentary, random game crashes, and oddly gated gameplay abilities via story mode.
The Ugly Those classic hockey player smiles.
Old Time Hockey is available on PS4 and PC, with versions coming for Xbox One and Nintendo Switch later. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by V7 Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

We here at Hockey Achievements started our own EASHL team shortly after NHL 17 was released in September. Following up on our 6-week update from last month, we’re now taking a look at the mode and our own team in an EASHL 2016 Year in Review. We’ve put quite a bit more time into the mode over the last quarter calendar year, and here are our thoughts on the mode and how better to improve your game if you’re struggling.

POSITIONING: Since Hockey Achievements intern Travis joined the team; one important aspect of hockey has become startlingly clear and that is the aspect of positioning your players on the ice. Sure, the computer and human opponents will usually tend towards chasing the puck, but if your defenseman decides he’s going to pinch in on every play, your opponents will learn from this and often take advantage of it. Travis loves pinching as a defenseman because Hockey Achievements isn’t really known as an offensive powerhouse, winning most of our games by narrow 1-0, or 2-1 margins. Getting caught behind enemy forwards via some clever passing, however, can often lead to odd-man rushes back the other way. Luckily, we’ve been bailed out a few times via patch improvements made to our next observation.

GOALTENDING: November’s NHL 17 patch helped boost the goaltending AI and this has been critical to providing a more realistic sim experience on the ice. A deke master can still find the opening on the short side, but an elite goaltender won’t be caught out of position as often. Of course, nothing is perfect and neither are goalies, as Hockey Achievements has also been burned by soft goals on slapshots taken from outside the faceoff circles in our defensive zone. While these softies are few and far between, this makes them all the more backbreaking when they do occur. Smoother animations and movements in the crease for human players playing as goalies have also been added, but the only person to have braved stepping between the pipes thus far has been Ryan Sheehy and he’s still a bit shellshocked from the overall experience.

CUSTOMIZATION: The final aspect that has become evident as Hockey Achievements have clawed their way up the online standings and we have turned our team into a little beer-league level powerhouse has been the customization. More fonts, team colors, jersey designs, and arena additions have become available as we level our team up and that personal touch has helped the sense that we’re actually playing for something more than just your amusement dear readers. More options in these categories have also been added since NHL 17’s last patch. Although EA will likely never allow full graphic design options to help keep the game family friendly (and its ESRB rating at just E10+ for everyone 10 and older), more options to help each team define themselves and their personalities is always appreciated and is a just reward for those clutch victories you obtain online.

Hockey Achievements is nowhere near done with the EASHL, but we are more than confident in saying the changes and additions made to the mode since the game’s launch have provided a more realistic experience and a more enjoyable one. To see all of these features in action, be sure to tune in every Tuesday night at 6 PM PT/9 PM ET to watch Hockey Achievements’ weekly Tuesday Night Hockey as Ray Carsillo goes online and broadcasts games live on Twitch at twitch.tv/hockeyachievements.

Also, be sure to stay tuned for opportunities to try and join Ray, Ryan, Travis, and the rest of the Hockey Achievements crew in the EASHL as Hockey Achievements looks to fill some slots on their team as the season progresses, or face them in head-to-head competitions. Until next time, be sure to keep it tuned to HockeyAchievements.com and The Gaming Zone in particular for you all your NHL 17 needs, and we’ll see you on the digital ice.

With the 2016-17 NHL season ready to start next Wednesday, October 12, EA Sports used NHL 17 to simulate the entirety of the season and predict major awards, including who will in it all.

Starting in the Eastern Conference, six of last year’s eight playoff teams return, including the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins after a second place Metropolitan Division finish. Only the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings are predicted to miss the playoffs. It’s the first time the Red Wings would miss the playoffs in a quarter century. NHL 17 also says the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs will take their place. The Tampa Bay Lightning get the number one seed in the east, but their Atlantic Division rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, will win the conference.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, seven of eight teams return to the playoffs, with only the Anaheim Ducks missing out this year after a slow start. They are replaced by the Edmonton Oilers. The Nashville Predators are expected to take the one seed in the west, along with the franchise’s first ever Presidents’ Trophy with 110 points, and also the conference championship.

This means EA Sports is calling the Montreal Canadiens versus the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final, marking a match-up between two teams that conducted one of the most head-scratching off-season trades we’ve seen in some time, when Montreal exchanged PK Subban for Nashville’s Shea Weber. Even more surprising, though, is the prediction that Nashville will win the Cup in six games, with Filip Forsberg taking home the Conn Smythe trophy.

Other notable predictions is Carey Price of Montreal getting the Vezina for best goaltender, and Vladimir Tarasenko of St. Louis getting the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals from an individual over the season.

While those individual awards are definitely possible, and you never know what can happen in the playoffs, Nashville over Montreal in the Final sounds ridiculous in my mind. I think EA Sports needs to go back to the drawing board with these simulations.

NHL 17 is available now for Xbox One and PS4.

Like most annual sports games, EA Sports’ NHL franchise has gone through some growing pains over the past couple of years as it transitioned onto new hardware. With each new iteration, however, the series has taken huge strides forward—and this year is no different. With EA Canada looking to their sports game cousins over at EA Tiburon and Madden for a little extra inspiration, NHL 17 adds a ton of new features, and by continuing to iterate on their own systems, EA Canada has produced the most authentic on-ice experience to date.

The most obvious element taken directly from the gridiron guys at EA Tiburon is the fact that NHL 17 now boasts its own version of Draft Champions. Instead of picking coaches and schemes, though, your first major decision here involves selecting a general pool of players. Do you want perennial all-stars? Or maybe only players that were born north of the border? How about just Stanley Cup winners? Each choice will net you an impressive base team no matter what, but will also dictate the players and legends available to you according to the theme. For example, no one would argue picking Hall of Famer Mike Modano early on to center your first line—but if you choose the Canadian-born player pool, you’ll never see him come up.

The actual draft part of the mode is shorter—down to 12 rounds instead of 15—due to the fact that there’s far less players on a hockey team than a football team, but it’s still enough that every gamer should have an outstanding group. There are also four player choices each round instead of three, making each pick more painful as you get deeper and deeper into the draft.

I found myself enjoying NHL 17’s version of the mode more than Madden’s. Here, each team is chock full of superstars, unlike the Madden side where each team has myriad scrubs filling holes at too many positions. My only issue with the mode lies in the fact that Madden allows you to have both an offline gauntlet against the computer for practice and an online one against other players going on at the same time. With NHL 17, you can only pick one or the other, which sucks if, say, you were playing online and your internet goes out. You either have to re-draft and forfeit the remaining gauntlet, or wait until you get back online.

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The other new mode NHL 17 touts this year is World Cup of Hockey. Replacing the old tournament mode, the World Cup of Hockey pits the eight authentic teams from this year’s international tournament against each other in round robin, and then elimination play. It’s not the longest or most intense mode, but it’s a nice way to try out players you might not normally use in other modes. For those of us who live and breathe the sport, you can’t help but try to take your home team all the way—and, yes, I took Team USA to the final where I swept Team Sweden.

New modes are always fun to mess around with, but the core four pre-existing modes—Franchise, Be a Pro, Hockey Ultimate Team, and EA Sports Hockey League—have seen such major renovations that you’d almost think they were brand new, too.

EASHL has added a plethora of customization options for building your own arena and team in order to give yourself the truest home ice advantage possible online. As your arena evolves and levels up over five different tiers, you’ll unlock everything from being able to mix up what color seats you have on each bowl level, to customized scoreboard and entrance effects when your team takes the ice for the first time. In terms of gameplay, the mode also adds new player classes for your skater, like hitting sniper and jumbo forward, so you can have a more refined role when you actually do take the ice.

Hockey Ultimate Team has seen more drastic changes than just some customization features. When you start, no longer will you be saddled with a team full of scrubs. They won’t be superstars either, to be clear, but you don’t have to worry about minor leaguers from the OHL mixing with pros at the NHL level anymore, as you’ll be given a roster full of NHL-level talent. You can always improve your squad through skill boosts or finding better players in packs or the auction house, but you’ll be competitive as soon as you start now, which is great if you’re like me and don’t consider grinding for online currency part of a quality play experience.

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HUT also boosts several new systems borrowed from the Madden franchise. A new metagame for you to focus on in NHL 17 is the completion of sets. Collecting every player from a team and placing them in a HUT set will net you one of that franchise’s legendary players. There’s also a new Synergy system borrowed from Madden, which replaces the old Chemistry meter. This means you no longer have to hope for finding a “change team” card when opening packs so you can get all of one team on a line. Instead, each player will fall into certain categories, and when a team has enough of those players, they’ll all receive a boost. As one example, Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash of the New York Rangers have the “Wicked Wristers” ability; put them on a team with two others with that ability, and all four will have a plus-three rating to their wrist shot. It’s a big boost, and trying to mix and match Synergies adds a welcome level of strategy to putting your ideal online team together.

If online play isn’t your cup of tea, Franchise has you covered. This year’s Franchise mode not only allows players to control every facet of the team, but also the front office. I’m not just talking about contract negotiations like in previous years, but also having to meet certain owner goals to keep your job. You’ll have to decide on a marketing budget (who wants a Derek Stepan bobblehead the first time the Penguins come to MSG on November 23rd?) and stadium upgrades (hell yes we need more ice cream stands at the Garden). These moves permeate the mode so much that even the commentary from the returning Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro reflects these changes to the arena (those three guys do another fantastic job calling the games as part of possibly the best presentation package in sports games, by the way). It’s not the first time we’ve seen this level of team management detail in a sports game, but how it affects you staying in control of your favorite team is a nice added detail if you love to micromanage your team like I do.

If the idea of actually playing on an NHL team is your dream, Be a Pro mode also returns. There are two major changes here, with the first being that there are now three timing options to speed up the process of being a pro. Whereas it used to take upwards of 30 real-world minutes to play each game with authentic 20-minute periods (that’s with skipping to your next shift), the new 10-minute and 5-minute period options speeds up each game experience considerably—but come at the sacrifice of playing time for your pro. This double-edged sword really came back to haunt me, because your coach—who offers points on how he wants you to play between shifts—is also a lot more harsh this year.

While I appreciate the solution to speed the game up, I really felt my player was screwed when he didn’t make the team, and was sent down to the AHL to start the season. My rookie had eight points—three goals, five assists, and a plus-five rating to boot—in seven games and you couldn’t even stick me on the fourth line? It’s called Be a Pro, not Be a Minor Leaguer. With that kind of production and that end result to my pre-season, it still seems this mode is very unclear on what exactly it wants from you to be successful, leaving this still as one of the series’ weaker modes.

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Of course, these new bells and whistles in the modes are all well and good (mostly), but the thing that brings it all together is the gameplay. Some major changes to the all-around AI make this experience more realistic than ever before, and yet it feels completely different from years past. As impressive as puck physics and player movement always were, there were always moves and soft spots in the defense that you could find and take advantage of. Whether it was skating in a large circle from behind the net, taking slapshot bombs from the point with defensemen, or even just camping at the top of the slot, these strategies always worked because the AI players and goalies didn’t react in a way that actual NHL players do.

That’s changed, starting with the goaltenders. AI goalies will now more realistically play the puck, with shoulder shrugs and smaller, more nuanced movements. They’ll deflect a puck purposefully into the corner, headbutt it out of the sky, and scramble like never before if a puck starts to slowly trickle in behind them. They are also more susceptible to screens, deflections, and dekes on breakaways, though, to give them that sense of realism. Of course, should you decide to play as one of them in exhibition, Be a Pro, or EASHL, it’s still near impossible to be effective. I feel there needs to be a deep goalie tutorial mode, because as great as the visual trainer is—especially after this year’s upgrades will now teach skaters more pro-level moves like windmill dekes and spin-o-ramas—it doesn’t do enough for goaltenders. I often feel lost in the crease, that movement is sluggish, and that I’m always out of position.

The AI improvements also extend outward from the goalie, with defensemen now getting into battles with forwards in front of the net, and forwards moving into positions to better get rebounds and score those critical ugly goals down low, or block passing lanes on defense. Those soft spots I mentioned before are now gone for the most part; while they will occasionally pop up because a blown coverage will always happen here or there and a goalie will have to bail out his team, they are a rarity. The AI takes better angles and covers passes more aggressively now—instead of every AI player just blindly chasing the puck, often pulling themselves out of position.

This change, more than anything, has made NHL 17 feel like a brand new game. While it may be frustrating at first for long time players who have gotten used to how the game used to handle (admittedly, myself included), know that it’s better for the authenticity of the game in the long haul. And, if it really bothers you that much that you’re not scoring half-a-dozen goals every single game, you can always dumb down your opponents via the options menu.

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NHL 17 is another step forward in the hockey sim’s ever-continuing evolution. Better gameplay serves as a shining star in this year’s product, bolstered by new modes and important tweaks to existing ones. And, even if some of those are borrowed from other EA Sports games, NHL makes them all its own. Not every change was for the better, and there are still a few snags that hold it back, but overall it’s harder to get a better hockey experience than this outside of lacing up a pair of skates and gliding across a frozen pond.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Canada • ESRB Date: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.13.16
8.5
NHL 17 takes a step forward with the series in terms of more authentic gameplay, but has lost its edge in a couple of its long-standing modes.
The Good New goalie and defensive AI makes the on-ice product feel more realistic than ever before.
The Bad Playing as the goalie is still a nightmare. Be a Pro mode needs to be sent down to the minors.
The Ugly It was a bad idea to put my controller in the freezer overnight to “enhance my simulation experience” the next day.
NHL 17 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

No matter if you are a casual NHL 16 player or a full out member of EA Sports EASHL, we’ve all come across the stereotypical players from around the world. Whether it be the guy who pauses the game every five seconds or the rage quit troll – all of these types of gamers are unforgettable.

I shake off my play-by-play rust by calling a game of NHL 16 between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks in my Be a GM mode of NHL 16. For some reason, audio doesn’t kick in until 1:40.

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.

If you’re a hockey fanatic like I am, you don’t need someone, especially a video game, explaining to you why a slapper from the point on the power play is a great idea if you’ve got bodies in front of the net looking for a deflection. If you’re not a hockey connoisseur, however, even that sentence probably has you scratching your head.

Well, the guys behind the NHL franchise get that not everyone is as obsessed with power play percentages and puck luck as I am. To be honest, I wasn’t always this way. Video games such as NHL 94 sparked my passion for — and understanding of — my most beloved sport.

Wanting to get back to that pedigree, NHL 16’s biggest innovation this year isn’t about tweaked physics or mascots in the stands (although those are there). It’s about finding ways to help newcomers develop an understanding for the sport we love, much the way the games of yesteryear did for a 9-year-old kid who didn’t understand quite how big it was when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994.

A new option in NHL 16 allows gamers to turn on a special HUD that appears beneath each player you’re controlling and certain spots on the ice. This HUD will tell you when you should pass and who the pass will go to, and where you should skate to if you don’t have the puck. Most impressively, the HUD will draw a line from your stick to the net if you’re in a shooting situation to let you know your odds on whether the shot will result in a goal or a save, or miss the net altogether. And it all happens seamlessly in real time.

This display system is a vital new tool in NHL 16’s attempts to teach players how best to play their game, as well as how to play hockey. The hope is that you’ll learn the highest percentage chances for scoring in key situations, where to skate to successfully kill off penalties, and how to most efficiently play the game. Then, newcomers will have a better grasp of both hockey and the video game, and perhaps learn to love it. Who knows, we veterans might even learn a thing or two.

Even though I’ve been playing NHL for years, I was impressed with how well the new HUD assist blended into the gameplay. I never felt like the directions were a distraction for me as an experienced player. I was even happy they were there because I was more sure of myself when taking certain shots, and I started correcting some bad habits I’d fallen into through the years.

This year, most people would’ve been fine with NHL just fixing things that were broken or restoring everything that was missing from last year’s game. So it’s great to see EA Canada’s innovations educate and grow not only the company’s fanbase, but the sport’s fanbase as well. 

NHL 16 is coming in September for Xbox One and Playstation 4.

A shorthanded debut

NHL 14 was the pinnacle for EA Sports’ NHL franchise—and that’s saying something, considering its quality and consistency for more than two decades. It seemed like the folks at EA Canada had crammed in every mode and feature they could come up with and pushed the technology to its limits on the last generation of consoles. But this peak seemed to come at a perfect time, since it was just as we began the transition to new consoles. It seemed more than plausible that EA Canada could reach new heights this year with NHL 15 on new-gen hardware.

Unfortunately, this is another case where expectations were greater than reality. It’s not that the on-ice product is bad with NHL 15. In fact, once you decide to start a game in Be a Pro, Be a GM, or any of the other modes, actually playing a game of hockey might be better than ever. The new NBC presentation package makes it feel like every game is Game of the Week, and commentary from the team of Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro is stellar. I’m about 40 games into my Be a GM mode (I play every game of the season), and I’m just now starting to hear some repeat commentary, but I’m still getting surprised here and there.

The graphics have also made a spectacular transition to the new console generation, and everything looks sharper and crisper—you can almost feel the chill of the ice itself. What’s more, the player models are amazingly realistic and even borrow a few tricks from EA Sports UFC when it comes to bruising and facial contortions from fights. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the eye of a guy you pummeled in an earlier bout swelled shut by the third period.

The biggest improvement comes from the revamped physics, though: huge player pileups when you crash the net, realistic puck bounces that lead to frustrating turnovers or fortunate close calls, and more dynamic goalie saves make it seem like you’re watching a game in real life. All the goal-scoring glitches of past years have seemingly been erased as well—the AI’s improved all around, and your opponent always tries to anticipate your every move. And even the issues with faceoffs—my one disappointment from last year’s game—are now fixed, since you can use your stick with more pinpoint precision than ever before.

When you get off the ice, however, everything takes a horribly sour turn. Countless modes from previous years have been nixed. Even with patches coming in during the next 60 days to bring back Playoff Mode and Online Team Play, you’re still missing EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic, and Be a Legend. NHL Moments Live mode from NHL 13 was brought back to cushion this blow, but you still don’t want modes completely removed from the game. It feels like instead of continuing to build on what they’d created over the previous few years, EA Canada instead hit the reset button with new-gen.

The worst part, though, may be the fact that EA Canada scaled back the modes that did make it into the game. Be a Pro has lost the “Live the Life” feature introduced in last year’s game, which allowed you to interact with teammates, family, fans, and the front office and deal with a balancing metagame as you tried to keep everyone in your life happy while also maintaining a high level of on-ice play.

You’ve also lost the ability to simulate to your next shift in Be a Pro. Now, you have to watch the entire game on the bench when you’re not playing, whereas last year, a button press would move you forward in time. This becomes particularly painful if you take a penalty and then have to watch the minutes tick off on the clock from the sin bin. I don’t want to watch a hockey videogame. I want to play. These subtle omissions have turned one of my favorite modes from last year into an afterthought when I boot up the game now.

Be a GM has its own set of issues now, too. To begin with, your team’s AHL affiliate has been completely done away with—now, minor-league players are just “in the system” instead of accumulating any stats or progress whatsoever. There’s also no GM tracking mechanic anymore to let you know how you’re doing or to give you an idea of what goals you need to aim for. The preseason and fantasy-draft options have also been removed, and the year-end draft for each season is fully automated by the CPU. If I’m running a franchise, I want to run the franchise! Don’t take any aspect of that away from me—and especially don’t assign it to the computer!

To make matters worse, the little control you still have left becomes all the more complicated due to the panel user-interface system that’s now permeated every EA Sports franchise. Yes, being able to jump to my favorite modes as soon as I start the game up is a welcome addition, but making trades, changing my lines, and even just resting my goalie have all become a chore because of this new system. The old list system had its problems, but it was nowhere near as bad as what this universal UI homogenization by EA Sports has done. Changing your lines is so difficult that in Hockey Ultimate Team, one of the patches is solely to help adjust this. I wish this patch were for all game modes, because changing lines and making adjustments in Be a GM right now is a nightmare.

And speaking of HUT, nothing has infuriated me more than not being able to earn pucks (the HUT currency used to buy packs to get new players) in single-player modes outside of HUT. Yes, you earned many more for playing online, but as someone who loved Be a GM and Be a Pro modes and spent more time there than anywhere else, it was nice to still earn a few pucks for playing the modes I wanted to play. This only helped extend NHL 14’s life for me; after a while, I would play a little bit of HUT because I’d accrued so many pucks. Now, it feels like the best way to get pucks is to buy them through microtransactions. EA Sports trying to squeeze more money out of us? Color me surprised.

After playing limited demos of NHL 15 leading up to its release, I could not be more disappointed with the final result. It feels like so much time and focus went into getting the graphics and physics systems up to snuff for new-gen that EA Canada forgot about the rest of the game. At the very least, there’s hope, though. Now that the transition’s been made—however painfully—next year’s title can bring NHL back to its former glory.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.09.14
7.0
The new physics system, presentation elements, and graphics are definitely a step forward for the franchise, but the wholesale removal or scaling back of so many modes leaves you wondering how such a great series could struggle so mightily with the console transition.
The Good The physics and graphics are the best the series has ever seen.
The Bad So many modes and features are missing compared to NHL 14 that it’s hard to believe this is the full game.
The Ugly This will go down with Madden 06 as one of the most disappointing generation transition games for a sports franchise.
NHL 15 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.