While the National Hockey League’s thirty teams prepare to open camp, the sport’s interactive companion is now out in the wild. Of course, we’re referring to NHL 16, the only hockey game on the market and the latest entry in a series that could be considered a national past-time here in Canada.
As the follow-up to what was a disappointing current-gen debut, NHL 16 looks to make amends and regain the fans it lost last year. To do so, its development team talked and listened to their most passionate followers, and tried to tailor this experience to what they wanted. That effort is noticeable in-game, and has resulted in a much improved on-ice affair.
The big news here is the return of EA Sports Hockey League, the fan favourite online team mode which lets friends group up against all comers. It returns to the fold with a new, class-based focus, that allows players to choose the type of persona they would like to assume. It’s a list that includes the defensively challenged but offensively gifted sniper, the feared and powerful enforcer, and the stay-at-home defenceman, to name a few.
Those who love EASHL really get into it, so the fact that it’s been re-introduced in NHL 16 will be a major selling point. That is, if people are willing to let bygones be bygones and look past the fact that EA chose not to include the mode in last year’s entry. Note that the online play isn’t perfect at this moment, although steps will likely be taken to address the matchmaking connection errors, delayed sound and bits of lag that I noticed while playing competitively.
However, while EA Sports Hockey League may be the most prominent bullet point on NHL 16‘s card, it’s obviously not the only included game mode. In fact, it’s complemented by a lot of familiar options, including others that are making their current-gen debut with this year’s entry. Hopefully it will run well once the servers become more populated, though the online matches that I did play were relatively okay overall. I noticed some input lag in one, but the others were alright.
For starters, there’s tried and true exhibition matches, one-versus-one online play, the card-based Hockey Ultimate Team builder game, customizable playoffs and a general player-versus-goalie practice scenario. On top of those, you’ll find a full season setting, upgraded Be a Pro and Be a GM careers, online and offline shootouts, Online Team Play and a new, team-focused practice mode.
Some of the above offer new ways to play, such as Hockey Ultimate Team’s new single-player seasons, Be a Pro’s adaptive rating system, and a relatively realistic player morale and team meeting mechanic in Be a GM. Each one makes the experience feel tighter, more user-friendly and also more lifelike, although the latter two aren’t flawless by design.
While having to deal with fluctuating player morale and locker room chemistry makes being an armchair general manager all the more realistic, this particular system needs a bit more fine-tuning. I say that because when players ask for one-on-one meetings regarding their feelings about their individual ice time, recent performances or the team’s locker room, very positive responses are sometimes met with a loss of morale. It doesn’t make sense for someone to walk away feeling dejected in these scenarios, especially if you’ve congratulated them for playing very well over their last several games, and it affects the whole experience. The good news is that a slight loss of morale won’t break your season, but it’s something that needs to be addressed, and players’ responses to whole team meetings could be tweaked a bit as well.
On the Be a Pro side of things, I’m disappointed to note that the RPG elements and perks (billboard ads, magazine covers, etc.) from NHL 14‘s Live the Life mode still aren’t included here. It’s too bad, given how that was the best variation of this popular mode, and one that had some neat aspects, like player interviews, moral decisions and fluctuating fan bases. That’s not to say that this iteration is bad, or barebones, but it still leaves me wanting, despite boasting an enhanced progression system that increases or decreases your player’s statistics based on his on-ice efforts.
However, while I get losing favour with the coach and his letter-based rating system, as well as being docked skill points for taking overly lengthy shifts, there’s something up with the way that this game makes that classification. I was guilty of taking quite a few long-winded ventures, for which I was appropriately chastised, but there were also times where the coach gave me shit for no good reason. I’d step out of the penalty box after a full, two-minute stay, and would end up with a “long shift” warning as soon as I’d touch the ice. That’s not realistic, nor is it sensible.
Be a Pro also has a returning glitch, which is more than just a little infuriating. That is, a technical folly that randomly resets one’s period length setting to the default twenty-minute option. This happened to me last year, then recurred just a few games into my first season as an OHL player in this year’s outing. At first, I was able to manually change each game’s period length before readying up, despite the slider being greyed out in the general settings menu, but that quickly became unavailable as well. As such, I had to quit and delete my career, and haven’t had the heart to restart out of fear of the same thing happening again.
On the gameplay side of things, NHL 16 feels tighter and even more true to the real thing than its most recent predecessor did. The action is easy to pick up and play, but tough to master, and there are a lot of different nuances to be found. Its speed will differ, though, based on the game style that you choose to use. If you pick Arcade, you’ll get the fastest, most accessible and arguably the most fun experience available, whereas if you choose Simulation or Hardcore, things will slow down and be both more methodical and more challenging.
Online play is locked to Hardcore, and is always set to All-Star as far as the difficulty goes. However, it, like the rest of the game, is a bit too goal-heavy. This is true regardless of which difficulty you choose, because it feels as if teams score more than they should. Goalies don’t put up as much of a resistance as they have in the past, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to get into 7-6 or 8-5 games in Be a Pro. Perhaps this had something to do with me choosing to play on Arcade, but I happened to notice a similar trend in other modes and found myself cursing the AI’s catch-up mentality, with its easy goals and annoying luck.
Now, I know I’ve been a bit hard on this game, but the truth is that it really is quite good. Yes, it is rough around the edges and in need of some fine-tuning, but it does a lot of things right. Its gameplay is fun, it’s feature-rich and its presentation is close to being lifelike, thanks to a continued partnership with NBC.
The addition of a customizable on-ice trainer (which can be turned off and does not factor into online play) was also a nice touch, because it provides you with helpful information as to where your shots and passes will go, as well as other visual aids. What’s really neat to see, though, is how much detail went into making this game, because the developers added some really nice touches, like the iconic Price and Subban handshake that occurs after every Habs win, the Rangers’ fan salute following home ice victories, and the Sharks’ powerplay goal celebration.
In the end, there’s no denying that NHL 16 is a major step forward from its lacking predecessor. As such, it’s an easy recommendation to those who are looking for an accessible and in-depth hockey game to play alongside this year’s real-life season.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
NHL 16 follows up last year's debacle with a fun, content-packed and beautifully presented hockey experience, that marks the welcomed return of fan favourite modes like EA Sports Hockey League. It is, however, rough around the edges in certain areas, which is what prevents it from being a bonafide classic.