EA Sports scores a goal off the rebound of last year’s disappointing 2015.
IT’S THE GAME WE DESERVE, BUT THE ONE WE NEEDED LAST YEAR
To paraphrase Jim Gordon, anyway. That statement sums up NHL 16. The gameplay of NHL 15 was superb and balanced, but the lack of popular game modes that the series is known for upset a lot of hardcore fans. As we wrote last year, we assumed that the marketing strategy would be, “You asked for it and now your favorite modes are back!” All that said, NHL 16 is a worthy game for any sports fan and is a solid pickup for hockey fans.
NHL 16’s gameplay builds off of last year’s brand new engine but features a few slight tweaks. At launch, the general default gameplay was very slow overall, which meant performing tasks like passing and simply skating the puck up ice was difficult and unrealistic. Two weeks since launch, the developers have released a few minor changes to the default sliders and the overall pace of the game has improved.
The gameplay mirrors the real-life current state of the NHL – it’s slow, play is choppy, and true skills is not as celebrated as much as it should be. I am disappointed with the way passing works or rather the low percentage chance that your pass will be successful. Aiming the pass or shot with the left thumb stick is not as accurate as it needs to be and often results in a frustrating misplaced puck to the boards. For example, I generally like to cycle the puck around the offensive zone by sending the puck back to the point to my defenseman. Despite my aiming, the puck will float at half the speed I have wound up for, or it will bank off of the boards with poor awareness from my defenseman, forcing them to go and retrieve the puck.
The physical play needs work. Body checks are more realistic this year, where players don’t go flying 5-10 feet when body checked. The issue lies with the player performing the check – after throwing a check, the opposing player recovers faster and regains control of the puck, thus ruining the point of the check – to gain puck possession. I’m hoping this is adjusted in future gameplay updates.
Also, it’s still too easy to score on a one-timer, despite the shooter’s skillset.
Despite my issues with the gameplay, most of last year’s feel carries over, and that is a good thing. The one standout item brand new to NHL 16 is the on ice visual assist. The game helps newcomers (and reminds veterans) to get comfortable with the control scheme and how to get into the flow of being a good player. The net will show spots that goalies could have weaknesses. An arrow near your player shows where a good pass opportunity lies. You can also customize how much help you want, as there are a number of details you can turn on and off in the menus. I like that EA didn’t assume everyone has been playing their games for years.
The graphics in NHL 16 are second to none when it comes to sports games. Often times, people will mistake replays and live footage for an actual real-life hockey game. The number of different avatars seen in the crowd helps to bring an authentic feel to the rink.
A big step in the right direction lies in the inclusion of replicas of all 30 NHL arenas. They are very detailed and unique and for those that are lucky enough to have an NHL team in their hometown or city, they will feel right at home. Seeing the NHL 16 version of Buffalo’s First Niagara Center step by step and section by section is simply fantastic and gratifying. Doc Emrick and Eddie Olyczyk are once again filmed on green screen so as to appear in a given arena. Their dialogue is repetitive along with between-the-benches analyst Ray Ferraro. It doesn’t sound scripted otherwise though (I still miss Gary Thorne and Bill Clement).
Scanned player faces look better than ever, as stars are instantly recognizable without knowing their name or jersey number. Despite the highly detailed player faces and emotions, not nearly enough players’ heads are scanned in. This probably won’t bother a lot of gamers, but as a purist, it bugs me. I live, eat, and breathe hockey, so it’s weird when a player skates by and his face is a poorly done customization. Thankfully, EA scanned prized rookies Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, so their likenesses will appear in the game along with their official play-by-play (Eichel can’t be in the game until the first roster update after the first game of the NHL season for the Buffalo Sabres).
NHL 16 nails it in certain aspects when it comes to authenticity. Certain actions unique to specific players make appearances. For example – if you win a game as the Montreal Canadiens, expect goaltender Carey Price and star defenseman PK Subban to do their customary hand shake. Those little things go a long way.
THE EASHL MAKES A TRIUMPHANT RETURN
NHL 16 boasts a nice variation of game modes, none we haven’t seen before but the foundation is back and it feels good. Want to play through a regular season as your team? No problem. Want to skip right to the playoffs? Jump in.
The Hockey Ultimate Team is here again, where you open a pack of cards and hope to find your favorite player to utilize on your customized team (or a skilled player for that matter). EA claims this is its most popular mode, but I think most would agree that the EA Sports Hockey League is the true king.
The triumphant return of the EASHL has fans ecstatic. Well, at least those that weren’t too bitter from last year’s lack. Starting a club with a bunch of friends is the best way to play, as your created pro jumps on the ice in an effort to play for a division crown over a 10 game season and move up to the next league. Don’t have enough friends that bought NHL or maybe all your friends are playing on PS4 while you’re on Xbox One? That’s fine, you can join a game in drop-in mode and play with a bunch of strangers in the same boat.
Your character levels up in a different manner than it did in previous games. Instead of allocating where you’d like your earned point upgrades, you now choose which kind of player you want to be. There’s many different types, but sniper, playmaker, and grinder are just a few. Your player will become better overall with regards to their respective craft as you win games, score goals, or complete other set tasks. You can level your player all the way up to level 50 and choose to stay put or reset to level 0 just like Prestige mode in Call of Duty’s annual games. The nice part about this switch-up is that people like me who can’t necessarily devote tons of hours to the game won’t feel lost or left out when I go to join my friends after taking a few months off. A person that plays frequently will certainly have an advantage, but it’s not significant enough to ruin the competitive balance of the game. This also prevents players from creating 6’9″ players that can snipe and destroy other players at the same time. It creates a level playing field which keeps things a bit more fun and a bit less frustrating.
The online modes of NHL are nice in theory…when they work. The online gameplay is still spotty after all these years. Finding a match is quick and simple and should not be overlooked (looking at you, Master Chief Collection!). Once you’re in a match, good luck playing a smooth, lag-free game. It often will affect the outcome of the game and when it comes to playing a ranked match, that’s no bueno. Did I mess up that shot or did the lag?
Be A GM Mode includes more hands-on features like having conversations with your players that affect morale. There could even come a point when your star player requests a trade if you mis-manage him. These little features are welcomed additions, but they don’t even scratch the surface of a deep, story-like NBA 2k career mode. EA has a long way to go and I think hockey fans would embrace the extra time focused on it for next year’s game.
NHL 16 is the game we thought we were getting when NHL 15 made its new-gen debut last year. It’s okay that it’s a year late because of the nice improvements that have been made, but it will take some time to mend the relationship with hardcore fans. If you’re a hockey fanatic like me, I recommend you buy and jump back in.
+ Graphics are superb. Players’ visual impressions and physical form are top notch.
+ Attention to detail with all unique 30 NHL Arenas (and for the most part, goal songs and buzzers/horns).
+ Gameplay visual assists.
+ Be A GM Mode upgrades with player relationships.
-Online lag is still a problem and detracts from the experience.
-As good as the controls can be, they can be a touch off at times and need the extra polish.
NHL 16 was reviewed on the Xbox One. It is also available for Playstation 4.
Josiah LeRoy is The Geekiverse’s Senior Editor. He is so relieved that hockey season is back! Join his EASHL team on Xbox One, the Gotham Knights. PS it’s the Year of the Duck.
Check out our review of last year’s NHL 15 and see how NHL 16 compares.