If you produce a game every year, your goal should always be to improve on the previous effort. In the past, annualized sports games have been accused of simply rehashing the same old formulas and simply offering updated rosters and a few fresh cosmetic features. However, I like what I see from the sports world in 2015; Madden NFL 16 was a definite step in the right direction, as it was a streamlined, accessible and heavily in-depth production that qualified for the term, “full package.” EA Canada took a page from that playbook, as NHL 16 is undoubtedly better than last year’s game in just about every way. There are still a few hang-ups but for the most part, this is a rock solid title for hockey fanatics.
The team has definitely worked to add even more animations and details to the on-ice action. Thankfully, it appears we’re past the days of plastic-y and absurdly shiny character designs, as these players are some of the most authentic you’ll ever see in the interactive space. Granted, there’s still work to be done – not all player models are superb and it isn’t a perfect visual presentation when the ice shards are really flying – but sports fans should be pleased. The arenas look and sound great, the effects are spot-on, and the commentary, while not quite where it needs to be, remains a highlight. And of course, you’ve got the flashy TV-style presentation that’s becoming a staple of the sports world.
As I said, the stadiums sound fantastic; they resound with the roar of the avid hockey lovers and the lighting is pretty impressive. When skating around on the ice, the effects take center-stage (and rightly so), as the crack of a slapshot and the satisfying thump of heavy hits put a smile on one’s face. Like this year’s Madden , the soundtrack is surprisingly diverse, so you’re bound to find a few tracks you enjoy. The music and commentary take a back seat to the in-game effects, which is appropriate for any sports game, and here’s where NHL 16 really shines. When you’re in the midst of the action, trying to control the puck or seeking to level the dude who has the puck, you’re awash in a maelstrom of sound and energy. Yep, seems about right.
Although I didn’t review last year’s entry, I played it later and spoke to a few friends who are self-admitted “rabid fans” of the sport in question. They were complaining about what EA had done to NHL 15 and after playing with them for a while, I acknowledged their irritation: Several of the features they’d loved in the past had been inexplicably removed – EASHL being first on the list – and the remaining modes seemed oddly awkward and unfulfilling. One particularly irate pal said EA “gimped the hell out of Be a Pro” and as such, he was leery about NHL 16 . Oh, but I have good news for him and all the hockey followers out there: EA must’ve heard your complaints from last year because they’ve taken the appropriate steps to win you back.
They’ve overhauled the modes, especially the crowd-favorite EA Sports Hockey League, and they’ve managed to implement a tutorial that will make newbies feel right at home. Let’s start there because the On-Ice Trainer is a fantastic addition for anyone who might need a little assistance. This is essentially a visual aid that teaches you how to play as you progress. The farther you go, the more it will deepen and broaden, eventually guiding you through more advanced skills like the more complex slapshot (as opposed to the simpler wristshot). Using the On-Ice Trainer means you won’t have any questions; you’ll know precisely why you succeeded or failed and you can always make the necessary adjustments. If you’re not perfectly at home in a hockey rink, this feature is an absolute must.
It will also prepare you for the Be A Pro mode, which starts you as a minor league player and ideally leads to a superstar career in the NHL. Combined with the standard instructions when you dive into this mode, the On-Ice Trainer proves to be an invaluable resource. Your coach can help you out in regards to offense, defense and team play, so by the time you’re ready to tackle NHL challenges, you’ll be totally ready. It’s a matter of schooling yourself in the fundamentals and then honing those abilities as you go, which makes perfect sense for Be A Pro. Getting started has never been easier and again, it’s like EA Canada took a hint from Madden NFL 16 , because it really welcomes newcomers to the series.
As for the core gameplay, it’s better without being stellar. There are still a few questionable occurrences when flying down the ice (and passing still feels occasionally wonky to me), but it’s definitely better than last year. There’s a cohesive and dynamic nature to this production, which results in better immersion. Your enjoyment level rises simply because you feel more involved and more in control of the action; whether you’re on offense or playing goalie. The latter option is pretty cool, by the way, especially when you try the first-person viewpoint and test your reactions and guarding abilities. The bottom line is that you typically have plenty of fun when playing and as such, your satisfaction level remains high throughout.
Additionally, there’s the Be A GM mode, which is really for the die-hard fan. This is for all you stat-junkies who always have coaching and management suggestions for your favorite squad. It’s basically the polar opposite of the free-wheeling basic modes that simply get you on the ice as quickly as possible, learning the necessities and experimenting with super slick moves. In this way, the game has something to offer all kinds of fans, which makes it a well-rounded and appealing package. The only downside is that basic control hasn’t been perfected just yet and I question the authenticity of the physics. As I’m hopeless on skates and I’m not overly familiar with the sport, I’m probably not the best judge, though.
Offline and online shootouts are back, which is great for local and online multiplayer fun. As for other online modes, it’s obvious that Hockey Ultimate Team is where it’s at; this is where you collect cards to build your team and throw down against other human opponents online. You can also test out your skills against the AI if you so choose. Being an avid card collector back in the day, I always gravitate toward features like this. You can work towards new card packs or purchase them with real money, which I say is borderline cheating but whatever. Moving on, the return of EASHL is much appreciated and thanks to the more balanced presentation, it’s that much more fulfilling. Create and customize your player, choose a position and class, and hone your skills on the ice. You will earn badges when you complete class-specific challenges, which in turn ups your overall level.
Yes, EASHL is one of the more satisfying aspects of the game, due primarily to its rewards-based structure that challenges you to become a better player. But there are some flaws and they go beyond the small control and physics issued I mentioned earlier. I find the menu interface to be awkward and confusing and I sometimes found myself rushing through off-ice tasks in order to get to the game. Maybe some people won’t mind the clumsy menu setup, simply because they want as much information as humanly possible and don’t mind the jumble of stats and photos. Personally, though, I think it can be displayed better and with a more trimmed-down look. On the flip side, the in-game presentation is great and you’ll spend most of your time playing, anyway.
NHL 16 represents a return to form for the long-running hockey franchise. Those trying to get the bad taste of their mouths from last year’s entry should be pleased with EA Canada’s effort, which is capable of attracting casual and hardcore fans alike. EASHL is fulfilling and even addictive, shootouts are an absolute blast, the On-Ice Trainer is an excellent addition for newcomers, and the gameplay is smooth in some places, and rugged and powerful where it needs to be (feel that hit?). It just needs some sprucing up in regards to basic control; i.e., passing and general movement, and the off-ice interface could be a lot better. I had some minor issues with the online servers as well. But all in all, this is a really encouraging title that does its job well.
The Good: Very well-designed stadiums with lots of great detail. Top-notch gameplay effects. The return of popular modes and the revamping of modes that needed help. Smooth, satisfying in-game action. Welcomes newcomers while still catering to die-hards. Shootouts are FUN.
The Bad: Physics and some control elements aren’t spot-on. Menu interface could use some work. Some frustrating challenges. Minor online snafus.
The Ugly: “There’s no ‘ugly’ in a game that strives to improve on the past.”