Skip to Content

‘NHL 16’: From pretender to contender

‘NHL 16’: From pretender to contender

nhl16_1

NHL 16
Developed by EA Canada
Published by EA Sports
Available on PS4, Xbox One

EA’s previous venture onto the frozen pond wasn’t an outing to remember, as they attempted to cater to both last-gen and current-gen consoles, but ended up satisfying neither audience. NHL 15 suffered from a severe lack of content and the horrible connectivity issues put a nasty blemish on the record of an otherwise well-regarded franchise. In order to right the ship, EA has turned to their fan base for both forgiveness and guidance, with the hopes of putting NHL 16 back on top of the list of premiere sports simulation games.

It’s not uncommon to see a game developer claim that they scour the internet listening to fan feedback in order to better their game, but this year EA took it one step further. In order to redeem themselves for last year’s blunder, EA assembled a group of fans and gave them full access to the game’s development process. This group, known as the ‘Game Changers’, were nominated by other fans within EA’s community, and were relied upon to give feedback during development, with the goal of creating a game that truly caters to the fans.

Immediately upon seeing NHL 16’s main menu, it’s clear that most of the features taken out of NHL 15 have returned this year, including the much loved EA Sports Hockey League. Players are given a plethora of options, including the basic quick match and shootout, the standard season and playoff modes, and the more in-depth options like the aforementioned EASHL, along with the Be A Pro, Be a GM, and Hockey Ultimate Team modes.

HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) returns with minor tweaks and adjustments, most notably the inclusion of both online and single player seasons. The card based mode still operates the same way, with users starting their team with a random assortment of players from leagues all across the globe, with the goal of playing games to earn coins which can be exchanged for card packs which hopefully contain better players. The marketplace returns, for those looking to acquire specific players, or trade away the rare card they managed to get, but be warned, it’s going to cost you quite a bit of coins to acquire any big name players. The card collecting and trading aspects of the mode are as addictive as ever, and it’s still fun to slot a random German player from the DEL into your top line simply because he’s the best option you have, only to get attached to him and pump a whole bunch of stat-increasing cards into him so that he can keep up with your NHL centermen. Taking your team into an online season can lead to frustration, as you’ll probably face off against a decent amount of people who’ve spent real dollars to acquire stacked rosters, but, skill permitting, players who create balanced teams with good chemistry may able to stand toe-to-toe with the pay-to-win players.

nhl16_3

Be a GM mode is for the true die-hard fan who wants to manage the rosters of an NHL team and their AHL affiliate, while keeping their team salary cap compliant, maintaining their players morale, keeping an eye on scouting reports, and devising on-ice strategies. The sheer amount of time which can be sunk into being an arm chair general manager is astounding, and that’s not even taking into account the time spent actually playing the matches. If hockey were a more popular sport in the United States, this mode could of potentially had its own game, similar to the Football Manager series. All the little options are there, from authentic cap penalties to offer sheets, making this the most realistic and engrossing Be a GM mode to date. While most of the default settings are fine for the average player looking to delve into the mode, for veteran players I’d definitely suggest changing the ‘Trade Difficulty’ setting to Hard, because trading Tomas Plekanec and Nikita Scherbak for Connor McDavid definitely puts a damper on the realism of the mode.

The much missed EASHL makes its return, with a sweeping suite of improvements. Gone are the days of having to grind for extended periods of time, or spend real money, just to compete. Players now choose their style of play on a game-by-game basis, and that’s it, you’re ready to hit the ice with the best of them. Ultra competitive players looking to simulate the real game as much a possible can set up a club, and take to the ice with their established team to compete for glory. The more casual player can enjoy the new Drop-In option, which will match them with like-minded individuals, allow them to pick a position and play style, and get right into the action. The EASHL has never felt as user friendly and balanced as it does in NHL 16.

No matter which game mode you decide to play, you’ll be treated to a presentation style that attempts to best mimic an NHL on NBC broadcast, including play-by-play announcing by Michael “Doc” Emrick, color commentating by Eddie Olczyk, and rink-side analysis from Ray Ferraro. The corporate logos that pop up at every opportunity are easily ignored, as years of watching the game on television have trained us to see past them, but the poor commentary is not so easily forgiven. The first dozen times Doc Emrick screeched “WRISTER!” as I took a slap shot from the point made me laugh, but after a while all the nonsensical calls become irritating. Often transitions between Emrick and Ferraro are awkward, and sometimes all 3 of the commentators will be silent for extended periods of time, leading to 10+ seconds of dead air. Hockey is an extremely fast and frantic game, so expecting the commentators to match a real life broadcast is unrealistic, but it’s very disappointing when I unleash a crazy flurry of shots on goal, as the opposing goalie is flopping around the crease stopping everything, and none of the commentators say a word. It would be wonderful to have a custom soundtrack to play instead of the dull commentary provided to us, but for whatever reason custom soundtracks have been omitted. The licensed music is also lacking when compared to previous iterations, especially considering that only a handful of arenas in NHL 16 have the correct goal songs for the home team. While far from perfect, at least the commentary is better than listening to the same recycled Gary Thorne dialog that were we subjected to for 8 years between NHL 07-14.

nhl16_2

The biggest new addition in the game is the On-Ice Trainer. This new feature adds contextual prompts to the screen giving the player an indication of what actions they can perform in any given situation. The trainer can assist the player by adding an indicator on the opposing teams goal, showing you where you’re currently aiming to shoot the puck, or giving you a very blatant visual cue that entering the opposing team’s zone will result in an offside call. The best aspect of the On-Ice Trainer is that the visual cues don’t actually distract from the game play at all, and the trainer is extremely customizable. If you would like the trainer to assist you with only select aspects of the game, than toggle those on and turn the rest off. If you’re a brand new player, set the trainer to the beginner setting, and you’ll get assistance with the most basic aspects of the game. Veteran players can toggle the trainer to the expert setting, and the system will only advise them about options that they tend to not use. The On-Ice Trainer is a fantastic addition that will help many players improve on all aspects of their game.

The plethora of game modes and new features would all be meaningless if the core game play wasn’t up to par, but thankfully NHL 16 is the best hockey simulation released to date. It’s extremely satisfying to perfectly pick the top corner of the net with a slap shot from the point, or to snap a quick wrist shot through a defender’s legs and right under the goalie’s glove. Skating is silky smooth, each player feels as if they carry weight which make hits feel impactful, and every blocked shot and poke check is satisfying. Pretty much anything you see happen in the real game can be replicated here, and it feels great to play. The overall feel and pace of the game can be modified by adjusting the Game Style option. Selecting the Arcade style will lead to a very speedy game, the Hardcore option best emulates the pace of the real life game, and the Simulation style is somewhere in-between. For players who want a very specific Game Style, they can create their own custom settings by adjusting several dozen sliders.

As with most iterations in the series, NHL 16 has its fair share of bugs and glitches. A few times Doc Emrick announced that the puck went over the glass and into the crowd, but closer inspection using the instant replay feature showed the puck just glide along the ice and go right threw the boards. More than a handful of times I experienced an issue with the puck getting stuck on nothing just a few inches from the net, leading to the goalie and defensemen flopping around frantically for 30 seconds trying to pick it up before the ref finally whistled the play dead. The A.I. ramps up significantly with each difficulty setting, which makes for a great, but often unfair challenge. It’s not uncommon to triple your opponent’s shots on goal, but barely scrape out a win, as the rubber band A.I. will always bounce back and score on low percentage shot attempts. The great gameplay transitions to all the online modes, but sadly the connectivity issues from NHL 15 have not been completely resolved. After playing dozens of matches online since the game’s launch, I encountered more than a few instances of lag and glitching which ruined several games.

Where NHL 15 was a pretender, NHL 16 is actually a contender for best sports game of the year. The impact of the Game Changers can be felt throughout the game, as all the menu’s are more streamlined, players have so many options to customize their experience, and many of the gameplay features and refinements we’ve been asking for have been provided. Shoddy announcing, rubber band A.I., unreliable online play, and a pay-to-win feeling in HUT all hold the game back from greatness, but the excellent core game play and wide array of game modes will satisfy most fans.

-Matt De Azevedo

[wpchatai]