Over the past several years, the second week of September has become one of the best for those whose favored hobbies and time-wasters include hockey and video games. As training camps get set to open and prospects hit the ice, EA’s annual NHL title lands on store shelves and into the ever-ready hands of gamers ready to chase the Stanley Cup in their own, personal digital NHL.
This year’s title, NHL 16, was considered by some to be the most important release in recent memory. Last season’s NHL 15 was disappointing and bereft of several popular game modes. It left some longtime fans wishing there was another major NHL title on the market. Understandably, EA Sports had a tall task in front of them and the pressure was on to win back some of the fans who were upset by the first iteration of the game available on next generation consoles Xbox One and Playstation 4.
With NHL 16, EA Sports stepped up in a big way and will win back the trust of some longtime players, yet there are still areas where the game could improve en route to once again becoming Sports Game of the Year.
The first thing fans of the series will notice is that EA has focused greatly on the game’s presentation. Upon entering the menu screens, players will see the three-tier menu from last year’s game is gone and has been replaced with a sleeker, side-scrolling menu, which includes easy access to popular game modes such as Hockey Ultimate Team, EA Sports Hockey League and online head-to-head contests.
When it comes to actual gameplay, the game looks better than ever, which is to be expected with EA harnessing the power of the newest consoles. The standard camera angles and player models haven’t changed much over the past several iterations of the title, but subtle changes to the in-arena presentation have made a noticeable difference.
Back are the establishing shots of each arena and the NBC Sports overlays which give each contest the feel of a live, televised game. In each building, the home team’s mascot will be seen roaming during action, fans will again cheer, chant and wave towels in the post-season and fan models have been updated to give each arena a better atmosphere. Even sticklers looking for the subtle details will be happy. Amongst other arena-specific celebrations, Columbus’ cannon now fires following a Blue Jackets goal and the United Center — which is finally in the game — booms with Chelsea Dagger each time the Blackhawks get on the board.
The one hiccup the game does have when it comes to presentation, however, is the commentary. Because of the fluidity of hockey, the play-by-play has trouble keeping up at times and there are a lot of repetitive lines coming from the game’s broadcast crew of Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro. Doc rarely screams “Waffleboarded!” in the course of a real game, but it can be peppered through a contest several times if the user is trying to continually pick a corner blocker side.
The game’s biggest victories, bar none, are the game modes. After NHL 15 was without fan-favorite EASHL, the online team-play league which made the game so special is back. The announcement of the game mode’s return to NHL 16 was made earlier in the summer and EA Sports released a beta for fans to test the mode and help improve it before NHL 16’s release. It worked, too.
One of the biggest changes to EASHL is the removal of player progression. Players themselves will earn badges for their own achievements, but the attributes of the user-controlled player will remain the same throughout the year no matter how many games are player or goals are scored. The idea, from EA’s perspective, is to level the playing field and making it simpler for brand new players to pick up the game and be able to compete against veterans.
EASHL’s return also comes as adjustments have been made to the Be A Pro mode that had grown stale over the past few titles. The style of player progression has been more finely tuned to represent the user’s on-ice play — if you’re a pass-first player, your Pro will see a boost to those stats, but a digital pugilist will see the player’s fighting ability go through the roof. That adjustment is a fantastic one.
Helping guide players in building their pro is the new on-ice training system, which will show players where to be, what they should be looking at with each shot and show passing lanes when they become available. Those who have played past games might find the system jarring at first — personally, it took a game or two to become used to it — but it’s actually a neat tool which can help build skills to be used in other game modes. And if the trainer is an annoyance, users can turn it off.
Of course, Ultimate Team is back and the mode continues to be a hit with fans. One major update is the addition of offline seasons for Ultimate Team. Now fans wanting to play digital GM can do so without an internet connection, which was something fans of the series’ previous releases were hoping for.
Fans looking for the more traditional GM mode, Be A GM, will be able to enjoy a number of new features, as well. The biggest is player morale which can change the way a team performs on the ice. Even the smallest choices in and out of a game can change morale, so it's something to watch over the course of a season. Be A GM was bare last season, but the morale system offers a new wrinkle that will please longtime players of the mode.
The team at EA Sports had a giant task in front of them this season after last year’s perceived failure, but they’ve answered the challenge. With NHL 16, EA Sports has provided new fans with the tools needed to learn the game and old players with some of the features they’ve been after for years. The return of EASHL and addition of offline HUT seasons are the game’s biggest victories. If fans can get past the sometimes redundant commentary and the potentially steep learning curve, NHL 16 is worth the purchase.