After over 20 years of hard work on a series that is cherished by many hockey fans, EA dealt a big blow with last year’s NHL 15. The developers removed fan-favourite features and dashed the hopes of many wishing for a first entry on the new generation of consoles. EA Canada went to the fans after a mediocre effort and those fans (dubbed the “Game Changers”) helped shape NHL 16 to be the worthy hockey title fans have come to expect.
I started playing hockey on the Sega Genesis in 1993. I barely knew what I was doing back then, but it was hockey and that was by far my favourite thing. In late 1993, I got my first PC and NHL Hockey 94 was pre-installed on it. I spent hours playing that game learning every little thing I could as a 5 year old. I upgraded to 95 the next year and played that game for years; long after I should have gotten a newer PC. As years went by, I dabbled with each new hockey game, but it wasn’t until 2002 when I purchased the PlayStation 2 that NHL would be a mainstay in my home every year. That was 14 years ago and I haven’t missed an NHL release since. It wasn’t until last year when I thought that maybe this series just wasn’t going the direction I wanted it to. There were less modes than there had been in years and far less customization. While I was frustrated with the half-finished game that I was presented with, I gave EA another chance this year and they did not disappoint.
NHL 16 is a great experience from top to bottom. The fan-favourite modes are back in for the most part with EA Sports Hockey League making a return after a year hiatus. GM Connected didn’t make the cut due to low player numbers, however I truly believe they just couldn’t get it to function as fluidly as they would have liked. All the other main game modes like Shootout, Season, Be a GM, Online Versus, and Ultimate Team are back as well.
EASHL underwent a big overhaul since we last saw it in NHL 14. No longer do you have to level up your player to gain better stats. Everyone is now on an even playing field. There are 13 build choices: Sniper, Grinder, Power Forward, Enforcer, Playmaker, Two-Way Forward, Two-Way Defenseman, Defensive Defenseman, Enforcer Defenseman, Offensive Defenseman, Standup Goalie, Hybrid Goalie, and Butterfly Goalie. As you can see, there’s a lot of variety in gameplay that way. If you’re more of a physical player, you would choose a tougher build, if you’re more of a finesse player, you’d choose a skilled build. Each one has distinct strengths and weaknesses and vistory is determined by how well you can mesh those styles together on a team to win. It’s a much better system and games have been a lot more even this way in my observations. The down side is that the glitch shot still has made it’s way in and is prevalent in EASHL games. Players don’t score it as easily now, but the fact that the toe-drag move is still an effective move at all is a big negative. I played a triple-overtime game and lost 1-0 after 69 shots at the goalie on that glitch shot. It needs to be addressed and it still hasn’t quite been for years. This can be rendered useless if someone is always there on defense, but that’s obviously not realistic.
As annoying as that shot may be, a welcome change is the addition of more realistic goaltending. EA added in new skating mechanics and new controls to allow more control over the goalie than ever before. The result is an incredibly fun and fluid experience that I really enjoyed for the couple games I’ve played. Player customization is back in full force though. Beards, coloured sock tape, and coloured skates are all new this year. You can’t change your hairstyle without changing your entire face that I can tell though, which is puzzling to me. EASHL is more fun and balanced than ever before and I for one have had a blast playing it.
Be a Pro Mode isn’t very similar to EASHL this year. Players still have builds, however, they earn XP for different thing they do on the ice. Land a big hit, gain XP, score a goal, gain XP, turnover the puck, lose XP. Green and red notifications pop up over your player telling you how much XP you gained and for what. Every action has a positive or negative influence on your player. You also have training hours you can assign every week to gain even more XP. More than ever, it’s like a hockey RPG. Players can once again start in the CHL and move all the way up to the NHL. In my opinion, this is the best Be a Pro has ever been and it’s hard to choose between EASHL and Be a Pro on a lot of nights.
Hockey Ultimate Team is back this year as EA’s money-making machine just keeps chugging along. There aren’t a ton of differences to note this year. I really felt like it was relatively the same as last year. Single-player seasons are the only big change. It plays just like online seasons, but against the CPU. It’s different and I’m sure a lot of people will be happy about it, but I would have preferred custom jerseys and arenas or something to make your team unique. Users who enjoyed this mode the last few years will continue to have the same basic feel for pretty much everything in this mode and with how well it does, I guess that’s a good thing.
Be a GM Mode has a new player morale system this year which adds a very interesting new dynamic to managing your team. Instead of just worrying about the on-ice product, GMs will have to worry about the morale in the dressing room and address things like ice-time, locker room leaders, and more. Trade away one of the leaders in the dressing room and your team’s morale will go down and they won’t play as well. Sign a big time free agent goalie and your previous starter might get disgruntled and require you to make a deal. I can see this as being the first step to being a full-fledged NHL management simulator which is something this game can benefit from immensely. I love managing my team to a cup and I want the ability to deal with every little thing. This is definitely a big addition and hopefully one they don’t abandon.
The gameplay itself has seen yet another slight overhaul. I have to hand it to EA Canada for continuing to tinker every year to get the version of hockey in this game as close to the real thing as possible. It has been so much more realistic this year compared to other years. The puck bounces as it should and players miss the puck sometimes which is a nice change to the puck feeling like it’s on a string. It’s a better defensive game this year. Hits and poke checks are more effective and more diverse in terms of how they knock the puck away. The passing is also more accurate this year if, but can be a frustration to new players as it is all about precision. There are far less bad penalties being called and interference is far more lenient while still not letting things go that it shouldn’t. Dekes are more difficult to pull off as well. This has been my favourite game in the series so far in terms of gameplay.
I won’t take much time, but the presentation is just as good. The NBC package for sports has been a great addition and while it can be repetitive, it brings you into the game with Doc and Eddie in the broadcast booth and Ray Ferraro between the benches. EA even took the time to put all the mascots in the game! The United Center finally made it in, even Toronto’s brand new jumbotron somehow made it in (possibly in the update?). They did everything to re-create every team’s home atmosphere in the NHL right down to the C of Red in Calgary and the Winnipeg Whiteout. It’s nice to finally feel like you’re there while you’re playing after many years of missing the finer details.
Usually, I’d take time to talk about the negatives, but NHL 16 doesn’t have many. EASHL still has issues with glitch goals, and there are still games where goalies let in some very weak goals and some where they are superhuman, but it’s not as widespread as it used to be. The broadcast package is obviously repetitive, but they always will be. NHL 16 is the game that everyone wanted last year and the series can only get better from here during this console generation. Good on EA for doing right by the fans this year and giving them a proper NHL experience.