Now that the NHL 16 EASHL beta is officially out, we can see how it plays in the wild. There have definitely been some technical issues -- this is a beta after all -- but when things have gone smoothly, the action has been pretty enjoyable. Here are some quick thoughts on how things have gone for my squad so far:
-I know some users have talked about input lag, but none of us have had that (save for one of us in one game). The action has been smooth and very playable. In fact, I’d say it’s EA’s best effort to date in terms of latency.
-The classes, at this point, have managed to create a sort of enforced balance to the gameplay as no one player can do it all. It creates challenges with passing, for instance, where a power forward or sniper will excel in their areas but struggle to make certain passes in tight. I am liking that physical players will have an advantage over danglers and playmakers, and the hitting now seems to be emphasized in several classes rather than everyone being a threat that way.
-In general, I think the passing will work well in the long run, with maybe a few tweaks, as there is some level of challenge executing plays in the slot and back to the point. Our team has definitely noticed how active the poke check is (either user-controlled or automatic) as lazy passes will get picked off if you put them into the middle of the ice. I want there to be challenge, though, so EA should not change it too much from what's there now.
-Perimeter and cycle play seem to be emphasized due to the aforementioned passing scenarios, so it’s definitely beneficial to keep the puck moving along the wall. The power forward is particularly well suited to survive along the boards, as I found myself coming away with the puck quite often when battling along the wall.
-The sniper is clearly the scoring threat that EA probably wanted it to be, as the partially screened wrister in the top shelf is quite a viable play, as usual. What’s interesting is the aspect of trying to counter a team that has two snipers by using two-way forwards, grinders or power forwards. Thinking about the other team’s classes adds a neat wrinkle.
-Goals have been relatively varied, with wrist shots, one-timers, deflections, dekes and various garbage tap-ins. Well-executed plays still feel good, and it’s great when everyone comes together to make a special play.
-Defenders have the usual options for classes, and it seems most folks are sticking with the defensive D-men in order to lay out hits and keep active poke checks in the lanes. It’s probably the most viable strategy, honestly.
-It would be nice to see more classes added in the future, as some specialist loadouts might be useful. In fact, I’m still hoping that the survey EA circulated about EASHL bodes well for the future, as I’d like to see these classes have unique animations and traits to make them stand out even more. I don’t want them to get away from the specialization that is there now, but it would be nice to have a “perk” for each class or something like that.
-Goaltending is a bit of a weird one. The control scheme seems sort of half-baked right now. Hugging the posts is very finicky, and the overall feel emphasizes positioning over actual movement. I never felt comfortable in net, and it seemed really sluggish when getting over for cross-ice plays. I like the philosophy of what they’re going for, but I feel the previous scheme worked better than what’s there now.
-AI on CPU teammates is also kind of all over the place. On the one hand, the AI can move the puck around the offensive zone pretty well, and it can certainly plug up some lanes and grab some passes. On the other hand, play behind the net has been a disaster so far, as the AI will get hung up on the net or bank the puck off the net. The AI awareness in board play also seems pretty suspect. It does the job, but it actually stood out negatively on several occasions, which is a bit disconcerting.
-In terms of presentation, everyone was enjoying the beards, mascots, arena details and overall look of the game. There is more cohesion to this year’s visual package, which is welcome. Audio seems pretty familiar, but there are certainly a few new phrases from the three-man broadcast team.
-The menus for EASHL are a bit on the clunky side, but getting ready for a match is relatively straightforward. We found that all of the filtering and matching options worked well, and loading into a 12-person match goes fairly quickly.
-As said, though, there have been some pretty major technical issues for the beta. Some users have had to change gamertags to even play. There have been lock-ups, resets and lag outs during various matches. The face-off glitch of years past seems like it’s gone, but a whole host of other connectivity issues are present. Hopefully most, if not all, are ironed out for the final release. I’d say about 75 percent of our matches have been problem free, but that number needs to be higher.
I’m enjoying the balance that no boosts and defined classes are bringing to the EASHL, and the action remains really smooth with 12 people on the ice. The AI quirks, odd goalie controls and technical issues remain a bit of a question mark, but EA has a bit of time to do some patching and hot-fixing in order to address some of that. But the EASHL is back, and the kernel of fun that it had before is definitely present in this iteration. Good to see you again, EASHL.