NHL 16 Review (PS4)
It's a post–NHL 15 world, folks, and EA is looking to right the wrongs of last year's game. Much has been said about where NHL 15 went off the rails and how it happened, but the bottom line is that it will forever be known as an entry in the series that broke new ground for presentation while forgetting all of the features and modes that make the series great.
Enter NHL 16, a version of the game that has been developed with something of an "enhanced" 12-month schedule, with pre-production starting earlier than ever before. There's also been added accountability to producers during development and slightly more interaction with the fans in recent months. Further still, the GameChangers, a group of 12 fan liaisons, have been deeply involved in development of the EASHL and other core NHL features.
But does all of this fix what ailed NHL 15? In a word, yes. NHL 16 is a much more fulsome and confident representation of what the franchise is capable of, as it now includes (almost) all of the modes that it needs to and iterates in some interesting new ways. The online suite is incredibly strong, with a revitalized EASHL mode and couch co-op. Even dusty old modes like Be-A-GM and Be-A-Pro feature a couple of new reasons to play.
This doesn't mean that there is anything drastically new in NHL 16, as that will likely have to wait for a subsequent year (a deeper career mode comes to mind), but what's here is the game that should've been there last year, plus a few extra bells and whistles. The gameplay is not going to resonate with every user, due to a bit of problematic AI and some lingering unpredictability on the puck, but the overall quality of NHL 16 puts it back in the conversation with its peers in the modern sports videogame landscape.
While the main story for NHL 16 is the return of many modes and features, it doesn’t mean that the gameplay has gone unattended. The collision physics of last year have been improved, with collision physics actually achieving a subtle balance of pile-ups in front of the net and occasional glancing hits. I’ve noticed a lot less stumbling, wobbling and generally annoying behaviour from this feature, and the collision physics are now actually complementing the action rather than getting in the way. The new puck physics, which were introduced in NHL 15, have received more of a minor iteration, with some level of unpredictability on passes and dump-ins, which allows for different strategies to develop. I’ve still found AI teammates unwilling to handle some basic passes, though, and it seems like the right balance for these passing scenarios is eluding the developers.
The main two additions this year for the on-ice action are puck pick-ups and precision skating. The puck pick-up system mainly refers to a set of animations which allow players to seamlessly transition while grabbing the puck. Some of these are noticeable when a player takes a puck that’s approaching him from behind, while others can be seen as a skater nears the boards, These animations represent a subtle change, but they do allow for a smoother feeling on the ice, with less out-of-control gliding in certain areas. The aforementioned bumbling of basic passes does present problems for neutral ice and slot play, but I do at least appreciate some margin of error, even if it seems a little much at times.
The precision skating is yet another subtle addition. The basic idea is that you can still glide when moving at high speeds, but this precision mode allows for smaller movements when you are standing still or barely moving. There is a satisfaction when you can hold the blueline or operate behind the net, and this tiny control tweak allows for more fidelity in these scenarios. Overall, it’s a minor feature, much like the puck chop was (I still love this move), but it helps you feel in control during situations that were somewhat perilous in the past.
One-timers remain a key pillar of any offense in NHL 16, but the defensive AI is at least a bit wily in terms of knocking down the really lazy attempts. Deflection goals, slappers and rebounds remain viable, which is good to see, but there are still a few too many wraparounds and top-shelf wristers from the usual places. None of this is out of step from previous years, though, so your mileage may vary. I’ve always found the goals to be enjoyable in NHL, even if there are a few spots on the ice that become crutches.
Tweaking the settings up to “Superstar” and “Hardcore” will provide a good deal of challenge, probably even more than it has previously. What I’ve found is that the AI is more aggressive in the neutral zone than before, and they also will continuously zip the puck around your defensive zone and keep you hemmed in. There has been a surprising amount of dump-and-chase from the AI as well, which I didn’t expect. The computer is certainly beatable on these settings, but I have found the games to be competitive, on the whole.
What is bothersome is that it’s still quite easy to gain the blueline, and any reasonable deking skill will give the defensive AI a minor fit. This doesn’t always result in goals, but it does reinforce the idea that the AI is unwilling to really close up the blueline. Even further, the teammate AI for your squad is prone to some lapses, gliding into pucks that are coming right at them and not reacting to nearby danger. Puck support from your teammates along the boards is also absent again, which is something I’ve been harping on for a few years. Teammates also continue to avoid the slot like the plague, not going there when open ice is abundant. Penalties are also a bit of an enigma, with some better goalie interference calls but still a lack of calls overall. It can always be adjusted, but there needs to be more infractions, as the poke check, for example, is way too strong in certain scenarios (this is very true online).
I’m still having a good time with the game against the CPU, even with some quarrels. The action feels smooth in a way that improves over last year, and it’s generally a bit faster. The ability to control your skater and move the puck around feels good at the perimeter, and there are some exciting scenarios that develop late in games against the higher-level CPU. I’m sympathetic to the developers in this regard, as compensating for user input in a tightly packed game like hockey is a tough thing, but this version does it better than last year.
It should also be mentioned that EA has taken its first steps into educating the casual users, as the new on-ice trainer attempts some on-the-fly training. The basic concept is that the game will provide feedback on face-offs, shot lanes and positioning, often suggesting what you should do or why something bad happened. Frankly, it’s a lot take in for a new user, I’d say, but the attempt is noble. I’ve heard some users saying it gave them an anchor point in the game, and EA has needed to try this sort of thing for a while. Hopefully more contextual explanations and drills outside of games are added to this going forward.
What EA did get right with NHL 15, by and large, was the presentation. The arenas felt alive in a way that they hadn’t before, as the crowd was raucous and loud. Even the minor details like bench equipment and scratches on the plexiglass looked cool. This year, the devs have added even more to each arena, which ends up having a meaningful net benefit. There are now mascots for all teams that have them, so you’ll see Finn the Whale in Vancouver or Thunderbug in Tampa Bay. These mascots are great, as they jump around to pump up the crowd or pound a drum in sync with the audio. Very cool. You’ll even see them get sad when goals are scored, which always makes me die a little inside.
The arenas also feature increased details in other areas, such as netting behind the glass, improved scoreboards and specific building features. This means the lighted stanchions in Rogers Arena will flare up when the Canucks score, or the canon will fire in Columbus when the Blue Jackets put one in. The crowd continues to be awesome, too, with some funny signs and props in the crowd and a lively feel that really has no equal in other sports products.
Players also benefit from some sharper faces and unique equipment, which helps star players stand out a bit more than before. Beards are now a prominent feature in the game, and this is one of those things that goes a long way to removing the uncanny valley effect on many players. It’s certainly not the best beard tech in the business, but now someone like Joe Thornton actually resembles his real life self, as the scruffy beard hides some of the “plastic videogame man” face. Beards will also grow longer during playoff runs, too, which is a nice little detail.
The three-man team on commentary continues to do its thing, with lots of platitudes and generalities from the whole team. There is slightly more commentary than before, but it really does feel like one of those iterative things where the audio team will just add a bit more each year, but it doesn’t really change the overall feel. What is better is that most arenas now have authentic goal music, so you’ll hear Chicago’s “Chelsea Dagger” or a variant of New York’s “Let’s Go Rangers,” for example. These all sound good when paired up with the many authentic goal horns.
What hurt NHL 15 so much was the lack of modes and features, and that’s something that was clearly taken to heart by the folks at EA Burnaby. Basic modes such as Play Now, Season, Playoff and NHL Moments Live are present and accounted for, but so is a fulsome practice mode and shootout mode. The practice mode allows you to work with various player counts and on-ice scenarios, and you can even practice your goaltending if you want. Shootout mode remains fun, but switching to manual goaltending does break the CPU somewhat.
Be-A-Pro benefits from basic features that it should have had last year, such as support for CHL teams, the ability to simulate shifts and proper coach feedback. Starting on a minor league team is a welcome return, as is the absolutely necessary sim-to-shift option. Now you can see your guy hanging over the boards and jumping on when it’s his turn, and all of that looks quite good. Coach feedback is separated more clearly now, and you get more of it, but it’s just as inconsistent and wacky in the grading as it ever was. The one wrinkle for Be-A-Pro is the progression system (sponsored by Gatorade… yeesh), which allows your character to progress by what you do. So if you hit a lot and pass well, just those stats will go up. If you take penalties, your discipline goes down. It ends up working well, and all of these returning elements end up making Be-A-Pro feel fresh again.
Be-A-GM returns as well, with a much better hub interface for quickly managing your team and switching to your minor league affiliate. There is still the ability to put players on the trading block, assign your scout and demote players. Fantasy draft is now a very welcome option for some users, as well. What’s new is the “morale” system, which seems to crib from NBA 2K in some ways by having your players react to on-ice play, management decisions or the fate of their teammates.
I actually thought this was a fairly strong addition to the mode, as it’s very easy to get in and out of the interface and have chats with your players about how they’re feeling. The responses all end up getting quite generic, but you essentially want to manage a player’s happiness by keeping his friends on the team happy and giving him ice time. It was even cool to hold team meeting before a game and keep messaging my sub-.500 team with a line about “not being satisfied with being the underdog.” After a few games, everyone on the team agreed with the message and bought in. I don’t expect that this feature would hold up perfectly over the long term, but some unpredictability meant I had to learn what each player wanted to hear, which is a cool approach. Even when simulating games, the morale system is always present, with pop-ups that tell you what players are feeling or how they’re reacting to events. It’s smart design.
Hockey Ultimate Team remains a fixture in NHL 16, and those who like the mode will continue to like it, I’m sure. It now features single-player seasons, so you can go against various CPU teams to gain coins. This ends up creating a lower barrier for some players who were intimidated by online play. The ability to play a friend is still there, and the interface feels easier to navigate, allowing me to get from point to point quickly. As an aside, the menu-based tutorial pop-ups are well done this year, subtly guiding you and telling you what you need to know.\
The big story for online is, unsurprisingly, the return of the EASHL. The beloved mode now features a class-based system for players, which means you’ll be choosing pre-defined loadouts that have been created by the developers. Some stats, like speed, have been flattened across all classes, but the power forward, for instance, is going to have a distinct hitting advantage over just about everyone else. He’ll suffer in terms of passing and wrist shot, but everything is a trade-off. I personally love this approach, as it allows each class to feel distinct and have a specific area or two where they excel. This does mean a loss of some dynamism in the EASHL games you’ll play, but it keeps things focused on skill and not on unlocks and boosts (which are completely gone this year).
The co-op experience of EASHL remains a real treat in modern gaming, as there is nothing quite like teaming up with your buddies to try and improve each season and win some trophies. A small “badge” system has been added for each player, which gives you kind of a prestige goal to shoot for. The removal of the carrot-on-a-stick approach to boosts and unlocks may actually bother some folks who want the grind, but count me in the camp who appreciates EA’s new approach.
Games generally play quite well online for EASHL, but input lag and disconnections have shown up the odd time. It’s not an every game kind of thing, but it’s enough to be bothersome. Let’s hope EA is monitoring this and making improvements. What needs immediate improvement is the goalie control when playing with six players, as the “enhanced” controls have made it quite difficult to focus on the puck. The movement feels jittery, and your goalie will often end up facing the wrong way. It should be hard position to play — no doubt — but you shouldn’t feel helpless when a player approaches from the half boards. Additionally, the poke check needs a major tuner overhaul to balance it out for online play.
Other online modes include versus, shootout and online team play. All of these function roughly as they have in the past, with leaderboard support and the ability to use your online character in OTP games. Everything ran relatively well from what I played.
So NHL 16 has arrived, and it’s brought back most of what was painfully absent from last year’s product. It doesn’t really solve the few riddles of the NHL franchise, such as some bothersome AI habits and a lack of new modes, but it does bring back one of the best multiplayer experiences in recent memory. The EASHL is clearly going in a skill-based direction, and the game is better for it. Modes like Be-A-Pro and Be-A-GM have been given a few new reasons to check them out, and the overall presentation is better than before, especially with the arena details, mascots, goal music and playoff beards.
If you took a pass on last year’s game, NHL 16 is certainly worth a look. It’s got enough modes to justify the asking price this time around, and the gameplay fits into those modes well enough that everyone should find something, whatever their skill level.
Score: 7.5 (Good)