History has not been kind to many games in EA Sports’ NHL series. Last year’s NHL 15 proved another disappointment, dropping a number fan-favourite modes and unexciting, sometimes buggy gameplay. After such a sound drubbing from critics and fans alike, EA Canada have spent the last twelve months attempting to address the laundry list of complaints – and their hard work is readily apparent.
From the moment you hit the ice you can feel the sheer amount of under-the-hood tweaks and fixes doing their jobs, but some familiarity for veterans does remain. Some aspects, like checking for instance, have been nerfed quite substantially. They’re now more scuffles and less apocalyptic, body-shattering takedowns. Fights do, however, still remain and they’re super fun. Players will come away from any throwdown with bruises and blood pouring from painful looking gashes.
Shots on goal are as varied as they are hard work to set up. You can still achieve craziness like slap shots from the point or a lucky pass deflection that finds the back of the net but the more traditional goal-making plays are still on deck too. The defensive AI is pretty on point this time around too and flatly refuse to make things easy for you, especially when you take the difficulty up to Pro or All-Star where they become rink-dominating god-kings playing keep away with the puck.
Those who are new to the game are helped along by a skillfully implemented system of on-screen cues that provide all sorts of valuable information. It will tell you where your player needs to be on the ice when defending to avoid an offside call, which passing lanes are open, when you should be shooting. Being able to use all of this information and pull of a stunning play with little experience behind you is a real treat. It’s a fluid tutorial and one that makes learning how to play the game both fun and rewarding.
Let’s talk about the multiplayer because there’s no mode that NHL 16 gets more right. You can jump into a game either competitively or co-operatively with friends. Generally games don’t last more than about 20 minutes and if you’re stacked up against a mate with some talent you’ll find yourselves locked in a death duel full of exciting, incredibly tense play. And the best part? You can play online or in couch co-op. It’s a joy to play and I’m so glad EA Canada included it because no-one is doing sports sim multiplayer this well right now.
Visually, the game is not what I’d call spectacular but it certainly isn’t hideous by any stretch either. The crowds, the signage and ads floating around the edges of the rink and even rinks themselves are rather lovely – especially when you nail a goal after some tricky play and the whole place explodes. The sound of your skates carving through ice, the roar of the crowd, and even the expempary attention to detail in providing the full NBC-branded televised game experience, there’s a lot of solid work here. However, the player models don’t really fair as well – while the damage models are, as mentioned, fun and suitably bloody, they all still have that dead-eyed thousand yard stare of animated models going through the motions. They’re certainly not as lifelike as the models we saw in Madden 16 only a few weeks back.
The noticeable problems don’t really stop there, however. Just in terms of play, found it occasionally quite difficult to tell players apart due to very similar jerseys, and many of the individual player stats are so close together that any team advantage disappears and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference which team you pick. In fairness, hockey has always been a nightmare for developers attempting to properly demonstrate the specific talents of a given athlete and the problem of distinguishing one player from another has been around a long damn time.
The outstanding multiplayer modes aside, there’s a feeling of mild stagnancy attached to the other modes on offer. The Be A Pro and Be A GM modes have been around for years and, with Ultimate Team, are the core of the game’s single-player options. They’re all vastly improved upon the versions found in NHL 15 but they just aren’t that exciting anymore. There are only so many years in a row I can choose the Leafs and agitatedly grind my way through a monumental 82 game season with my custom player. There’s no online leagues or tourneys either which is a final holdover from last year’s unfortunate cuts. I was also disappointed to see that the character creator wouldn’t let me create an utterly hideous mutt of a character, only really letting me change things like gender (which was actually great!), skin colour and gear options along with a selection of pre-rendered faces.
A handful of bugs plagued my playthrough as well but they were rarely enough to derail the experience – in the game’s opening match (last year’s final between Tampa Bay and Chicago) one of my players bugged and started skating resolutely into a wall. Switching control to him I found I’d been locked out and couldn’t move him any longer, thus I had to play the rest of the period a man down. Once we moved into the next period, however, he reset and all was well. In the same game, at one point Chicago’s goalie straight up disappeared allowing me to casually, confusedly, skate up and tap the puck in. Again, he was back after the instant replay reset their positions. These issues pop up here and there but, as I say, it’s rarely enough to derail your enjoyment.
The upshot of the modes on offer in NHL 16 is that EA Sports Hockey League is back after being a no-show last year. This mode allows you to play in a club of your own with your buddies in organised leagues every month. It’s amazing (just as long as the servers actually pull their weight when you need them to). There’s a new shift to wield player classes rather than levelling up which is a breath of fresh air indeed. This keeps online matches from devolving into an impenetrable wall of Level 99, 8 foot tall brick shithouses flattening you from the drop. Now you select from tough guys, snipers and other positions to put a competitive squad together and the game is much better for it.
Taken as a whole, NHL 16 finds a way to walk the line between pleasing the old guard and the new. Longtime fans will be pleased with the improvements over last year’s edition. New players will enjoy the way the game takes pains to introduce them to the rules in a way that isn’t overwhelming or dull. Everyone is allowed to have an off year. From here, the only way is up and I’m absolutely keen to see what EA Canada try next. Fresh ideas and innovation are what’s needed here and based on this, I think they’re up to the task.
Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Vast improvement over last year; EA Sports Hockey League is back!; Great multiplayer
Lowlights: Some bugs persist; Needs fresh modes badly
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: 17 September 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on PlayStation 4