Yikes. NHL 15 was not good; let’s get that out of the way now. In fact, it was a disaster thanks to the stripping of fan-favorite modes such as Battle for the Cup, OTP, Winter Classic, GM Connected, Shootout, Season Mode, Tournament Mode and EA Sports Hockey League. Thankfully, word got out before release and hopefully many were spared from the full-priced bare-bones package. It was decidedly atypical for NHL, a series that until then had been mostly great. Instead of NHL 15 signaling a renaissance of drivel, however, EA Canada is looking to make it a regrettable footnote and has gone back to the drawing board with NHL 16.
In fact, EA Canada has taken its fan criticism seriously to the point of actually bringing them in to help shape NHL 16. The “Game Changers” program allowed twelve members from the community to be given full access to the development process, ensuring the features delivered were in line with expectations. Not only were the Game Changers at their studio (and the studio in the Game Changers’ living rooms in some cases), but there has been an ongoing 24/7 Skype session to get real time feedback. Having the Game Changers as a resource ensured that EA would deliver the game the fans want instead of the executives.
The feature that most fans are clamoring to hear about is EASHL, so let’s begin with the fact that it has indeed returned to the series in NHL 16. The online team mode has been re-imagined to allow players to choose specialized player classes to deliver a balanced on-ice experience. The ability to play as a team as well as outright skill will be the determining factor in who wins. Be a GM mode has also returned and now for the first time each player on an NHL team has a different personality to manage. Trade demands, teammate relationships and more can be managed by adjusting rosters or calling team meetings. Be a Pro also makes an appearance, where on-ice actions directly influence earned attributes, ensuring a Pro reflects the way a player plays. Simming to the next shift and working your way up from a CHL rookie also make a return here. Rounding out the modes is Hockey Ultimate Team, now with improved management and the introduction of single player sessions to allow players to hone their skills before playing for stakes. Having some real, deep modes to sink your teeth into make NHL 16 indeed feel like a full-fledged game and not an overpriced demo.
Of course all the modes in the world couldn’t save bad gameplay, so thankfully NHL 16 features some of the best to ever grace the series. A new tool dubbed Precision Skating has been added that allows players to make refined movements with their skater, jumping quickly into passing lanes on defense or experiencing more effective power plays on offense. Puck pickups are now more seamless than ever before, with smoother transitions when receiving the puck no matter the position. Goalie controls also feel better before, with the aforementioned Precision Skating capturing the feel of a goaltender’s momentum, allowing players to decide whether to make high risk or controlled positional saves.
NHL 16 is also now more accessible than ever before. Let’s face it, there was a substantial learning curve for those just embarking on their virtual hockey career in prior games. With the addition of the Visual On-Ice Trainer, however, players can much more easily and entertainingly pick up the game. This new training tool adds visual aids projecting shooting targets, open teammates, passing lanes and more, giving a clearer picture on effective moves. More still, players will now receive coaching feedback with performance ratings after every shift.
On the presentation side of things, Team Arenas are more authentic than ever before with genuine props and effects including team specific celebrations, mascots, chants and props. As a die-hard Arizona Coyotes fan, I can only comment on the realism of the home experience of that hockey club, but it was extremely impressive. Gila River Arena actually looks like Gila River Arena, the fans wear a varied amount of team gear, our mascot Howler is always romping around the stands and scoring a goal triggers the famous howl and goal song “Howlin’ for You” from The Black Keys (I don’t envy the person that has to secure the rights to goal songs like this). The only inauthentic things about the experience is the fact that none of the fans are wearing the new uniforms (which I’m assuming is because the game was already designed before the reveal and the arena is inexplicably called “Arizona Arena” instead of “Gila River Arena” (perhaps because it’s named after a casino?). Still, these are fairly minor nitpicks and playing the game truly makes me feel like I’m at home with the pack.
Visually, the series looks better than ever with enhanced facial features and new equipment details from custom stick tape to tinted visors. Most importantly, however, players now grow accurate representations of beard patterns, length and thickness for individual players, which is quite staggering (and sad for those follically-challenged players) when you think about it. On the audio side of things, Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro are back commentating to fine effect. Sadly, however, EA Trax has been replaced with generic orchestrated music, which is maddening when Madden 16 (pun intended) finally restored them to that series.
NHL 16 is a triumphant return to form. After the debacle that was the razor-thin NHL 15, EA has restored all of the beloved modes to the game and they’re better than ever. More still, the game itself is markedly improved with slick mechanics, fantastic visuals and incredible detail to individual arenas. It’s healthy to be cautious after being burned just one year ago, but NHL 16 is an entirely different beast than its predecessor and deserves to be played by every virtual hockey fan.