Virtual playoff beards—the next generation of video games is here.
EA Sports has dominated the virtual hockey world with its NHL series, but NHL 15 stood out as a disappointment for hockey game fans. A number of features were removed from the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game, and thus the overall experience suffered. This year the company worked closely with fans to ensure a return to form, and NHL 16 is mostly a success in that area. It includes plenty of modes, a slick presentation, and dynamic gameplay on the ice. It still stumbles in a few spots, but NHL 16 reminds us that EA Sports and developer EA Canada know how to make a fun hockey game.
NHL 16 offers an abundance of game modes, but the first order of business is to head out on to the ice for a regular match. I picked my favorite team—the Chicago Blackhawks—and competed in a back-and-forth match with the Tampa Bay Lightning in a recreation of this year's Stanley Cup finals. I quickly learned that I'm terrible at defense, but the game encourages player growth. Throughout the match there are on-screen cues with suggestions for specific plays or decisions. The game will tell players to pass to a forward or body check an opponent based on the situation, and it instills fundamental techniques for newcomers. Of course all of that can be turned off, but it's a welcome tool for those who want to improve in NHL 16.
The presentation in the game bolsters the on-ice experience, with solid commentary from Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro. The game attempts to mimic the NBC Sports broadcasts, even with real footage of the announcers. It toes the line between awkward and authentic, but for the most part NHL 16 nails the broadcast recreation. The visual package also compliments the presentation—no doubt about it, NHL 16 is a great-looking hockey game. There are technical hitches here and there, though, including one moment when one of my players jumped a good 10-15 feet into the air. I know hockey players are athletic, but that might be pushing it.
Outside of regular matches, NHL 16 touts plenty of options for players. One of the main draws is the revamped Be a Pro mode, in which players create a noteworthy prospect and attempt to rise through the ranks of NHL stardom. There's a certain satisfaction to playing smaller games in an effort to raise your NHL draft stock, and then it's time to prove your worth in the preseason before making it to the squad. Players take control of the prospect in these games and attempt to listen to coach feedback to get a better grade throughout the match. If the coach says you need to pass the puck more often, then, well, pass the puck more often.
Unfortunately the grading scale seems arbitrary, no matter how the player performs. I've gone entire matches listening to coach feedback, only to end with a B- after scoring a goal and assisting two others. In addition, there's not much to the Be a Pro mode off the ice. Players can choose training sessions in between matches, but that's about it. As much fun as it is to control the prospect on the ice and see his growth, the rest of the Be a Pro mode feels largely hollow.
The other noteworthy offline mode is Be a GM, in which players occupy the role of the man at the top. That means budget management, scouting, and player morale are the biggest concerns. The mode focuses on the micro-management aspect of being a sports GM, which may be perfect or overly complex depending on the audience. There are plenty of options at the player's disposal, though, and locker room chemistry in particular requires careful consideration of team captains, cuts/trades, and other roster moves. NHL players can even request meetings, which may have an even larger impact on team morale. The level of depth is impressive, and I can appreciate it from a distance even though it's not my kind of mode.
NHL 16 includes an online multiplayer suite, with shootouts, traditional competitive matches, team play, and the online seasons of the Hockey Ultimate Team mode. The clear highlight is the return of the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL). It allows players to create a character and take them online to compete in team matches with a group of friends or strangers with the drop-in quick match option. Prior to each match, players choose positions and then classes within those positions. If you want to be a sharpshooter who focuses on goal scoring, that's totally fine. Just select the appropriate class.
The game shines in these highly competitive matches with other players—in fact, the first two matches I played in the EASHL were intense overtime nail-biters. As players spend more time in the mode, they earn XP and badges as a form of progression. It adds an addictive quality to the online mode—as much fun as it is to just jump into a match and play with others, having some kind of extra incentive helps. Now I'm tempted to create my own online club to keep that addiction going.
Despite the draw of the EASHL and the core gameplay in NHL 16, there's a layer of familiarity that might turn away some folks. But after the missteps of last year's series entry, NHL 16 represents a step back in the right direction for EA's virtual hockey franchise and its fanbase. Some of the game modes feel underdeveloped in key areas, namely Be a Pro, but the variety on display and the hook of online multiplayer make NHL 16 an easy recommendation.