The transition to the current generation of consoles has been particularly rough on NHL - the one and only hockey sim left on the market. After missing launch, the series launched to poor reviews and fan discontent. The NHL team apologized and promised to turn things around for NHL 16. Have they? For the most part, yes.
This year's version has everything that should have been in last year's version, NHL's team-based EA Sports Hockey League foremost among them. But lest you think you're paying $60 just to get everything that was cut, EA Canada has gone ahead and made at least one notable addition to each mode. And in the case of the EASHL, it's been completely revamped.
Given that, It's probably best to start with the EASHL. An online team-based mode in which groups of up to six players take on other teams, the EASHL has been thoroughly revamped for NHL 16. Classes have taken the place of the old XP system, introducing familiar archetypes like Sniper, Two-Way Forward, and Grinder that can be selected at will before a match. No doubt there will be people who miss having complete control over their characters, but I personally think it's a change for the better. Gone are the days where you would start at 61 OVR and find yourself completely unable to play with higher level characters; and while the minute level of control may be missed, it's considerably more balanced and accessible. Now, when you see what another team brings to the table before you match, you can guess at their strategy based on their team composition. It's the sort of thing you like to see in competitive games.
On top of the new classes, EA Canada has brought back Online and Offline Shootouts, a team practice mode, badges, and random drop-in play. It's the latter feature that stands to give EASHL some real legs, removing one of the largest barriers to entry - getting together a team. This is made possible in large part by the classes, which makes it easy to build a coherent team with a minimum of effort and communication. Suffice it to say, if I ended up spending a significant time with NHL 16, it will be with the EASHL, which was sorely missed in NHL 15.
The other modes are a little more up and down. Be A Pro has a completely revamped feedback and progression system, awarding grades and XP based on your performance under a wide variety of categories, with micro-objectives including using the stick lift on defense, getting breakout passes, and taking well-aimed shots. The feedback can be frustratingly general at times - it's not going to tell you how to do a Stick Lift in a faceoff if you don't already know how -- but it serves to provide some structure to what you do on the ice. It also doubles as a kind of training mode for the EASHL, giving you a feel for what you should be doing when you're playing with a human team.
All in all, it's a good addition, but it's not without its problems. As its currently constructed, it tends to be overly punitive, harshly punishing mistakes with big grade drops. The averaging also doesn't seem quite right - I've played a near perfect game in which I've earned a goal and two assists while winning the majority of my faceoffs and still only earned a B. It's worth noting that it seems balanced for the simulation mode in Be a Pro, which features somewhat longer periods and more rigid shifts due to the Sim a Shift feature (which is back, thank god). It's a worthwhile feature for sure, but it could use a bit more tuning. The progression meanwhile, is based on what you accomplish on the ice, with stat growth being molded to the skills and stats you use the most, such as taking slap shots versus wrist shots. Again, some people may dislike the lack of minute control they have over their stats, but I'm fine with it. Manually assigning points is both boring and unrealistic, and from what I can see, the stat growth is relatively equal. And for those who want more control over their character's development, it's possible to put emphasis on certain stats on a week-to-week basis via player training, which allows you to pick which stats you want to develop.
On the GM side of things, there's a new morale system in which players will alternately complain about and praise your work. A mix of the player conversation system in NBA 2K and the morale system in FIFA, you will find yourself engaging with your players on a fairly regular basis. When I promoted the Wild's Zach Parise to captain, he was naturally pleased, reminding me on several occasions that I'm a great GM (in the exact same conversation... the morale can get a little repetitive). On the flipside, a relatively highly rated player who was repeatedly scratched eventually became disgruntled, with the probable result being that he would eventually demand a trade. When put against similar systems in other sports games, it's nothing special, limited as it is by NHL's typically drab menus and simplistic conversations. But it does add a bit of spice to Be a GM, especially if you find yourself on a bit of a losing streak.
Surveying NHL's core modes, it's clear that EA Canada wants to not only bring these modes back up to their usual standard, but push them above and beyond. Of all the modes, the EASHL gets the clearest and most interesting revamp. Be a Pro is slightly less dramatic, but it's very nice to have minor leagues and the draft position tournament back, and the in-game feedback does a good job of getting you to stick to your position, even if it's overly punitive at times. The only mode that remains relatively unchanged is Hockey Ultimate Team - a decent if rather ordinary take on the Ultimate Team mode - and even that now has single player seasons for those who would rather battle against the computer than play online; keeping in mind, of course, that you're apt to drop 12 goals on the lower difficulty levels. All in all, I'm happy to have pretty much everything back (RIP GM Connected), and that the additions add rather than detract from the overall experience.
Ultimately, though, NHL's biggest strength is the game on the ice. This week I've been playing a lot of Be a GM; not because Be a GM is an amazing mode - it's pretty average as far career modes go - but because it's just fun to play NHL. The action is fast, the computer is tough but reasonably fair, the hits feel good, and the games are done in 15 to 20 minutes. The changes that have been made to the overall game are comparatively subtle, being based around the little things like passes, gathering up the puck, dekes, and locomotion, but they really add up. Compared to the slow, often chunky experience that was NHL 15, NHL 16 feels so much faster and smoother.
And yet, there are points where I'm not sure how I feel about NHL's gameplay. A lot of familiar concepts are there for hockey fans, but it verges on feeling just a bit too much like a video game. I think it's the fact that I'm still playing this game the same way that I was in 2012 for the most part, and that one timers are still money in the bank. Granted, slapshots from the point and the one timers are quite reliable in the real NHL as well, but it often seems as if EA's sim is missing those individual moments of brilliance that make teams like the Chicago Blackhawks so mesmerizing to watch. I just can't shake the nagging feeling that it's not that different from the last-gen versions. It seems ill-advised to try and rebuild things from the ground up, but the next step remains elusive. At the very least, EA Canada can start by improving the deking, which still feels painfully canned and artificial.
For now, NHL 16 is fast, frenetic, and just close enough to the real thing that you can suspend your disbelief and just enjoy the back and forth of video game hockey. What's more, this version benefits tremendously from the added improvements to the presentation. Mascots are in now, and so are little touches like the smoking shark head in San Jose and the lighthouse in Minnesota. But most important of all... they got the goal music right. I haven't checked every team, but thus far the horns and the music have been accurate for every team that I've played. It almost, almost, makes up for the fact that I still can't set the power play and intermission music via custom soundtracks - a depressing omission that can be blamed on the current-gen consoles more than NHL (at least according to EA). Still, it makes for a more dynamic atmosphere; and for hockey purists, details like these matter. When you score, you want to hear the right song and the right goal horn. Credit to NHL for finally getting this right after all these years.
These changes add up to a package that I have much easier time recommending this time around. After the disaster that was NHL 15, hockey fans will understandably be feeling a little burned, but it's worth putting aside your misgivings and giving NHL 16 a shot. It's not quite the massive upgrade I was hoping for when the series made the jump to the current-generation consoles, but in the end, it's does what it needs to do to recover from last year's debacle and continue moving forward.
The skill sticks are still great after this year. As for the menus, they can still be a tad slow, but nowhere near as bad as in previous years.
As usual, HUT and the EASHL will be the main sources of NHL's long-term appeal, with Be a Pro and Be a GM hovering a notch below.
Like I said, the best part about NHL 16's sound design is the accurate goal music. Praise to the hockey gods that they finally got this right. The commentary is repetitive.
The arenas look fantastic, the broadcast package is sharp, and it looks great when looking at it from the top-down perspective. The character models for the regular players, though - the ones who didn't get the scanning treatment - are very uncanny valley.
There's a lot to like about NHL 16. EA Canada has worked diligently to bring back almost all of the features that were missing last year, with Be a Pro and EASHL being notably improved. The presentation has also received a really nice bump, and the gameplay on the ice is smoother and more exciting than ever. While it's more ambitious than it looks, though, the next step remains elusive. For now, we'll just have to settle for a really solid hockey sim.