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NHL 16 review: Rebuilding year

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NHL 16 is the best hockey game EA has put out in three years, but if you've been keeping score at home that isn't saying much.

The Good

NHL 16 gives hockey fans the next best thing to going to a live game, from a broadcast-quality presentation to vastly improved gameplay experience and selection of game modes compared to last year. The On-Ice Trainer is a smart and welcome addition.

The Bad

While gameplay has improved, a handful of frustrations linger. Game styles and difficulty settings could use some refinement and the AI can sometimes feel overpowered. Player positioning is also occasionally off and some button assignments can result in accidental commands.

The Bottom Line

It's not without its shortcomings, but NHL 16 is a significant step in the right direction, laying the groundwork for even more improvement in the future.

Unfortunately for hockey fans, the one and only game in town hasn't exactly been living up to the excitement and fervor of its subject matter.

If you recall, NHL 14 felt like a cut-and-paste affair. It represented the end of an era, riding out on the fumes of a franchise that was in desperate need of a refresh. And then last year -- well if EA could take last year's release back I'm sure it would. NHL 15 was barebones at launch, missing pivotal game modes and features. It felt more like a demo than a fully fledged $60 game. Diehard fans of the series took their pitchforks and torches to the Internet. They were out for blood.

Months after its debut, NHL 15 began to resemble something of its former self, but was never able to get over the initial shock of its disappointing premiere on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Chalk NHL 15 up as a learning experience. The Vancouver-based EA Canada studio took last year's teardown to heart and focused on the fan reaction as motivation for this year's game. For what it's worth, this new philosophy, as much of a fan service as it might be, has netted a much better hockey videogame.

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EA Sports

There's a lot inside NHL 16 that has reinstated my faith in the franchise. The whole package isn't without its fair share of controller-snapping frustrations, but that's to be expected: We're in a rebuilding year here.

Just like the game played on the ice, NHL 16 is all about the little things. These tiny details and notions either play in the favor or against the final product, but it'll be the game's updates and future editions that define this generation's legacy.

But first thing's first. NHL 16 looks fantastic and captures the best parts of live hockey really well. There is a spectacular amount of realism here that emulates broadcast-quality hockey to an almost identical level. The presentation takes last year's solid effort further, refining the commentary system and adding in some needed dialogue fillers where appropriate. The best play-by-play man in the business, Mike "Doc" Emrick, is back at the helm, leading the NBC Sports packaging.

Speaking of live game realism, the crowds and arenas have also gotten a polish. The majority of the league's goal songs have been added to the game, including mascots and signature arena novelties like Tampa Bay's overhead lightning bolt conductor and San Jose's massive hanging shark head. It's a great feeling to score one in your home arena and hear that familiar goal song played over an instant replay montage.

I may be nitpicking here a bit, but I think crowd behavior could use some tweaking. It's not so much the animations, but instead their audible reaction that needs work. They just don't sound as engaged as they should be, especially during intense overtime situations. There is a definitive arrangement of crowd noise -- peaks and valleys in a live hockey game -- that is simply absent here. A breakaway in overtime should have an entire building screaming from the top of their collective lungs, but you just don't get that heightened sense of importance in NHL 16. Even an overtime win in the playoffs doesn't result in the deafening reaction it rightfully should. And for whatever reason, the correct goal song doesn't even play after an overtime goal ends a game either. Like I said, nitpicking.

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EA Sports

But let's move on to the gameplay -- the stuff you'll be interacting most with in NHL 16. New this year is a graphic overlay system called On-Ice Trainer. These adaptive text and button prompts guide you through most of the controls in the game. The trainer also takes the form of passing cones and goal hotspots to help you pass and shoot more accurately. I'll admit, the first time I saw this in action I was turned off, but now with dozens of games under my belt I love it. (And yes, you can turn it off.)

For people who constantly find themselves asking, "what button does what?" the trainer is a godsend. I've always felt the series has always been ultra-accessible, but it becomes increasingly difficult to master. So while the trainer does a solid job getting you started with basic to advanced control tips, I wish it continued well beyond my skill level. I'll see the computer AI do things that I want to do myself: special dekes, chopping at a loose puck and other maneuvers, but it's all stuff the trainer doesn't cover. At a certain point, it just leaves you hanging.

This year more so than ever, I've paid a lot of attention to the different play styles and difficulty settings offered in the game. The default offline setup is set to Pro level and Simulation play style. For what it's worth, the online ranked skill level is set to All-Star and play style is set to Hardcore. Somewhere in the middle of these two is where real NHL hockey exists. Simulation is too generous with pass completions and one-timers while Hardcore has a tendency to feel slow and lethargic in certain areas of the ice. In my opinion it fails to properly capture the true speed of the game and the split-second reactions it requires.

If you want to become competitive online it's in your best interest to play with these same settings offline. However, with the All-Star/Hardcore settings come a handful of moments when you feel handcuffed. Often I feel like there's not enough time to make a pass or get a quick shot off.

EA Canada describes the All-Star/Hardcore setting as the most authentic hockey experience offered in the game. I can't say I assent wholeheartedly, but the foundation is there. Last year I was convinced there was a broken framework of hockey in place, but now I think with the right amount of tweaking and slider adjustment, the perfect blend of fun and realism can be achieved.

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EA Sports

But going back to online play, my time with the game was equal parts solid competition and mounds of frustration. When the On-Ice Trainer isn't there (you can't use it in ranked games), passing quickly devolves into a crap shoot. I'll know exactly where I want the puck to go, but then I somehow send it through my defensive players and back down the ice.

Too often, I find players in the offensive zone don't skate to the right position when you've got the puck pinned against the boards. They should be waiting along the boards for a kick pass. Also, there appears to still be a number of "glitch goals," plaguing the game -- moves that you can robotically practice and perform that usually result in a goal.

I think it's safe to say some of the gameplay wonkiness is reserved for online play, though there are issues that will pop up offline too. Like I touched on earlier, it feels as though the AI is faster than you, able to send quicker passes out in a shorter amount of time, clear the puck instantly or connect on more one-timers than you're seemingly able to.

I also find that the correct contextual player isn't always the next one to get selected when switching teammates. When defending, you'll occasionally pass the puck to no one because you got caught switching players with the idea of intercepting a pass instead (the button that switches players on defense also passes on offense).

Again, the right foundation is there, it's just the little things that needed tweaking here and there.

Defense, for one, has gotten that much-needed tweaking I'm talking about. Last year's game didn't care how digilent of a defensive-minded player you were. This year is different. A solid defender can be a pain for players who rely too heavily on over-the-top dekes and passes. Poke checks and stick lifts aren't the bastion of penalties they once were, not just because they've lowered the sensitivity of infraction frequency, but because these mechanics now have a more logical place in the game.

If you're worried about the hangover of last year's overall disappointing gameplay lingering in NHL 16, rest assured. It's very apparent there's been a massive adjustment to the flow of the game. It just feels right. Does the puck stand up on its side a bit too much still? Yes. Does it seem to bounce too easily from time to time? Yes, but we can't have everything in life.

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EA Sports

NHL 15 felt like a ghost town in terms of game modes and NHL 16 populates that void -- perhaps not at the level it once was, but enough to avoid feeling cheated.

The EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) has been completely revamped for the better by removing the mind-numbing grind players once lamented.

Be a Pro mode is now my favorite way to play the game. You create a player, earn a spot on a team and progress through an awesome combination of tiny in-game achievements aided by the new On-Ice Trainer. Everything from taking well-aimed shots to breaking up scoring chances have point valuations that contribute to the type of player your rookie will mature into. It's probably the best way to get acquainted with NHL 16, since you'll learn the ropes and understand the skills you'll need to join the EASHL or build your Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT).

HUT, the game's dream-team-building sim, now lets you participate in single player seasons and offers more of a grip on individual player management.

There's also the Be a GM mode if you're interested in more granular player and franchise management, playoff and season modes, shootouts, a more useful practice mode and NHL Moments Live, which recreates real-life NHL situations and has you take over at pivotal moments in games.

Let's be honest, the only direction the NHL series could have gone was up. But NHL 16 is way more promising than just a simple do-over. If the messaging is authentic and this is in fact a new feedback-focused age for the series, there's plenty of potential for the franchise to ascend to the juggernaut it once was.

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EA Sports