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.
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.
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.
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.