Few video game sports titles have had a longer history than NHL. Stretching all the way back to the early 16 bit days, the NHL series has been known for bringing quality hockey simulation to the bedroom. For one of the first times you got to pick your favourite team, and watch all your favourite players rise through a season and make it into the playoffs. It wasn’t until the series made its jump to 3D that the games really became popular and successful. As the changes became less graphical, EA tried to continue encouraging sales of their games by adding new modes and further honing their engine.
The jump from last generation to this one, however, wasn’t met with as much critical praise as previous years. NHL 15 came out last year with an immediate spotlight on its lack of modes, missing popular favourites like Online Team Play where everyone on both teams are a different online player. While that specific mode was patched in later, many other examples were not and the game remained feeling empty when compared to the fantastic NHL 14. NHL 16 aimed to correct their misfire, a goal they manage to achieve, but not without sacrificing stability for greater depth.
When you boot up the main menu of NHL16, you’ll be polarized by the number of options (It could be worse. It could be Star Wars Battlefront but more on that in the new year) with the most attractive option being to play now whatever real world game is next for your favourite team. Beside that you can choose to continue whatever you were doing last time. You can start a season where you play through a year of NHL, but if you’re going to do that you might as well play the Be A GM mode where you do the same thing while also dealing with the more administrative tasks like maintaining budget and hiring staff. There’s also Be A Pro mode, where you play one player on a team, and try to rise through the ranks. There’s shoot out modes, and a slew of online modes like Versus and Team Play. There’s even a trading card game where you build your ultimate fantasy team.
Even once you’re on the ice, there’s no lack of options. You have three different control schemes, pandering to both the fans of classic Super Nintendo NHL players, and those who have become accustomed to the newer Skill Stick controls where you slap the right stick like it’s your hockey stick. There’s also options for period length, a difficulty setting, and in case you land somewhere in between difficulties you can tweak seemingly a hundred different AI tendency sliders. You can set strategies for your team, and make the game play exactly like you want it to.
And the gameplay is slick. Easy to pick up for beginners, and hard to master. Scoring a goal feels great every single time, and every time your goalie misses a save your heart will sink. There’s even an option to play the goalie, but it often felt that you were only really positioning the goalie to be in front of the puck and hoping the dice roll would go your way. Playing offense, the scoring is hard but not impossible. With a bit of practice you’ll be able to get complicated shots in on purpose, but a lot of goals you’ll see will feel equally unearned, bugging to fly into the net completely against all sense of logic or physics.
Wonky goals aren’t the only bugs you’ll find in this game either. I couldn’t start a Be a Pro game because the onscreen keyboard would freeze my entire Xbox. One bug I came across was so prevalent I was shocked it still hadn’t been fixed so late into release. I would consistently get a penalty and expect to lose a person, only to lose two people and be at 5on3. Then when my powerplay was over, I’d get my fourth person back but my fifth person would be gone the rest of the game, usually resulting in my utter defeat. What’s worse is when I came across the very same bug in an online Team Play mode, making the game virtually unplayable.
And it wasn’t just bugs that kept the online from being virtually unplayable. There were little safeguards in the Online Team Play to stop players from pausing every few seconds or when a person would leave. The game would place a player in Goalie with no way to kick him out for bad behaviour even if he just kept leaving the net to skate around the ice and try to fight people. Also one time I was goalie and the game suddenly glitched me out of the net, sliding around the ice completely against my control while the other team took about ten shots at our net at point blank range and missed every time.
The game is beautiful to look at, with the moment to moment gameplay looking real enough to fool someone stepping into the room that you might actually be watching a live game. That illusion is quickly lost as soon as the gameplay zooms in, however, for close ups. Player’s look like they’re supposed to, but their flesh tones still aren’t quite realistic yet. Also the immersion can be blown completely when a player does some wonky animation completely out of the blue. Bad animation was in the minority, though, for the most part as generally the movements of the players were consistent and seamless.
There were strange jarring moments where the game would green screen the commentators in front of the game, which felt like a balancing act between dorky and kinda cool. One of the big touted feature this year was the added Mascots to the game, even though in all practicality they are little more than anyone else in the stands. The crowd are a fitting jump in quality from the last generation and the presentation of the HUD gives the final sprinkles on this sundae to create an overall authentic hockey experience.
The sound, much like the graphics discussed, are all things excellent, exceptional, and authentic. From the cracks of the sticks on the ice to the ping of pucks off the goal post, you’ll feel completely immersed in the experience, and like you’re actually a player on an NHL ice rink. The audience is loud and booming, swelling realistically to the events of the game, and getting discouraged when things go badly for their favourite teams.
The commentary does a servicable job of describing the innumerable events that happen on screen, and while it’s surprising how much they’ll comment on, no matter how obscure the ting might be. They even recognize the ongoign performance of individual players, however it doesn’t take long in the game before you start getting very used to the same comments again and again in one game. Perhaps if there were multiple recorded commentators and they were chosen at random for matches, that might alleviate some of the problem but as it is I haven’t noticed any major improvement to the commentary in years.
NHL 16 succeeds perhaps best in this category, with so many different ways to play the game that it could last you long after the next game has come out. For those that just want to play local games with their friends, they could probably get their money’s worth from just doing that. If you wanted to lead your favourite team through 25 seasons then Be a GM mode is there for you. Then do it again with a different team for a different experience. In the Be a Pro mode there are options that range from choosing which team to start on, to playing in the minors and having to work your way up to being drafted, both giving their own unique experiences. All of these are games in themselves.
If you’re an online player then there’s plenty of competitive options to keep your interest even despite the consistent bugs and poor online community. There’s a lot of fun to be had there when things work right and you could spend a lot of time making friends and improving your win ratio. Local coop is also supported online in versus mode, but was disappointingly absent from the Online Team Play. Despite that, there’s a lot to be done in NHL 16 for a player going solo or for playing together. EA Games did a good job of correcting their mistakes from last year, providing more options than ever before. But for all the depth they brought to the franchise this year, they had to sacrifice almost just as much in stability.