In the mandatory initial matchup in NHL 16, I was forced to choose between last year’s Stanley Cup Final contenders. I had to back either the Chicago Blackhawks who I very much dislike, or the Tampa Bay Lightning who I am very ambivalent toward. Lightning it is.
I got throttled. It was bad. Somewhere mid-throttling, we’ll say the second period, I carried the puck offsides. Whoops. Later, I thought it might be funny to launch a post-whistle slapper at the goalie. I was immediately knocked on my ass. Then, I was cross-checked a few times for good measure. These avatars, like the real versions of people, take this sort of offense very seriously.
Anyone who grew up around a rink knows what unwritten rule I broke. You do not — I repeat: do not — direct the puck at the other team’s net after the whistle blows. NHL 16 didn’t tell me this. That’s significant because NHL 16 lays everything else out bare. If there’s something to learn, NHL 16 is going to teach it.
NHL 16 (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release: September 15, 2015
In a genre plagued by incremental increases, this is NHL 16‘s greatest offering: An on-ice trainer that goes above and beyond. Hockey is a sport that’s notorious for its inaccessibility to newcomers. Putting the biscuit in the basket is easy enough to understand, but where should my forwards be positioned when in the defensive zone? What kind of check should I execute when skating backward toward my goal?
This training aid helps refine gameplay on-the-fly. It kind of teaches hockey, but more importantly, it teaches how to play NHL 16. For instance, when skating into the offensive zone, a cone will appear that indicates what part of the shooting lane is open and what part is blocked. A target may show up in the corner of the goal to tell you the smartest place to aim.
Or, when playing defense, a box will cordon off part of the ice at your zone. Sticking to this area and covering the man in the box is what you’re supposed to do. That’s how hockey is played; NHL 16, simulation of hockey as it is, wants you to play it just like hockey.
Those are two examples, but this on-ice trainer permeates every second of gameplay until you don’t want it to anymore. It’s a good thing too. I imagine EA had grown tired of players wildly out of position trying to line up huge hits. That’s not how hockey looks, and it’s not how a digital representation of the game should look.
To its credit, the trainer doesn’t stick to a low-level understanding of hockey. If it detects a seasoned player is at the helm, it’ll start to adapt so as to offer more nuanced and advanced suggestions. Basically, everyone has something they can learn from this feature and it’s incredibly unintrusive despite constantly being on the screen. It’s the best part of NHL 16 because it actually enforces an understanding of doing what you’re doing.
The rest? Well, it’s what NHL 15 should’ve been. Maybe it’s unfair to hearken back to a previous game as a reference point, but fuck it. We make the rules around here. The on-ice product in NHL 16 is again solid and it includes the modes that last year’s game should have shipped with.
The actual hockey-playing in NHL 16 feels extremely similar to NHL 15. There are surely some physics and AI tweaks making ever-desired strides toward realism, but they feel mostly nominal. The game still plays well outside of the occasional rare physics bug. And this. Whatever the hell that was.
With regard to the modes, they were mostly done right this time ’round. Be a Pro allows the simulation of shifts until it’s your time to hit the ice again. (Curiously, the coach-assigned goals and ratings often seem off. Like, how do I have two goals and an assist, but a “C” ranking on offense for the game?)
Likewise, the EA Sports Hockey League has been largely straightened out. Gone are the days of maxing out player skill through real-world currency. Now, everyone has to define their aptitude via a class of player that they pick. It’s a smart design decision for the game’s leading cooperative mode — not to mention a surprisingly ungreedy one.
Be a GM rounds out the most interesting modes that NHL 16 has to show. In it, you eschew the skates for a suit and tie. You’re in control of an NHL franchise, and it’s up to you to trade, manage, and motivate players. Games are simulated via a coach’s drawing board where major events become markers like a “G” for a goal scored.
The fascinating facet of Be a GM lies within the morale system. It’s a bit paper-thin, but NHL 16 asks you to make unique speech decisions for different players. Over time, you learn what motivates your guys. Your star’s ego might be too fragile for you to just outright yell at him; you may have to baby him instead.
NHL 16 isn’t perfect, but it’s a substantial improvement over what released last year. Mind you, that’s not some sheer brilliance; it’s just because of general competence. The NHL franchise seems back on track, and it has even introduced the wonderful on-ice trainer. But, that trainer aside, it’s tough to shake the feeling that NHL has just caught up instead of innovating. EA Sports spent this iteration making up ground. It was a necessary move, but not one that instills confidence that the developer has grown comfortable with the generational shift in consoles.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]