EA Sports skipped the new generation of consoles with NHL 14 leading to very high expectations for NHL 15. As things turned out last year's game was utterly underwhelming, and some fans even argued that NHL 14 would have been a more fitting title for NHL 15. But that was last year, and luckily EA Sports has redeemed themselves with NHL 16.
The moment you boot up NHL 16, you are greeted with a menu system brought to life by your favourite team, as chosen in the settings. For us it's Tampa Bay Lightning, and the formidable Steven Stamkos. A small feature perhaps, but one that leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inside. After all, who would want to risk being greeted by a rival team each time you fire up the game?
Furthermore, several well-known and loved features make their return in NHL 16. First we have EA Sports Hockey League, or EASHL, a mode we spent countless hours enjoying back on PS3. After gathering feedback from the EASHL beta earlier this year EA has moved away from the system where you and your friends could only play as one unified club.
Facilitating ease of play there is now a drop-in option, making it possible to play with other people when your buddies aren't around. Apart from this the structure is more or less the same. You create your own player, and watch him follow your precise instructions on the ice. This year however, your player won't progress his skills the more you play, but remains locked to his initial set of stats. Presumably this decision has been made in order to preserve game balance.
That being said, EA has added a class system this year, and for each match you get to decide what kind of role your player will have in the squad. Will he be a sniper with killer shots, a playmaker with reliable passing skills, or perhaps even an enforcer with backbreaking strength and a total disregard for the well being of opposing players. The choice is yours.
Let's move on to the "Be a GM" mode, which puts you in the shoes of the general manager of an NHL outfit. Changes have been made here as well, with player morale being the most prominent new feature. Naturally, if player morale is generally low across the squad, the performances will suffer as a result. Your new task as GM is thus to raise morale among your players, but it's not a simple black and white system. You can issue individual instructions to players as well as team-wide pep talks, but there's no telling how each of your players will react. Some people will benefit from tough love, while others will react negatively. So you can role-play as Don Cherry if that's what you want to do, but don't expect all players to enjoy that treatment.
As far as the draft system goes EA has stepped up their game substantially this year, looking towards Madden for inspiration. It works brilliantly, and the only drawback is that the players from the first draft year are fictitious, meaning that players such as Auston Matthews aren't available even though he'll likely be the first one to go in next year's draft. Apart from that Be a GM works splendidly, and the simulations are substantially swifter now. In fact, after a mere hour we had played through our first season, and that included a great deal of scouting and pep talks in-between the matches.
Be a Pro is naturally back, with it's own set of improvements. Last year you were thrown straight into the NHL, but this year your customised player will spend three seasons in the Canadian juniors (starting at the age of 16) before graduating to the big league. As in EASHL you get to choose what kind of player you want to be, and here your actions on the ice will improve your stats as you progress. Serving precise passes will improve your passing stats, great shots will boost your shooting stats, and so on and so forth. In addition you can now simulate the parts of the match where you are benched, unlike what was the case in NHL 15. A massive improvement to the overall experience.
If you don't care for the Be a GM or Be a Pro modes, chances are you're instead invested in Ultimate Team. This was one of few main modes that actually made it into NHL 15, and it's more or less the same as before. Offline seasons have been included, as well as new animations for opening packs, but the core is otherwise the same. It's still great, but it's not really improved in any meaningful way apart from the gameplay.
And yes, there are gameplay improvements as well, these in addition to more and better modes. In fact, the gameplay improvements are substantial, in particular for people who really know their hockey. NHL 16 might be a bit tougher to get into for casual players, but people who know hockey will not be disappointed. It really feels like the game we love so dearly, and knowing a few tactics that work each and every time is no longer a guarantee for success. You can obviously still hit a cross pass upfield for a one-time finish, as you can in real hockey, but it's a lot harder to pull of these kinds of moves this time around.
Making bold plays requires great accuracy and timing, as the AI-controlled players, both on yours and the opposing team, are smarter than before. They read the game and move in a more natural, hockey-like fashion compared to previous iterations. This makes it more difficult to employ successful attacks and strategies, but it also makes it all the more rewarding when you pull off a good move.
In conclusion NHL 16 is better than it's predecessors in every way, and we've thoroughly enjoyed it thus far. The visuals are great, and small details like every team's individual mascots have been included. On top of that the arenas look better than ever, and the alterations to the different modes all resonate well with the gameplay improvements. Simply put, this is quite possibly the best hockey game ever made.
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