Review: NHL 16 (PS4)

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Title: EA Sports NHL 16
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (20.1 GB)
Release Date: September 15, 2015
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Original MSRP: $59.99 / $69.99 (Deluxe Edition)
ESRB Rating: E10+
EA Sports NHL 16 is also available on Xbox One.
The PlayStation 4 disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 440 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
The NHL franchise is back in a big way. After last year’s debacle, the team at EA Canada has poured a ton of effort into the game. This is the NHL you’ve been waiting for.

Central to that effort, the developers created a program called “Game Changers”. This is twelve members of the community, mostly nominated from within the ranks, who had a direct line to the development team with a 24/7 Skype chat and visits to the studio.

This was all designed to give a voice to the fans and to ensure that the final product would be more in line with what the community wants and expects the latest NHL game to be. It’s a fantastic idea and I can tell you now that it has paid off in spades, I mean, just look at that menu! Along with all the modes we’re getting thirteen leagues as well.

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Right off the bat you’ll notice the changes as you customize your experience. You’ll choose the difficulty: Rookie, Pro, All-Star, Superstar, but you’ll also choose the Game Style: Arcade, Simulation, or Hardcore.

Simulation is the default but Hardcore is easily the most authentic hockey experience I’ve played in a video game. It’s really tough but fair if you can use your knowledge of the game and work at it.

… how to deke around defenders …
Speaking of knowledge, the biggest addition to the game (and that’s saying a lot actually) is the Visual On-Ice Trainer. The biggest problem facing newcomers to either the sport itself or the console versions of it is understanding the rules and nuances of the game and the complex controls respectively. The VOIT, yeah I just made it an acronym, is an amazing real-time teaching tool that can help even veteran players.

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You’ll see passing lanes, suggestions on faceoffs, how much of the net is open based on the positioning of your player and the goalie – all updating as you move on the ice – and much more. You’ll even see suggestions (with the relevant buttons) on how to deke around defenders when entering the opponent’s zone.

When you’re in Be A Pro or Position Lock, the indicators will even guide you to where you should be on the ice at any given time. It’ll even tell you when you need to get back to the bench to end your shift.

… sim to next shift …
I can’t overstate what a huge addition this is and how much it’ll help the casual or even the non-console owning hockey fans. We’ve all got that friend who doesn’t own a console but plays at our houses every now and then. Trying to explain all the controls in any given sports game has become a lot more complex over the years and this goes a long way in mitigating some of that.

Even better is that it’s something that can be turned on or off in the menus so you hardcore players needn’t worry. I’ve been using the Adaptive mode for the Trainer to see how well it does in recognizing my understanding of the game and it’s held up pretty nicely.

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As for the returning modes that were either skipped or pared down last year, even those have all received significant upgrades but let’s talk about the big ones. For Hockey Ultimate Team they’ve made some tweaks to the interface but I still think it could use a bit of an overhaul.

The big addition here however is the new Single Player Seasons. Now you can tweak your lineups and try them out on the ice without having to jump right into the fray. It can also help you build a team up a bit before jumping online.

… much more organic and realistic …
Be A Pro has received some much needed upgrades as well, and yes, “Sim To Next Shift” is back so no more sitting on the bench watching the game unless you really want to. Player growth has been dramatically improved as it’s now based entirely on how you play your position.

You’ll gain (or lose) experience based on your actions on the ice. Win a faceoff, force a turnover, score a goal, gain some XP; take a penalty, get knocked off the puck, go offside, lose some XP.

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It goes even deeper of course by essentially grading everything you do out there. At the end of the game you’ll see all your stats automatically updated and you’ll quickly see any deficiencies in your game and where you need to focus. It’s a much better system and much more organic and realistic than “spending” XP to upgrade the stats you want.

The tips you’ll get from the coach are more helpful as well by being more specific and even more instructive. The coach will explain how to win a faceoff or what to do on a breakout or when you’re back in your defensive zone. It just adds to the teaching atmosphere of the game and it can only help players get better.

… no obvious right or wrong answer …
The big change in the Be A GM mode is the Player Morale. You’ll still have all the depth you’ve come to expect from this mode from full control over the team and the ability to sim or play the games throughout the season. Now you’ll be able to talk to players individually or the team as a whole in order to boost their morale and get them playing at a higher level.

The cool thing about this is that it isn’t scripted. While you’re given a handful of responses to the player’s concern depending on the situation, there’s no obvious right or wrong answer. Just like in real life, you don’t really know how an individual will react to what you say to them.

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It’s a great addition and I while I haven’t gotten as deep with it as I’d like, I’m hoping that it becomes easier to read the players and gain an understanding of how to talk to them based on previous conversations. If that’s not part of the game right now, it should be something to work towards for next year EA Canada so get on it.

NHL Moments Live returns and (obviously) currently only has games from the past to work off of. These scenarios will grow as the season goes on and they get entered into the game. Other modes include Season, Playoff, and Practice.

… the addition of playoff beards …
Visuals:
While the Visual On-Ice Trainer may be the biggest presentation change in the game, overall everything looks cleaner than last year’s version. The addition of the precision skating mechanic and seamless puck pickups help to make the game look and feel more realistic than it’s ever been.

More opening spots have been filmed with Mike (Doc) Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in full motion glory as they talk about the upcoming game and they look just as good as they did last year.

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Player models look better than last year but the biggest (and best) change there is the addition of playoff beards! Yup, the players will begin to grow playoff beards as the march towards the Stanley Cup Finals.

Even better, you can set a choice with your created player to have them grow a playoff beard as well. If you start with a beard during the season, like mine does, you can set it to grow longer during the playoffs. It’s a small touch in making the game more authentic and I love it.

… the cannon in Columbus …
The ability to create either a male or female character is back again as well. I’m glad that it’s here but I’d really like to see the inclusion of the women’s national teams at some point so you’re not always the lone female player in a sea of men if that’s the route you decide to take.

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The arenas have been upgraded as well with each getting those special touches that make them all unique. Granted, there’s been a lot of “sameness” in these arenas in recent years as the older personality filled places have been gradually replaced by larger luxury box driven monsters.

What we have now though is a series of mascots and unique arena features that have made their way into the game. You’ll see the cannon in Columbus, the Shark’s head in San Jose, things of this nature. It really helps make each building feel different and makes for a better experience overall.

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Audio:
The opening spots for the games are more varied and even take into account how your team has been playing making for a much more interesting experience. Once in game however, things go downhill a bit. Yes it seems like there’s some more dialogue that’s been added for the play by play but there’s still much too much repetition in the in-game audio.

What seems to have been mostly fixed however is the issue with Emrick’s excitable nature. Far too often in last year’s version an excited, up tempo line would be pieced together with a low tempo line to complete a sentence. I really haven’t run into any of that this year, at least not that I’ve noticed.

The arena and on-ice sounds are just as good as they’ve always been with sticks, pucks, collisions, whistles and more all sounding pretty authentic. The crowd also really seems to come to life in following the plays and reacting accordingly.

… your skills as a player …
Online/Multiplayer:
A lot of people have been waiting to see how the EA Sports Hockey League portion of the game turned out and I can tell you it’s beautiful from what I’ve played so far. You can create or join a team and then jump in for up to a full 6v6 hockey game. The games I’ve played so far have been generally lag free and easy to get into.

The biggest change here is in how your player progression is handled. While much of it is detailed in the post I put up last month, I’ll go over it again here and discuss how it works in the full game.

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Previously, you would enter the mode with a created player and gain XP through your actions on the ice. You could then upgrade your player with the XP or use real currency to purchase the upgrades.

What they found is that many players would often go in and purchase upgrades to max out their players right off the bat. This would make it much more difficult for anyone coming into the mode for the first time or for people unwilling to spend the money, essentially giving people better players but not necessarily the skills.

The big change for the EASHL is that it does away with the XP. Now when creating a player you’ll pick from player classes seen in the chart below:

Forward
Defense
Goalie
Sniper
Defensive
Stand up
Power Forward
Offensive
Butterfly
Two-Way
Two-Way
Hybrid
Grinder
Enforcer

These are typical player types in hockey and each class will have set attributes. So a defensive defenseman would be bigger and stronger physically and much tougher for an opposing forward to get past while an offensive defenseman would tend to use their stick more than the body but they’d also be a better passer and shooter.

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The trick here is that you won’t be able to upgrade the attributes, they don’t change. It’ll really all come down to your skills as a player.

You’re able to change classes for every game to try to find the fit that’s right for your style of play and the developers have been working hard to ensure that all the classes are balanced.

… come together and play as a team …
This has been one of the biggest concerns because they don’t want everyone gravitating to one particularly overpowered class. I’ve been able to mess around with a few of the classes and you can feel the difference in terms of what your player is capable of doing out there.

EASHL can be played as a drop-in with other players using created or real NHL players or in a league-type format much like Hockey Ultimate Team with Divisions and Playoffs where you’ll use created players.

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Here you’ll have full customization of just about everything from the color of the tape on your stick, to the color of the shaft, your skates, socks, helmet, all of it. The goalies can customize pads, blockers, and gloves but the mask will have to be chosen from one in the game.

The mode is really designed for groups of players to come together and play as a team, either as a constant six or rotating a few other players in and out as you go. What’s really cool is that as you play together and win, any related banners (and there will be a number of them) will be visible in the rafters of your home arena.

They’ll even be hanging there visible behind Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk when they do their pre-game commentary. It’s a nice touch and they’ve even been talking about ways to bring those things forward with your profile to future iterations of the game.

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The developers have been working hard to ensure that the lag is kept to an absolute minimum. They’ve played a ton of games against every region to analyze exactly where things get bogged down and how to fix it and so far it looks like the extra work will pay off.

Of course, if you just want an old fashioned one-on-one against some friends or random strangers, Online Versus and even Online Team Play are available. These allow you to choose from any available team so you’re not just stuck with created players. These also work just as well as you’d expect.

… a much richer and more complete experience …
Conclusion:
This isn’t the hockey game we were expecting last year – it’s better. The game is filled with so many improvements and so many welcoming additions for novices that I was blown away. The Visual On-Ice Trainer is easily one of the biggest game changers in the franchise and it’s almost worth buying the game based on the inclusion of this alone.

Is there room for improvement? Of course. The inclusion of more leagues, women’s leagues, Olympic teams, and more would be very welcome additions. The Hockey Ultimate Team could do with a complete interface overhaul as well.

As with last year’s version, this is a fantastic base to build from. The difference is that this time they’ll be building off of a much richer and more complete experience than ever before.

Score:
9.0

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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