It’s arguable that our most noted reviews at GHG come in the form of “Face-Offs”; you know, that terribly awesome Travolta-meets-Nic-Cage flick, or, better yet, the drop of a puck in hockey before periods and between whistles. But for whatever reason, our esteemed NHL video games expert — “Pastor” Bill Ammon — wasn’t able to review NHL 16 for you upon release, so we deeply apologize for the delay. Thankfully longtime thumb-hockey-jockey, yours truly, the “Monsignor” Travis Moody, is here to guide you longtime hipcheckers and skate splinter n00bz through every corner of the rink.
Yeah, that Devil of a COMIC BOOK MAN is endorsing the game this year–helping make this review entirely relevant for a superhero-centered site like GHG. And if you didn’t care about hockey, you wouldn’t be reading this anyway, regardless of whether you enjoy your weekly panels on the page. The good news this year about NHL 16, in addition to all of those glamorous new chopped-and-scratched ice effects, is that many of its esteemed game modes see a return (seemingly a trend in every 2nd year sports title on next-gen consoles), including the one whose disappearance last season pissed everyone off: the online EA Sports Hockey League.
While I wasn’t able to mess around with this mode more than my mere “EA Access” time with a preview copy, EASHL has been more or less excellent–this side of a few online hiccups and lagging delays.
If you’re previously unaware of how much of a big deal the EASHL truly is, check out this scenario: Your created male or female player, ala “Be A Pro” — the most fun mode I played in the game despite the absence of the name “Moody” for the commentators to call me by — is also based on a specific class: one-dimensional strong-shooting Snipers, rough-and-tumble Power Forwards, Wayne Gretzkyesque Playmakers, fan favorite Grinders (hold the marinara, thank you), fisticuff Enforcers, Two-Way Pierre Bergeron Forwards and Defensemen, Offensive or Defensive Defensemen, and, lastly, Butterfly, Stand-Up or Hybrid Goaltenders.
Props to EA for making their online hockey league one of the most intuitive, immersive and customizable. Since playing multiplayer in NHL is arguably easier than playing with more than one friend in, say, Madden or NBA 2K, picking your own specific guy and raising hell with him online — against other buddies — is the closest thing you’ll ever get to Call of Duty in a sports game. Better yet, much like COD, you can pick a different signature role for your Pro before each game; like Madden 16‘s Ultimate Team, you can earn “XP” to improve your rating for reaching certain goals with your pro after each game. For many, EASHL is the only way to play.
For others, such as myself, I only bought NHL since its inception for season/career/franchise mode. Because “the way people play video games today” differs than that of Ol’ Man Moody (Read: Online), developers have often thrown all care for traditional season modes to the wayside. This angers me. While I appreciate innovation and interaction, and the fact there is still multi-user teams readily available offline, there are some folks (stuck in the Sega Stone Age) who still enjoy bustling through a loner 82-game season.
What’s one way to keep OUR attention with essentially the same video game year after year? Improving the simulation aspect, something ONLY NBA 2K continues to push. True, NHL 16 has an outstanding broadcast presentation, with NBC commentators and player animations that entirely pop out of the screen; but good luck finding any sim storyline aspect told during the season, Be A Pro, Ultimate Team–or, in fact, during the game. Instead, players will hear a bevy of repeated lines, cliches, and delayed responses. While a far more excitable (than last year) Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk have more chemisty here than Nance and Simms in Madden, it would have been a lot nicer if they spent more hours in the studio creating content that carried from game to game.
I actually remember when EA’s NHL ’94 for Sega Genesis had between period highlights from other games around the league (even if you played an exhibition!). Yes, that Sega Genesis. Sure, my annual sports gaming complaints are likely now tiresome for the brunt of you; but, can you blame me? We’re in the later-half of 2015 and we can’t even get a proper intermission or postgame highlight show — or a REAL REASON to give a shit about the other 29 teams in your season/career/franchise, sans an extremely boring “Message Center” ala Madden‘s Twitter Feed. That’s ultimately frustrating, seeing how outstanding everything looks and feels in this game! Still, EA has carried on that true-and-tried tradition of giving us yet another beautiful-looking title with steadily improved gameplay.
In fact, the most eye-popping improvement in NHL 16 is the new On-Ice Trainer. Even seasoned vets like Pastor Bill and myself can appreciate the effort and detail EA put forth in teaching everyone both new and old tricks. This mode/visual can become especially handy with the way the NHL series has handled both its passing, deking, and most annoyingly, face-offs. With three different ways to pass — and several new ways to score — the new visual cues will only make you a better player as you ante up the challenge; not only that, the games still remain tough even with all the assisted raybeams and button suggestions laid out for you. The coolest part? The more tips you get “right” the more times they go away. Kids, the On-Ice Trainer is conceivably the best new addition to the EA NHL series.
FYI, there are still no Custom Soundtracks (we are deep into Year 2 of Xbox One and PS4 and yet no title has this option capability yet), which made the previous installments before ’15 so incredibly infectuous. And despite my approved inclusion of the modern day EDM arena tunes, which is chiefly what’s playing now at every arena/casino/store around the country in replacement of classic rock, the overly dramatic menu music is a better fit for Forza or NFL Films. Also, the lack of traditional organ sounds in arenas like Madison Square or TD Garden is a major bummer; although new mascots and crowd animations help gear up the personalized feelings of the arenas a bit.
More “Moodiness”: I’ve witnessed a ton of “no goal” calls, but hardly any penalties; the Be A Pro draft, much like the franchise modes, has absolutely zip personality (“you have been drafted by…”); and my Pro — whose appearance and equipment you can fully customize (CCM, Bauer, Easton), mind you — was, on several occasions, unable to change lines at the bench until it was too late. Despite playing like Eric Lindros in his prime (roughly 3 pts/per), I received subpar performance grades for lack of line shifts and inadequate D. Silly.
At the end of regulation, NHL 16 is a respectably enjoyable sequel to EA’s first entry into next-gen. While old modes were given back in response to countless online forum outcries (EA is NOW listening, fans!), not much new in the way of gameplay innovation has reached the ice. The graphics give the game a nice new shiny reflection; the presentation makes you feel like you’re tuned into NBC’s “Wednesday Night Rivalry”; and the OIT visuals allow newcomers and old-timers to get into the game. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like the absence of a 2K-like sim story was a blown opportunity for one of the most revered sports game franchises. NHL 16 still feels like the same vinyl nitrile helmet, only painted over with an even prettier scheme.