From mascots to modes: 16 points on NHL 16

EA Sports

Ah, NHL 16. Fair or not, many will lampoon NHL 16 as “What everyone wanted from NHL 15, one year late.”

Last year’s edition of EA’s polygonal puck product transitioned to the spiffy new-ish Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles as smoothly as a terrified rookie moves the biscuit under extreme pressure. The perennially praised video game franchise was panned by critics and fans alike, even if the meat-and-potatoes gameplay actually made the landing relatively well.

(Give or take certain quibbles like the agonizing tendency for your AI teammates to dimly go offside.)

Beloved modes like EASHL return this time around, and it seems like the series shook off at least some of the stink from last year.

Rather than bore you with the same old video game review – there are at least 21 critics who provide thoughtful analysis of the nooks and crannies – we thought it might be more enjoyable to bat around 16 topics.

Some are big, some are small, but all of them aim to give you a better idea of what to expect from EA’s NHL 16.

Note: EA Sports provided James O’Brien and Ryan Dadoun with advanced copies of the Playstation 4 version to assist in the making of this piece.

1. Instructive AND Obtrusive

James: As a “veteran” of the series, the On-Ice Trainer feature wasn’t too useful … although it did give me SOME idea regarding why, in the world, I’m the absolute worst face-off guy in all of polygonal pucks. (Seriously, I’m the anti-Manny Malhotra.)

What do you think, though, Ryan? Is it more helpful than annoying?

Ryan: As someone that didn’t touch NHL 15 and was consequently out of practice, I found the visual cues to be very helpful. They had a learning curve of their own, but it was a brief one. About halfway through my introductory game I found myself passing more often and with more confidence because the highlighted passing lanes made my options easy to process quickly.

The shooting cone was a bit less intuitive. It shows you how much of your shooting lane is blocked by the goaltender, with the guarded section being red and the open being blue. However, if you’re a new player in your first game, deciphering that might take some time and that section wasn’t truly helpful to me until I completed my first game and went into practice mode so I could slow things down and see exactly what the game was trying to tell me. After that I entered another exhibition contest and this time that time I was able to properly apply the on-ice information the game was feeding me, so I really do feel that for newer players in particular, this is a solid addition.

The other instructions are useful too, but I think sometimes fixating on reading and attempting to execute the defensive advice can do more harm than good because it slows your reaction time and it typically isn’t telling you anything you wouldn’t have been doing instinctively anyways. Which is a shame because I think the defensive side of the game is where newer players can use a bit more handholding.

Ending on a plus, I used the On-Ice Trainer to help with my faceoffs and after some practice I actually found that it’s a great tool to get the correct timing down.

2. Hooray for the return of the fantasy draft

James: Sure, it takes hours, and said slow menus can make the process excruciating … but that doesn’t matter all that much, because I missed the fantasy draft. Like, so badly.

Fantasy hockey is great, but the NHL video games allow you to use those made-up rosters. It allows you to say “I don’t think Tyler Myers is that great, but he’s rated an 86 and has high potential, so here goes.”

There are other returning modes that are far, far bigger deal. Still, the fantasy draft is almost always the first thing I do with a new NHL game, so I’m delighted it’s back.

3. An engineering feat

James: Let me ask something: are NHL 16’s menus the slowest in the history of video games? How, exactly, do these menus get slower every year? Is there some kind of sick competition going on here?

Honestly, movie through panels often feels like watching Hal Gill skate.

Ryan: The first time I encountered one of those loads I was jarred by it, but I will say in the game’s defense that it never got to the point where I feel like it was ruining the gameplay experience (although I might feel differently after having to put up for it for weeks or months). More to the point, those rough loading times are where the game can get away with it as everything runs smoothly when you’re on the ice and there aren’t lengthy loads during the contests. Moving from one period to the next for example is a quick and painless process.

4. Icon switching and passing

James: It’s never going to happen, is it?

5. On the fence about buying the game? Take heed …

James: Look, $60 is different to everyone, especially when it comes to something as unessential as a video game.

With that in mind, it’s probably not instructive to say “Yes, this is absolutely worth $60.” Instead, here’s a tip for those who have an XBox One: fork over the $5 monthly fee to test it out on EA Access, which is the company’s video game answer to Netflix.

(Sony doesn’t have EA Access, as they have their own Netflix-like service.)

Access gives you some key tastes of the action, opportunities with video games that are pretty scarce unless you happen to have Gamefly. Along with the service, you can play “NHL 16” via a 10-hour trial. That’s a great opportunity to test out different modes and see if it’s right for you.

For newcomers, you can also play NHL 15 as much as you want, as the service allows you to grab full games of older titles. This is also a pretty solid option for people who sneer and contend that sports video games are just “glorified roster updates.”

Long story short, with the XBone, you can make a more informed decision.

6. Be a Pro … if you have the time

Ryan: Be a Pro mode is back and it’s my personal favorite. I love the concept of an RPG that’s focused on a sport and while there’s still so much untapped potential with this mode (additions like rival players, storylines, etc would make it far more immersive), what we have is still very enjoyable.

It’s very friendly to new players as the game will advise your character so to what he or she should be doing when it comes to positioning and you’ll have access to useful feedback between shifts so you’ll know what to work on.

I just wish I had the time to make the most of it. Be a Pro is the most time consuming of the offline modes and because your player’s development is naturally going to be gradual, some users simply won’t have the time to get the most out of this mode.

Unfortunately there’s no easy solution to that. The game already lets you sim to your next shift, but the reality is that hockey isn’t as friendly for this type of feature as, say, baseball, where you can take your three to five at bats and maybe a couple defensive plays and then move on to the next game. Still, I do wish that NHL 16 gave you more guidance as to how to best handle this mode if you’re someone that has to budget their time. For example, a system where each game is weighed in terms of importance, with your performance being evaluated disproportionately in favor of the higher stakes contests, would make users feel more comfortable simulating certain games as they know they’ll matter less anyways. Alternatively, having an option to only play in high stakes situations (ie- tie or one-goal games) might help trim some of the fat.

Not everyone would take advantage of such features, but it make the mode feel more inclusive.

7. Scene setting

James: The NHL series lags behind other sports video games as far as presentation goes, especially NBA2K, which gets so many little things right it’s honestly a little insane. Aside from some blocky fans in a team’s colors, there often wasn’t much distinguishing one building from another.

Yeah, NHL arenas aren’t like MLB ballparks in often being very distinct, but still. NHL 16 is a great step in the right direction in this regard, and really the hope is that they only add more, whether it be crowd-specific bits or even more contextual commentary from Doc and Edzo.

Ryan: There are touches I like when it comes to the presentation. The pregame introductions showing the exterior of the arena being a small, but noteworthy example. I also noticed some little celebrations following wins on the part of the players and that’s certainly appreciated.

There is some additional variety when it comes to the different arenas. Scoring a goal will led to a different song and horn noise depending on the city. Columbus, for example, has its cannon.

There is a lot more that can be done in terms of making it feel more authentic though. I would love to see the crowd get more into the game. Having the away team being able to silence the crowd by taking a commanding lead for example or the fans even going as far as to start booing the home team during a blowout would really add to the atmosphere. As things stand the crowd is like a sticom’s laugh track – they cheer consistently and react at every prompting, but with little variety or passion.

8. What about the Mascots?

Ryan: If we’re going to get into the presentation, we should take a moment to talk about the team mascots seeing as EA Sports made a note of their inclusion. They’re there, but I can’t say they do much to add to the feel of the game. I’ll see them out of the corner of my eyes sometimes during the on-ice action and occasionally they’ll be featured between plays, but does their presence illicit a response or reaction from the user? Not in my case.

I’ll give them credit in that it is a detail to add to further differentiate the arenas, but it is a small step.

James: Allow me a bold suggestion – Be a Mascot mode.

Imagine, for a second, you work your way up from Chuck-E-Cheese’s to the ECHL. Then, after a relative puts in a good word (I mean, that’s how mascots get jobs, right?) you get The Costume Call.

The mode could be in first-person through furr-addled eyes, and perhaps there could be mini-games involving pranks in the stands and RPG-style progression (+15 minutes of bladder control!).

Feel free to steal that idea, EA, but remember me when you’re raking in billions.

9. Quantity

James: The return of THE MODES really is a huge thing.

You have to love the core game to have a good time, but if the gameplay is even remotely enjoyable for you, there is a mode – or several modes – that should keep you busy for a ton of time.

Be a GM scratches the typical season-mode itch while providing that team-building sim, too. Be a Pro gives you that feeling of being a single player coming up through the ranks. HUT is half card-collecting game, half typical team versus stuff … and EASHL is a pretty astounding achievement in taking “Be a Pro” online.

Again, you might not have fun if the actual game does nothing for you, but otherwise there’s a ton to do.

Is there room for improvement? Sure, but I’d say my overall impression is very favorable.

Ryan: In terms of what modes to include in the game, I think EA Sports did a great job of hitting every note. If pressed I could come up with modes that aren’t included that might have been nice, but I feel like I have almost everything I want when it comes to the number and range of existing modes. Instead, I want to see future versions of this game continue to expand the existing modes and make them more versatile.

10. Shall we customize?

Ryan: Speaking of modes, the Season/Playoff modes might be viewed as lightweight alternatives to Be a GM and Be a Pro, but they do offer something of value: Customization options. Both modes allow you to have NHL teams play against European, AHL, or Junior squads if you so choose. Although the absence of national teams is unfortunate.

Also regrettable is the lack of customization when it comes to the league structure. I can’t add teams to either mode without taking an equal number of teams away. In Playoff Mode I can have a tournament smaller than 16 teams, but not larger and even if I want to pick a non-standard format, I have to stay within a multiple of two (so no allowance for systems that involve byes).

In Season Mode my customization options are more limited. I can choose a league type from the presets (NHL, AHL, SHL, etc), but I can’t customize it further from there when it comes to options like league size and games played. Those might seem like minor sticking points and they’re certainly not priorities, but that extra bit of customization can go a long way towards allowing players to put a personal touch on their gameplay experience. Give users the luxury of having shorter seasons or the flexibility to get a little unorthodox with their creations and they’ll feel a greater sense of connection to the game.

I do appreciate that you can customize some of the rules in Be a GM and Season modes though. In my world, there shall be no consolation points given for overtime losses!

11. 3 on 3 OT is going to be wild

James: As far as previewing the real, in-the-flesh 2015-16 season goes, the most jaw-dropping element came during my first foray into overtime, more specifically the 3-on-3 format.

Fault the game for whatever deficits in realism that you may perceive, but actually controlling digital hockey players in this format really cemented the bewildering amount of space that this will cause.

Now, it’s true that NHL coaches are magicians when it comes to subjugating offense/killing fun/dismantling any spirit of creativity, so we’ll need to savor the weeks or months in which there’s more of a “Wild West” atmosphere. It could be the most woolly, wacky hockey since the 2005-06 season, aka that brief period of time in which obstruction wasn’t roundly dismissed.

(Ah, memories.)

12. Arbitrary things

James: Sometimes it’s best not to leave subjective ideas to artificial intelligence. It’s not just advice to try to avoid Skynet – Terminator disasters; it’s also a good point to consider with Be a GM mode.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool that NHL 16 is trying to institute a locker room management aspect, playing into “chemistry” talk. It’s a work in progress from an execution standpoint, though. You choose from a handful of responses to players’ queries during “Team Meetings,” a sort of multiple choice test of cliches … and then their morale is affected based on a dice roll or something? It all seems random and doesn’t add a lot of fun.

The coaches’ reviews also seem somewhat flighty at times, but maybe that’s just because I don’t want to get a C- grade.

13. Windows-inspired display?

Ryan: Making the leap straight from NHL 14 to NHL 16, one of the most eyebrow raising changes was actually one of the first things we saw: The menus. It’s a purely cosmetic alteration so I’m not going to make a big deal out of it and the shift that has actually been gradual with NHL 15 moving in this direction, but NHL 16 now essentially looks like the Windows Metro display. I do wonder why they went in that direction though because those oversized menu buttons have always made more sense to me in the context of a touchscreen and I can’t think of what advantage they have when your main form of interaction is a controller. Maybe this version is easier to read?

14. But no Windows version

Ryan: Throughout this piece I’ve been making suggestions for possible additions to the franchise going forward, but if I could make one request that I wish would be prioritized above all others it would be for NHL 17 to come out for the PC. I can’t pretend to be an expert when it comes to the economics of video games and say that a PC version would make financial sense for EA Sports. Truthfully I have no way of knowing what kind of reception it would get. All I can say is that it would give me a reason to use Origin far more often.

Via EA Sports

15. Raiding the Ratings

James: To be frank, sports game player ratings fall into that automatic-controversy vortex along with season previews (Fans of Team X will never forgive you for saying they’ll miss the playoffs) and troll-y rankings list (Deadspin might burn the Internet down one day with theirs). No matter what, someone’s going to be unhappy.

And, really, I get what the ratings people must think: “Let’s give everyone friendly ratings, or else some super-athlete may show up at my cubicle wondering why his agility score is so low.”

I’d wager that actual athletes are among the extreme majority of people who even look beyond the overall rating, anyway. Sure, I was annoyed back a couple years ago when already-washed-up Mike Richards shared the same 88 rating as Anze Kopitar, but I didn’t go deeper than that.

Maybe Kopitar ranked poorly in the coveted “Looks like he got a good night sleep” category.

All of that aside, allow me to gripe. I threw up in my mouth a bit when I saw that Cam Ward is an 86, the same rating as actually good goalie Jaroslav Halak. I’m on the fence about Jonathan Bernier like many others, but I’d take him (85) over Ward (86) in a heartbeat.

To some extent, it’s charming them guys like Vincent Lecavalier (83) still get the Eric Lindros Memorial excessive benefit of the doubt. It’s less charming when they beat you.

Oh yeah, and Joe Pavelski is NOT the San Jose Sharks’ best forward, OK? OKAY?

COME ON /throws controller

16. The Bottom Line

James: OK, so we’ve discussed issues big and small, but people might be anxious for an appraisal of that actual game.

Again, I’d recommend the try before you buy method, even if that’s a little trickier to pull of today than it once was.

If you want an answer right now, I’ll say this: it’s a very nice improvement, and I think it has the sort of legs to be a very nice rebound for the series.

Let’s call it the pump your fists test. For years, the NHL series’ AI was kind of boring to play against; the only fun competition for a weirdo veteran such as myself came against (I would assume) 12-year-olds who play the guy like that guy from the South Park “World of Warcraft” episode.

The changes are subtle, yet in a playoff series, I found myself sitting forward in my chair during tense moments and raising my fists in the air like a hyper-nerd during triumphant goal celebrations.

There’s always room for improvement, but I can see myself pouring plenty of time into this game, while the last 2-3 iterations were really just served as sporadic sports game comfort food.

Ryan: As a kid I bought this series annually starting with NHL 94 and it’s no revelation to say that the core mechanics of this game are fundamentally different than they used to be. The tactics that I used growing up don’t work anymore and haven’t for a while, but the changes have been for the better. This year’s addition of the On-Ice Trainer in particular stands out as a great tool to help newer users feel more in control of their players, which is a big plus while the series continues to strive to be more like the real game.

At the end of the day though, NHL 16 is what you put into it. I got invested in my virtual team’s success and failures as a kid and that’s still true today. How I score a goal might be different now, but my reaction to it hasn’t changed.

The reality of a sports video game franchise is that each iteration will (with of course some exceptions) take a step forward, but leave you wanting more. That’s how I feel about NHL 16. It’s great on its own and I’m sure over the coming weeks and months I’ll log a lot more hours into it, but I’m also eager to find out what we’ll get next year.