NHL 16 reviews: Comeback effort for EA Sports' hockey franchise?

EA Sports
EA Sports

The latest edition of EA Sports’ hockey juggernaut “NHL 16” hit store today, and puckhead gamers had but one question about it:

Where’s Patrick Kane?

OK, they know the answer to that one. The other question:

Did they learn their lesson after “NHL 15” and return this thing to its former glory?

Not to say that “NHL 15” was a bad game, by any stretch. It was just a stripped down version of previous, better games, and lacked the innovation that’s become synonymous with the series.  Frankly, the bar’s been set so high that anything middling would be seen as a disappointment.

So EA Sports decided to figure out what didn’t work by going to its biggest critics: the fans. They had 180,000 users give feedback on the EA Sports Hockey League beta. They had a group of active users called “Game Changers” that offered their likes and dislikes on every facet of the game.

(The Daily Dot has a terrific look at this innovation and its impact on “NHL 16.”)

Did EA Sports succeed in elevating the series back to its lofty standards?

We looked over several reviews from sports and gaming sites, and the consensus is that “NHL 16” might be up for the Masterton Trophy this season. A few standard observations:

- The return of features that were missing in “NHL 15,” such as the EA Sports League and some facets of “Be A Pro” mode.

- That said, the EA Sports League has some issues with smoothness of play.

- The most celebrated innovation is the “On-Ice Visual Trainer,” which explains in real time what the hell all the button combinations do.

Jeff Bakalar of CNET.com calls this edition a “rebuilding year” for the series, after the nadir of “NHL 15”:

If you recall, NHL 14 felt like a cut-and-paste affair. It represented the end of an era, riding out on the fumes of a franchise that was in desperate need of a refresh. And then last year -- well if EA could take last year's release back I'm sure they would. NHL 15 was barebones at launch, missing pivotal game modes and features. It felt more like a demo than a fully-fledged $60 game. Diehard fans of the series took their pitchforks and torches to the Internet. They were out for blood.

Bakalar takes issue with some of the online gameplay and with the way the crowd in the game doesn’t seem to react the ways it should during game situations (i.e. no roar for an overtime breakaway). But overall, he agrees that it’s a return to form and a step in the right direction:

Let's be honest, the only direction the NHL series could have gone was up. But NHL 16 is way more promising than just a simple do-over. If the messaging is authentic and this is in fact a new feedback-focused age for the series, there's plenty of potential for the franchise to ascend to the juggernaut it once was.

Rich Grisham of Games Radar thinks that "NHL 16" puts the series back in a "positive place" after a down year, but has a few issues with the current state of the franchise:

NHL 16’s issues are numerous, though. In practice, there seems to be very little difference between teams other than their jerseys; individual player ratings are so relatively close to each other that they feel virtually irrelevant. Hockey has always been the toughest sport in which to represent specific athlete talents, and I’m as hard-pressed as ever to distinguish one player from another unless I’m looking at them close-up between shifts. 

More than that, however, is the “been there-done that” feeling with the available modes. The obligatory franchise-running Be A GM and single-player Be A Pro (along with Ultimate Team) make up the core of the offerings, and while they are both deeper than last year’s versions, there’s really very little that is exciting about them. I understand that it’s a good idea to flesh out these tried-and-true ways to play before testing experimental new modes. However, the prospects of grinding through an 82-game campaign or multi-season career with my created player for the umpteenth straight year without much new to experience aren’t especially appealing. Even worse, there are no online leagues or tournaments, a sad remnant of the next-gen cuts that were made last season.

That said, he believes that the game restores a "foundation" for the franchise. 

Here's a look at the EA Sports Hockey League in "NHL 16":

Seth G. Macy of IGN.com gives the game a 7.8 rating, loving the user-friendly modes – including the on-ice trainer for newbies – but not digging the repetitive nature of some of the announcing. From IGN:

When played by yourself or with a friend on the couch, NHL 16 is a fast, sharp-looking, and fun hockey sim that (unlike last year’s game) includes enough modes to keep veterans happy while doing an admirable job of welcoming newcomers as well. It still suffers technical problems with online play, which is a shame, because outside of noticeably repetitious play-by-play calling and some non-gameplay-affecting framerate issues in cutscenes and replays, NHL 16 is an otherwise excellent game.

Fraser G. of Fansided echoes the complaints about lags in the EASHL. But overall, it’s another “return to form” review:

Although it’s easy to dismiss last year’s game as a poor effort, it proved to act as an important base for the future of the series. NHL 16 has used this foundation to improve on the series’ authenticity and realism while implementing and enhancing the features that fans have come to expect over the last few years. I’m disappointed that I have been plagued by online input delay issues during my time with the game, and hopefully EA will be able to identify a solution for the small minority who have been affected by it.

On the ice, NHL’s gameplay has never been this smart, this authentic, or this good. Sure, there’s still a few missing features and there’s scope for improvement in some areas, but NHL 16 features a wide range of modes, smartly designed, and with plenty of longevity to last throughout the next year. Hockey fans, this is the real deal.

Here's a look at "Morale Mode" in the game:

Chad Goodmurphy of We Got This Covered spells out a ton of glitches and frustrations – like in the “player moral” mode, where even positive meetings with coaches seems to dip your player’s morale – but still puts over “NHL 16” as a return to form:

Now, I know I’ve been a bit hard on this game, but the truth is that it really is quite good. Yes, it is rough around the edges and in need of some fine-tuning, but it does a lot of things right. Its gameplay is fun, it’s feature-rich and its presentation is close to being lifelike, thanks to a continued partnership with NBC. The addition of a customizable on-ice trainer (which can be turned off and does not factor into online play) was also a nice touch, because it provides you with helpful information as to where your shots and passes will go, as well as other visual aids. What’s really neat to see, though, is how much detail went into making this game, because the developers added some really nice touches, like the iconic Price and Subban handshake that occurs after every Habs win, the Rangers’ fan salute following home ice victories, and the Sharks’ powerplay goal celebration.

In the end, there’s no denying that NHL 16 is a major step forward from its lacking predecessor. As such, it’s an easy recommendation to those who are looking for an accessible and in-depth hockey game to play alongside this year’s real-life season.

Finally, Steve Hannley of Hardcore Gamer gives it a 4-out-of-5 and forgives the sins of “NHL 15”:

NHL 16 is a triumphant return to form. After the debacle that was the razor-thin NHL 15, EA has restored all of the beloved modes to the game and they’re better than ever. More still, the game itself is markedly improved with slick mechanics, fantastic visuals and incredible detail to individual arenas. It’s healthy to be cautious after being burned just one year ago, but NHL 16 is an entirely different beast than its predecessor and deserves to be played by every virtual hockey fan.

And virtually every hockey fan!

Tell us what you think of "NHL 16" in the comments!