It has been a long time since I took up sticks, and ventured onto the virtual ice, and I made my editor fully aware of this before taking on this review. When I last played a hockey game, Gretzky and Lemieux were still playing and, unlike most teens at the time who were on the fields partaking in football or rugby, I was more at home in full pads on the ice of my local rink. The love of the game has remained with me but sadly, in the time before always online, that did not transfer to my isolated enjoyment of EA’s interpretations of the fastest game on earth.
Fast Forward 20 years, and before me sits a copy of NHL 16, the latest in the yearly iterations from EA which I presume, have continued to grow, develop and innovate since I last played. The question therefore is, can someone who knows hockey, plays hockey, yet has disconnected from the series, return with any ease in 2015?
With my ready familiarity with the rules of the game and a passable knowledge of the current teams, I found myself diving straight into the introductory match with gusto. The biggest change I found, and this is something that may be a common theme in the recent history of the series, is the refined control system. Mapping of the players stick to your right analogue and player movement to the left, allowed for a freedom of play 16 year old me could never have imagined. It was not long before I was outmanoeuvring opponents, deke-ing left and right before placing precise wrist-shots beyond the grasp of the Butterflied Goaltender.
This, for the most part, is due to the On-Ice trainer which uses coloured markers and overlays to indicate the trajectory of your shots, passes and even available target areas in the goal. These prompts showing you available players for your passes and likelihood of a shot on goal makes the transition from basic gameplay to more complex strategies simple and intuitive throughout. For those who have been away from the game a while, or are completely new to the series, the On-Ice trainer is a godsend.
Like most of the EA Sports titles, there is also a “Be a Pro mode”. Like its counterparts, you can create a likeness to develop from College Hockey all the way up to the big leagues, should you perform well enough.
Throughout each match, you are given key objectives depending on your play style choice, though it does something that I would like to see introduced in the Fifa Be a Pro. There are three key areas of progress; Defence, Offence and Team play. During a match, Coach feedback is given to provide you with actions that could increase each of these categories, such as poking the puck off an attackers stick to turnover play, body checking a player or assisting in a goal, and will also highlight negatives such as if you fail to win a fight, put yourself or the team in an offside position, or fail to cover your marking.
At the end of the match, these areas are each given a rating which culminates in your overall score. As such, experience is allocated to your set areas according to these scores, so if you hog the puck, and fail to play as a team, you will soon find some of your stats start to drop, rather than rise.
This forces you into a team player mentality, and negates the lone wolf approach that a lot of Fifa players tend to take.
One minor addition that I particularly loved, was the bench camera. For those that do not follow the game, unlike other popular sports, substitutions occur regularly in Hockey as Lines are sent out in rotation. When this happens, a tap of the button will return you to your bench and from here the camera changes to a “player view” camera, watching the action from the sidelines. With far less time spent on the ice, 20 min games are actually quite quick, as you can skip the bench time for when you are next subbed on.
Further to this you also have Be a GM mode, which does exactly what you would expect, with players given a wealth of players and stats to manipulate in order to create the best team possible, even going as far as being able to schedule meetings to address issues such as moral or performance, utilising contextual responses to more uniquely structure these interactions.
Should you not be a fan of the stat heavy simulator, then Hockey Ultimate Team is a strong middle ground, allowing you to construct and play as a team with the randomly assigned booster packs you start out with. Once again, you can buy into this to gain additional cards, but this is by no means essential to enjoying the experience and finding a good set of lines with which to form your team is critical to success.
For the most part, the AI is extremely competent, but occasionally players will ignore the puck passed to them, and goaltenders occasionally let in shots that would be considered a simple save.
Graphically, NHL 16 is a feast. Character models are amazingly detailed and even the spectators look living, unlike the mass of non-descript faces other sports games tend to have, and 16 is audibly outstanding. From the ringing metallic reverb of a shot hitting the goal frame, to the cacophonous crowd chanting mid match, all of the audio is finely tuned and pitch perfect.
I went into NHL16 hoping that it would be a game that even a novice could pick up and play without feeling intimidated. What I actually found was a game that can be enjoyed in both quick bursts and extended stints, no matter your skill level.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 8.5/10 Format: Xbox One/PC/PlayStation 4 Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of NHL 16 by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of ten days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.