When EA Canada said that NHL 14 would be skipping a next generation release so that it could concentrate on making NHL 15 the best that it could possibly be, no one really batted an eyelid. It sounded like a perfectly reasonable thing and for the most part it was accepted. That is, until NHL 15 released. Hockey's first foray onto the PlayStation 4 was nothing short of an unfettered disaster; a game full of AI problems, exploits, and lacking so severely in content that it felt like an outline – we didn't look upon it too favourably. Thankfully, the hockey gods have answered this time around, as NHL 16 is the game that we should have gotten last season.
This year's edition comes jam packed with modes and options for hockey heads to sink their teeth into. Many of the usual culprits are back, including Be a GM, Be a Pro, and EA's microtransaction darling, Ultimate Team. These are pretty much the same as they've been for years now, but the inclusion of things like line chemistry and morale in regards to Be a GM can absolutely be seen as wins.
The biggest improvement, though, is probably in the feel of the title itself. All of the actions of a player – such as shooting – now feel more organic; it feels a lot closer to real hockey. This will be a welcome change for many, though it may take some adjustment. This more realistic feeling saps some of the arcadey elements from the game, so anyone looking for something closer to the NHL Hitz titles will find that the formula has strayed even further away from that than in past years.
Unfortunately, in spite of the rather large step forward that the gameplay has taken, the exploits remain. Excessive cross-crease passing for easy goals remains as simple as ever, and the AI won't do you any favours. For example, goalies are rather fond of bumping pucks into their own nets, or going to cover the puck and missing altogether. Meanwhile, a new AI issue has manifested in that defensemen on your team now have a fondness for taking the puck behind your net and staying there for ages. And then when they do decide to do something, they tend to pass right in front of the net, which anyone could tell you is a bad idea.
So far we've only really touched upon things that were already in the hockey games in past years. But rest assured there are new features – even if none of them are ground-breaking. Playoff beards, a long standing tradition of playoff hockey, are now a part of the EA NHL experience. Now, obviously, this isn't super important – but it's appreciated. By that same token, the inclusion of teams' authentic mascots helps to give their home arenas a greater sense of accuracy; EA has even incorporated the actual goal songs for many of the teams in the NHL.
The animations – well, many of them – also seem brand new for this year's model; boardplay and breakout pass animations in particular seem far more natural. One of the problems with previous hockey games was the fact that you could noticeably tell where pre-set animations started and finished. However, everything is far smoother this time around, and the game is better for it.
Being smoother and better extends beyond the actual core gameplay, too. The menus have received another overhaul, and they blow NHL 15's out of the water. The previous game, while aesthetically pleasing, was very slow, and everything took an eternity to load. This year's entry is far more stable, and seems to understand that waiting 20 seconds or so for just about every menu can be quite a nuisance.
The biggest problem, then, is that many of the improvements that we listed above shouldn't really have been problems in the first place. NHL 16 represents an undeniable advancement from 2015's game, but it's not the major leap forward that we expected – and were promised – for the PS4. EA Canada's steadied the ship here, but merely righting the wrongs of a dud is not nearly enough.
When you come right down to it, NHL 16 is an improvement over last year's release in virtually every department. Unfortunately, that isn't exactly saying a lot. If you like hockey, you will have no trouble enjoying this title, and you may even love it. The changes to movement and playing style allow everything to feel far closer to the real sport. But there are still plenty of problems floating around if you look hard enough, and the title carries with it a feeling of 'good enough' rather than going all out. So while things are certainly headed in the right direction, there is still plenty of room for improvement.