NHL 16 review: A solid improvement over last year’s entry

NHL 16 PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One EA Sports Rating: Everyone 10+ 4 out of 5
NHL 16
PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
EA Sports
Rating: Everyone 10+
4 out of 5

When you’re a fan of certain Canadian hockey teams – let’s say the beleaguered Edmonton Oilers, or the luckless Toronto Maple Leafs – it can be hard to have faith that the mistakes of last season won’t be back to haunt your team for another year.

But gamers who were worried that the ailments that plagued last year’s NHL 15 would return in this year’s instalment can breathe easy. While NHL 16 might not be as drastic an improvement as the Leafs hiring Mike Babcock or the Oilers drafting Connor McDavid, the newest addition to EA Sports’ made-in-Canada hockey franchise gets more things right than wrong.

All those missing elements from NHL 15 – the EA Sports Hockey League, Season Mode and the Action Tracker – are back in NHL 16, as are the customization options for created players. Other elements that were scaled back in NHL 15, such as Be a Pro and coach’s feedback, are also back with a few more bells and whistles. The EA Sports Hockey League brings in six vs. six play, which is also available in Online Team Play, with players taking up the job between the pipes.

The build-your-own-dream-team mode, dubbed Hockey Ultimate Team, is back and more nuanced. I found two problems with the new system, as games you play outside of this mode don’t allow you to gain points towards your team. Additionally, when you buy a new pack, you’re not allowed to place a stronger player immediately on your roster, which is cumbersome.

I’m partial to the online shootouts, where you collect points (and lose them) that move you up and down the rankings charts. Be sure to brush up on your goalie-control skills, as you’re in for a rude awakening if Claude Giroux or Pavel Datsyuk pull any toe drags or dirty danglers on you.

That’s about all that stands out with the online aspect of the game. But the single-player options have grown, and includes more of the subtle touches that a current-generation platform game should have.

The marketing tagline for NHL 16 is “Play together. Win together,” and that’s pretty accurate. In Be a GM mode, you have to not only put the best players on the ice, but you have to pay attention to how well they play together. If your squad’s morale gets too low, you may just have to hold team meetings or answer players’ trade demands. That’s something you’ll have to stay attuned to, especially if Dany Heatley or Mike Cammalleri are playing for you.

As for Be a Pro, the way you play shapes your player instead of accruing points to put towards whatever skills set you want to grow. That means you won’t necessarily have a well-rounded player, and stacking the stats won’t be as easy.

While playing as your created character, you’ll notice the new on-ice training aids, alerting you on what type of faceoff you should take and which players are open. Though skating has been bumped up and picking up the puck is smoother, often players skim over a loose puck after a poke check or a stick lift. This was a thorn in my side in most of my games.

NHL 16 has lots of little nuances that just add to the atmosphere and culture of the sport of hockey. Each team’s mascot makes an appearance in the stands, reacting to ebb and flow of the home team’s play. If the team wins, the players will raise their sticks to salute their fans.

And let’s not forget playoff beards, since nothing exemplifies the pure Canadiana of the sport more than sporting a lumberjack chin-coif. From the straggly chinstraps of Sidney Crosby in his early 20s to the dead naked mole rat on Valtteri Filppula’s mug to the man-bear growth of Henrik Zetterberg, all facial hair is evident and grows during the playoffs. (Unless you’ve got Chicago Blackhawks rookie Teuvo Teravainen playing for you. You won’t see a whisker growing on his face.)

After the disappointment of last season’s effort, NHL 16 feels like a solid rebuilding year. It may not go all the way to the Stanley Cup, but it definitely won’t miss the playoffs.

Originally posted on Postmedia Network sites Oct. 14

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