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NHL 16 / 20th of September 2015

Now, whilst I have certainly been a fan of EA’s long running hockey series from the time when it was known as EA Hockey, through NHLPA ’93 and onwards, I still don’t actually know very much about the sport to be honest. Still, this doesn’t prevent me enjoying the games, despite how “technical” they might be getting these days, though personally, I still think NHL ’95 is the best ice hockey game to date, so it was a tad disappointing that, despite the rumours, EA didn’t opt to include it in last year’s release to celebrate its anniversary. Despite this, I actually liked last year’s effort, because on the ice, it really was a joy to play; fast and smooth, it was a wonderful recreation of the real world sport. However, the game was plagued by its grossly inadequate lack of content, which rendered what would have been a must buy sports sim as little more than a title to pick up out of a bargain bin once the price had been dropped accordingly. Fast forward twelve months though, and EA Canada have returned with the latest iteration of the series, and what have they delivered? One of the finest and most comprehensive sports titles ever released.

As the core gameplay was already sublime in NHL 15, this latest effort is no different, running at a super smooth 60fps, the action flows as swiftly and frenetically as the real deal, and as the ebb and flow of the game leaves defensive weaknesses that can be exploited, the feeling of scoring is indeed an incredibly satisfying one. To ensure that this is the case, the controls are both accurate and responsive, though if I were to raise a complaint here, it’s that in Be a Pro mode, when pressing the pass button to request the puck from a teammate, my player would sometimes simply knock it away as soon as I gained possession, but aside from that minor quibble, the on ice action is as good as it can be.

Visually, the game is just as strong as it was last year too, from the myriad scrapes in the ice, to the fantastic reflections and smooth animations, NHL 16 is an excellent looking game – even if the crowd can have a tendency to obscure one’s view of the rink - and the fantastic TV style presentation never fails to impress. Likewise, the superb commentary (though it is a bit repetitive) and first-rate crowd noises really add to the atmosphere, but then, this was never an area where NHL has really suffered, NHL 15 was a fantastic hockey experience, it’s just that the game didn’t have much to offer beyond simple exhibition matches, and thankfully, that is anything but the case here.

I’m happy to report that the likes of Season Mode and Online Team have been brought back, and Ultimate Team also makes a reappearance, though featuring a few tweaks that allow for single player play. Last year’s effort, if I remember correctly, forced players to immediately take their team online to compete against other human players, but this year, teams can be tweaked and optimised beforehand, which is an essential addition to the game. Naturally, Be a Pro is present, allowing would-be ice hockey buffs to create a player and embark upon a career spanning journey to the very top of the game after stating out in somewhat more humble beginnings. Personally, this is my favourite way to play any sports title, though I do find that NHL 16 can be overly harsh when doling out the XP needed to improve by overly criticising your performance mid-game, which makes it rather difficult to achieve the standards that coaches ask for. Still, I’ve got a long way to go in my career, and personally, I’m just glad that an NHL team drafted me at all!

Those familiar with FIFA’s new enhancements this year will know the game incorporates a trainer to allow new players to learn some of the basic skills that they will need to succeed in the game, so some of you may be delighted to know that this same feature has made its way into NHL 16 too. As one moves around the ice, on screen prompts appear to indicate suggested passing options from the coach, but beyond this, it also indicates, when in a position to shoot, how much of the goalmouth is being covered by the goalie, thus instructing the player on where to aim their shots in certain situations. Defensively, the trainer identifies areas of the ice where the player should move to in the event of an opponent attacking, and what players they should be paying attention to. Generally, this works fine, though I have noticed – in Be a Pro anyway - that regardless of whether or not I do what the coach asks of me, should something go wrong anyway, the buck usually stops with me alone, regardless of what happened. Also, as my pro was a newcomer to the sport, with low stats, I would frequently lose face-offs, prompting the coach to instruct me to adopt a different grip to boost my strength, except that I had no idea how to do it, and the trainer was none too keen to help me.

Now, anyone that plays EA’s sports titles knows full well that, whilst they may very well be the best of the bunch (except Rory McIlroy, of course, even with almost no competition it still can’t help but feel utterly underwhelming), their online play suffers incredibly from latency issues, and perhaps unsurprisingly, NHL 16 is no different. You’d think that with all of the money that the software giant rakes in, they’d think about splashing out a bit of cash on some new server farms, wouldn’t you? But alas, we are still waiting, so don’t expect to head online to enjoy the smooth sporting experience that you no doubt crave.

Still, putting aside some relatively minor issues, NHL 16 is the best version of the long running sports series available on the market today; it looks fantastic, it plays exceptionally well and it’s just about as comprehensive as a videogame can get. For fans of the sport, or the series, this is a must have title, so to them, I certainly couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

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