Video Games

'NHL 16': the puck drops here

NHL 16 screenshot.

NHL 16 screenshot.  (EA Sports)

The puck doesn’t drop on the new National Hockey League season for another few weeks, but hockey fans can get their fix starting Tuesday. “NHL 16” from the EA Sports division of video game giant Electronic Arts is on sale for Microsoft’s Xbox One & 360 models and Sony PlayStation 4 & PS3.

The next-gen graphics are the closest to lifelike yet, and a casual observer may be forgiven for mistaking the players and broadcasters for their real-life counterparts.

Hockey passion is evident in this version from the rowdy and faithful fans packing the virtual venues. It is also evident from the game’s creators at the EA Canada studio. Fancy stick work, controller vibrations when checking an opponent and slap shots that whiz into the net make fair-weather fans and pro players alike look great on-screen while playing.

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Some points of emphasis for this version include more precise skating on offense and for picking off passes, more seamless puck pickups for better control when receiving passes on the fly, and more authentic goaltender’s movements as you control the crease.

During the offseason, the producers of “NHL 16” faced off with dedicated fans whose feedback during the creative process helped shape this latest edition of the game.

The fan-friendly version looks to score with a broader audience this season. It is also expected to bounce back from sales that analysts say fell short of the goal last year when some features were not included for the new console generation.

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“’NHL 15’ suffered from bad reviews and fan outrage from some modes being removed from the game that had previously been announced/promised to fans in part due to the series transitioning for the first time on Xbox One and PS4,” said Morningstar Equity Analyst Neil Macker, who covers Electronic Arts. “The inclusion of those modes and increased feature parity with (other EA Sports titles) Madden and FIFA will help with reviews and fans staying away,” he added.

There may also be smoother skating this year as more people are buying the current-generation consoles, PS 4 and Xbox One, and analysts expect to see sales rising as a result. In a note to clients, Pacific Crest Securities wrote that it expects all the EA sports titles, “FIFA, Madden, and NHL to grow (sales) this year.”

Fan power play:

One feature fans are expected to welcome back is the EA SPORTS Hockey League (EASHL). It’s an online team mode, allowing players to form teams and skate six-on-six, including player-controlled goalies. It allows ambitious squads to challenge a global pool of competitors or a group of friends.

In-game coaching may be distracting for top-level players, but the constant coaching can offer insightful tips to casual and first-time players; there’s clearly an emphasis to broaden the game’s appeal.

The updated “Be a Pro” mode, in particular, gives tips between shifts to improve your skills before going back on the ice, or online to face off with friends. And, the ability to simulate other shifts speeds up games and eliminates spectating while on the bench.

GM mode includes managing “personalities” on your NHL team, allowing for trade demands, teammate friction, and more. Players can also call team meetings and adjust their roster (trading away troublemakers or bringing some new talent into the fold).

A hairy decision

On a lighter note, the game maker has enlisted a familiar face to many hockey and film fans in its commercial campaign to launch the title: film director Kevin Smith. On Twitter, Smith claims to have been playing the game since its debut 24 years ago.

Smith tweeted that being in the video game commercial makes him “pucking happy.” The folks at EA Sports no doubt hope the return of some favorite features to the sports title combined with more realistic gameplay and the console upgrade cycle will spread that happy feeling among more gamers this year--like so many chapeaux tossed on the ice after a hat trick.