It only took a year, but EA Sports' hockey franchise is skating on smooth ice once again.
"NHL 16," available now, brings back all the modes of play that were conspicuously absent from its predecessor a year ago when the franchise made the leap to next-gen consoles. Not to reopen old wounds, but "NHL 15" suffered from its lack of depth despite some tight on-ice gameplay.
That's not the case here.
EA Sports Hockey League makes its return and should delight the hardcore base of the game, especially those with friends dedicated to playing together. What's not as much fun is when random teammates drop in and out of games, but that's how it goes with online gameplay.
Be a Pro and Be a GM modes have been restored to full strength after playing short-handed a year ago. It's easier to build an emotional attachment to your team or player thanks to added depth. Be a Pro, in particular, scores big thanks to the ability to choose your path to the NHL from the beginning. Want to join your favorite team? Go for it. Wish to roll the dice in the NHL draft right away? That's OK. Looking to experience the entire road to the pros by beginning in the CHL? That's an option, too.
Online and offline shootouts and playoff tournaments are back, too, for those who fancy a shorter experience that isn't a simple exhibition game.
The action on the ice wasn't in need of drastic changes, but a few key improvements go a long way.
The On-Ice Trainer makes it simpler for newbies to jump in and play right away. When turned on and set to the appropriate level of familiarity with the controls, prompts will appear over the user controlled player advising what moves to pull off and what button to input. It's optional, but it's a great tool to teach the game without memorizing button maps.
More subtly, authentic in-arena celebrations have been added. Now, when the Rangers score at the Garden, their goal song will play in the arena complete with fans chanting along. Few sports games approach this level of atmospheric immersion. It's too bad leaguewide facial scans haven't been made a priority yet.
If there's one gameplay complaint, it's that goalies still let a few boneheaded goals get by. That's less common on Hardcore difficulty, however.
Regardless, "NHL 16" has returned to its spot on the front line of sports gaming franchises.
"NHL 16," from developer EA Canada and publisher EA Sports, is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One