3 Up/3 Down: NHL 16’s Feature Reveal

3 Up/3 Down is a new type of article feature here at Stat Box Stories which analyzes aspects of upcoming or already-released videogames for their strengths and weaknesses.  Today we take a look at the recently-announced feature reveal for EA SPORTS NHL 16.

Last year’s release of NHL 15 for the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One was a rare misstep for the franchise, a franchise which long basked in Sports Game of the Year awards and was viewed as one of–if not the most–steady and solid franchise in the entire genre of sports video gaming.  Whatever reason it was that the development team at EA Canada had to ship without so many features compared to past versions of the game, it led to great disappointment at launch, disappointment which overshadowed the fact that the game had improved so much in on-ice gameplay and the implementation of a brand-new broadcast presentation using NHL on NBC.

As a result, fan requests have taken center stage for feature implementation in NHL 16, and transparency has become paramount as the official title site for the game features an “Ask EA” landing page where players are encouraged to ask questions of the developers and can even see them answered.  A title which had been a perennial winner faces the unfamiliar situation of having to prove itself this year, and all eyes are on the game to see how it reacts.  Features can be reviewed at the NHL 16 title site here and a full list of included game modes can be found here.  Read on for my 3 Up/3 Down take on the feature reveal of NHL 16:

3 Up

NHL 16 Photo 1

1. The Return of EA SPORTS Hockey League

We know we can’t talk about team without mentioning the EA SPORTS Hockey League. This fan favorite mode has been reimagined to deliver a competitive and balanced experience.  We’re removing the progression grind, that our fans told us created an unbalanced online experience, in favor of a new player class system. These player classes will be tuned to play together, each bringing their own strengths to the ice. The new EA SPORTS Hockey League is all about putting together the right mix of classes to support your team’s playing style, and then stepping on to the ice and letting your skill, not ratings, be the differentiator between being good and being great.

Of the missing features in the debut of the NHL franchise on the new generation of consoles, EASHL was one that was missed the most.  This online multiplayer experience has been a much-used feature in the game, and even though a rudimentary Online Team Play feature was added post-release to NHL 15, it served only to be more frustrating for the die-hard EASHL fans who were denied their mode in the newest iteration of the game.  Even better than the return of EASHL for NHL 16 is the move towards a player class system, based around strengthening the concept of team play–a concept central to team sports and cooperative play–so that teams that work together are better able to compete against teams overly reliant on one or two players.  If this new system works as suggested here, EASHL in NHL 16 will be a popular game mode and a return to form for the game.

NHL 16 Photo 2

2. Visual On-Ice Training

Whether you’re new to the NHL series and looking for pointers or are a grizzled veteran trying to perfect your game, this new training tool will help sharpen your offensive and defensive skills no matter your talent level. Visual aids project shooting targets, passing lanes, open teammates, and more.

Even though I’m personally a big fan of just about every sport and played many of them in my youth, I always respect when a sports video game goes through the trouble of setting up training and tutorial modes which not only teach the sport but also teach players how to be successful within the video game itself.  After the successful implementation of Skills Trainer and The Gauntlet in Madden NFL 15 and the skill challenges in recent versions of EA SPORTS FIFA, hopefully NHL 16 will present a mode which can simultaneously introduce new players to the sport of hockey while teaching the kinds of skills which will be necessary to compete in the game, particularly in the returned EASHL mode.

3. Seamless Puck Pickups

The ability to quickly control a pass or corral a loose puck can be the difference between generating a scoring chance and getting leveled. New puck pickups result in smoother transitions when receiving the puck no matter what your position, giving you more time and control to make your next move.

For as much as I enjoyed the on-ice gameplay of NHL 15 on the new consoles, one thing that proved frustrating was the ability of my players to actually take possession of the puck, even when a scenario seemed relatively straightforward for the player to gain possession and break out of the defensive zone or into the attacking zone.  Even though gameplay features have been only broadly touched on by EA SPORTS releases thus far, this particular bullet point at least conveys that the development team is aware of something that wasn’t working so well in the last release, and hopefully this time around this integral part of the gameplay experience will function more smoothly.

3 Down

1. GM Connected Missing in Action

GM Connected was a highly requested feature that unfortunately wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped. When we look a the data, only a very small number of leagues had more than 2 players per league and though the mode supported up to 25 years, very few leagues made it past the 20 game mark of season 1.

We understand that that there were some issues with the overall speed of the mode. Moving forward we want to work with our fans to better understand their needs and expectations on what a great online dynasty for the new generation of consoles should deliver and where we fell short on GM Connected similar to the approach we took in bringing EASHL to ‘NHL 16.’

Despite the strengths of online leagues in other EA SPORTS titles like Madden NFL and the now-defunct NCAA Football, GM Connected has had a rockier road in the EA SPORTS NHL franchise.  The mode was omitted entirely from NHL 15, and unfortunately won’t be found in this year’s upcoming game either.  While it’s a good step that the development team has admitted that it’s not entirely an issue with fan interest in the mode, there are many questions left unanswered regarding how EA Canada envisions GM Connected working better in the future, so that more players are engaged in the mode to justify the expense of time and money on further development and implementation.  With EASHL coming back to NHL 16 this year, perhaps one of the focal points of NHL 17‘s development will focus on engaging the die-hard fans of the franchise to see what they want out of the GM Connected experience.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t fix anything come this September.

NHL 16 Photo 3

2. Live the Life Mode Apparently Missing

The way you play dictates the type of player you will become in an all-new Be a Pro progression system. On-ice actions directly influence attributes earned, ensuring that your Pro will reflect the way you play. Sim to your next shift and the ability to work your way up from CHL rookie to an NHL Superstar also make a return in NHL 16.

Towards the end of the previous console generation’s reign as the focal consoles for development, the single-player career known as Be A Pro got developed some more through the addition of “Live the Life,” which made the career experience more like a role-playing game.  Players had the opportunity to make decisions on and off the ice which would affect their popularity with the media, team ownership, teammates, and fans alike.  Based upon what has been said about Be A Pro mode thus far, it sounds like this feature might also be on the bench for NHL 16.  Even though much of these new interactions and decisions were communicated through text menus and not the fully-realized interactivity of the career mode in the NBA 2K series, it still added a layer of personality which had previously been lacking in NHL‘s career offerings.  And, as imperfect as it was, it was still operating beyond the average single-player experience from EA SPORTS, making it all the more disappointing that it has sloughed away in the transition to new consoles.  As the development team continues to analyze the future of the game’s career modes, here’s hoping that the new technology available allows for a more developed exploration of these ideas instead of a complete abandonment in favor of a more vanilla approach to the game.

3. No Player Editing in Be A GM Mode

You will not have the ability to edit players in GM mode other than changing jersey numbers and captaincy. We prioritized bringing back features like AHL Integration, Fantasy Draft and Sim Intervention back to Be A GM over this. This is something we will continue to look at.

The transparency here is appreciated, making the clear case for why player editing in the game’s Be A GM mode is not happening for NHL 16.  That being said, this feature is going to be a sticking point for many people in the community until it makes its return to the game, and there will continue to be many people who won’t be willing to accept even the most reasonable of explanations for why they can’t have it now.  Sports video game players who invest time in team-based career modes are already making a deeper investment into a game than most players; it stands to reason that they want to exercise as much control as is possible in their interactions with the title.  AHL integration, Fantasy Draft, and Sim Intervention are all big features to bring back into NHL 16 all at once, and they will be used and appreciated.  But there’s little doubt that come the time to learn about the features coming to NHL 17, the chorus of disappointment will be much louder if there’s no progress to report here.

EA SPORTS NHL 16 will be released in September 2015 for the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One.  EA SPORTS NHL Legacy will be released in September 2015 for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360, and will essentially be a roster update from last year’s versions of the game on that console generation.  Let me know what you think about this feature reveal in the comments below!

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