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NHL 16 Hands-On Impressions: Turning the Ice Into a Level Playing Field

Last year's installment of NHL Hockey focused on the physics and the fine realistic details of the game. This year, with NHL 16, the developers are working with fans to bring out the most balanced gameplay possible for both veteran and new players. EA Sports brought in fans, and the two most in-demand features are player customization and an even playing field, where skill plays a vital role in success. NHL 16 looks to fulfill those demands.

Firstly, players will be able to customize their hockey avatars like never before. Everything from putting candy pink tape around their sticks to wearing neon green skates will be possible. To take things a step further, players can put beards onto their characters, which will continue to grow out during the playoffs.

Next comes evening the playing field. For starters, NHL 16 dispenses with the traditional progression system, where players unlock points to put into a skill tree. This led to a imbalance between those who put in a lot of time to level up their characters and those that didn't. The new system is based on classes and skill. Every class has its strengths and weaknesses. A Sniper class, for example, will be better at shooting but will not be as good at things like hitting. Determining how a character develops depends almost entirely on player style. Players won't have to accumulate or distribute points to build up a custom character. Instead, they merely have to play the way that suits them best. Shooting will automatically improve the character's shooting skill while decreasing hitting, and vice versa. It means an end to the high level super character who is perfect at everything, but it also means that characters can grow more organically into the best hockey player in the world.

Organic gameplay extends to beginners too, with the visual trainer. Instead of putting players through a lengthy tutorial, moves like passing are overlaid on top of characters. Once players successfully complete the move, the tooltip goes away and doesn't return unless it's trying to teach you a more advanced move, allowing novices to learn as they play. A virtual coach rates your performance and lets you know how you might do better. The trainer can become quite extensive, teaching players how to do sophisticated moves and even how to dance after scoring a goal.

Being a beginner, I found the visual learner useful, but required some getting used to. It takes a significant amount of multitasking to catch the trainer's instruction while keeping an eye on the ice for opponents and when to take a shot. I oftentimes missed doing simple things like passing because opportunities and openings require split-second timing, and it took me a second or two to process the visual cues. It took a long while to find my groove and learn to pay attention to what was happening around me in addition to the virtual trainer, but eventually I figured out how to not shoot my puck to the middle of nowhere. I think, given enough time, the system could help me become a better hockey player.

NHL 16 doesn't skimp other realistic aspects either. The game still uses the live action announcers and outside stadium shots that seamlessly transition into game graphics. More subtle improvements include authentic air horn sounds and goal celebration music used at each individual arena. Also, the Green Men appear next the penalty box and will happily ham it up for the camera in all their morph suit glory.

So far as the hockey players, the game will feature all new puck pick-ups for better flow, along with precision skating. Revamped facing directions for AI controlled characters makes it possible to set up complex moves, because they'll always face the character in control of the puck. There's shouldn't be any more passing to a teammate's back. However, as I discovered, it is still entirely possible to pass the puck out to nowhere, and have none of the AI players react.

Goalie animations are also more accurate, with motion captured from Eddie Lack, who was recently traded from Vancouver Canucks to the Carolina Hurricanes. I've always thought the goalies were pretty impressive, but they do seem to move more naturally now. The visual trainer goes into some detail for shooting goals, with a red and blue cone showing how a shot might make it through and what will be blocked. The trick is aim the shot so that it follows the blue path, no matter how slim it might be. You have to pick a point in the goal to shoot for, usually in some upper corner of the net. However, that takes split second timing and control, which the visual trainer can't really teach you. It's something that you have to pick up through practice. The best the trainer can do is show you the way, and the rest is up to you.

Additional modes include team management, where you put together a team from scratch and bring them through a season. This year, the management mode gets a bit more complicated, as each player will have individual personalities to contend with and a morale system to go with it. Some players work well together, while others don't. The Sedin Twins, for example, will become very upset if you trade one of them away to a different team. However, they'll gain a huge morale boost if you manage to bring them together onto the same team.

In that same vein, some players will be very pleased to see some traded away while others won't. Some will take issue with how much ice time they get, and so on. As manager, you'll have to balance between putting together a winning team and how these different personalities relate to each other. You'll also have a chance to pump them up before a game starts or get mad at them if things are going badly.

NHL 16 releases on September 15 for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Get ready to hit the ice and grow out your virtual beard.

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