After a one-year hiatus, the EA Sports Hockey League is back. But is it better? We won't know for sure until NHL 16 releases on September 15, but the open beta has given players their first chance to lace up their skates and check out the 6v6 competitive play.
As with any beta, we had our share of failed connections and abrupt crashes that cost us time and wins, but tracking and fixing these issues is why these test periods exist. The occasional technical difficulty aside, the EASHL beta period was our first chance to get an extended feel for the NHL 16 gameplay and to kick the tires of this resurrected mode.
Here are five of our initial impressions:
Player Classes Show Promise
Though the first couple of weeks were always fun, over the last few years on old-gen consoles the EASHL inevitably devolved into an alternate hockey universe. Every player was either the size of Theo Fleury or Zdeno Chara while possessing unnatural skills thanks to a clever combination of skill upgrades and boosts. To purge this abuse of player customization, EA Canada has removed progression in favor of a League of Legends-style class system.
Gone is the ability to tweak your players' height, weight, and skill ratings. Instead, you choose from player archetypes with clear-cut strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the sniper can bury shots when given the chance, but this scoring prowess comes with poor defensive skills and a slight frame that makes it easy to get knocked off the puck. Conversely, a Kyle Brodziak-like grinder can win puck battles and backcheck effectively, but will miss the net by a mile if given a golden scoring opportunity.
Over the course of a dozen or so games we tried several of these classes (playmaker, sniper, grinder, two-way forward, power forward, offensive defensemen, defensive defensemen), and each feels distinct from one another. This certainly puts team play front and center, which will be a vast improvement for the mode, but we wonder if this approach is heavy handed.
If EA Canada continues to introduce new classes, this could prove an effective strategy, but we wonder if removing player improvement altogether goes too far. The concept of leveling isn't inherently bad or imbalanced; EA's implementation of it was the problem. If the developers set hard caps for various skills within these classes and let players customize within them, it would preserve the agency users have over their created pros while still preserving the game balance. We haven't played enough of the mode to levy judgment yet, but it's something we'll keep our eyes on.
The Spartan Infrastructure Needs Work
Transitioning to the new-gen consoles meant EA had to build the EASHL from the ground up again, a daunting task that takes a lot of time. Perhaps this is why the infrastructure around the mode feels so sparse.
The EASHL implements the division-based seasons structure that has proven popular across EA Sports titles. Every 10 games your team must meet certain point thresholds to stay in the division or rise to a higher level of competition, lest you come up short and suffer relegation. This is buttressed by tournaments that give you a chance for bragging rights over the other teams in your division.
Finding a team to play for is easy enough with the club search function, which gives you options to find teams with low or high membership in several regions across the globe. You can also start your own club, which allows you to name the team and pick your jersey from the collection of sweaters featured in the game. The customization comes up short compared to offerings like the NBA 2K16 Pro-Am, which allows players to customize everything from team jerseys to arenas.
Once you're in a club, don't expect to jump on the ice immediately. Before you start a game, you can enter the dressing room, where players choose their position. If your club is already playing a game, you need to wait for it to finish and hope a roster spot opens up for you. With no game tracking, you have no idea how long you will have to wait for a new game to start. Giving players a game log to watch (or even better, a spectator mode) would go a long way toward keeping players entertained while they wait for their chance. Or EA could build an infrastructure to allow players to scrimmage or start another game while the other is in progress should they have enough free skaters.
Not everyone has time to coordinate a new game with a full roster of players, so it would be great if EA offered a general pick-up game pool as well where you could quickly get into a game to sharpen your skills, even if a championship isn't on the line.
Skill Development Aside, The EASHL Would Benefit From Progression
Outside of hoisting a division title banner with your club, the EASHL doesn't give skaters a lot of incentive to perform well. Even if EA preserves the class structure, it could still offer a leveling system or some other type of rewards program to enhance your sense of achievement.
Players have more customization options than in previous games while creating their skater, but it's still a fraction of what it could be. Hockey is a sport with an amazing history of looks, from the amazing flow of a good '70s mullet to goaltenders too manly (or insane) to wear a facemask. One interesting approach to inject personality into the game and offer a sense of progression would be to integrate cosmetic gear into leveling up. Imagine unlocking Lanny MacDonald's amazing beard, gaining access to old-time hockey gear, or even earning the right to wear the Hanson Brothers' taped glasses over the course of your career.
Another approach would be introducing awards for career feats like Battlefield does. Giving players a sense of personal accomplishment by earning ceremonial pucks or silver sticks for career milestones could give them something else to strive for during their career.
The A.I. Is Better Than Expected, But Could Still Use Some Work
Not every team has the right amount of players online at once to field a full six-man roster. In these instances, you enlist the help of an A.I. ringer to fill out the lineup. You don't select the player class for these automatons on skates; instead you get a generic player who doesn't really have an identity (and may even wear the same number as a human teammate, which can be confusing).
These non-player skaters are better than we anticipated. Defenders skillfully patrol the middle of the ice, intercepting passes and denying easy entry to the slot. If you pair a CPU defender with a human, it is smart enough to stay back should the player pinch or join the rush. On offense, we saw a few A.I. players put home juicy rebounds and successfully dislodge the puck from a defender during a forecheck.
These are all positive developments, but don't expect perfect performances. Defenders are sometimes passive at protecting the back door, missing a winger who drifts into scoring position. Offensive players are also bashful at moving into strong puck support positions, preferring to stay out of the way. Defenders don't make smart plays with the puck while holding the blue line in the offensive zone, and goalies are still prone to giving up short-side goals at low-percentage shooting angles.
Gameplay Is Improved, But Not Revolutionary
When we played NHL 16 for the first time at E3, we generally liked the gameplay changes. With the EASHL, we got to spend more time with the game and have further insight to offer on the changes EA Canada is making to get this franchise headed in the right direction. Here are some observations.
- Shooting is tricky when you're playing a class other than sniper. We still put home some goals with playmakers and two-way forwards, but you need to be smart about capitalizing on your scoring opportunities. Don't aim for the corners as an offensively inferior class, because you're just going to send the puck into the glass behind the net. Also, be sure to slow down before you shoot; it's hard to score goals with grinders, two-way forwards, and even playmakers when you are at top speed.
- Perhaps it was the class composition of the teams on display, but we didn't see many scoring chances from the point result in goals. That includes slap shots and deflections from the front of the net.
- Penalties largely feel toned down, particularly in relation to stick lifts and poke checks on defense. You will still cause a ref to raise his arm if you are spamming your poke check, but we felt we could be more pro-active with our stick without being sent to the box immediately. We also didn't see a single goaltender interference call, which is a welcome change from the overprotective refs of NHL 16.
- EA is touting improved puck pickups with NHL 16, but we haven't noticed that yet. Players still struggle with taking possession of pucks that arrive to their back or side, often losing possession even though the puck is in an area you see NHLers commonly take hold of the puck.
- Checking has been toned down nicely. We didn't see as many NHL Hitz-style checks, though classes like sniper are still prone to getting upended when skating by a defenseman or power forward. Players seem better at absorbing checks, briefly losing balance instead of flailing on the ice. This is a much more realistic approach to the physical side of the game. That said, when you do lay someone out, it's annoying that they can often get up and regain puck possession before you can step over their body and earn the just reward from your big hit.
- We loved the precision skating during the E3 demo, which allowed us to move granularly in small spaces. This newfound fidelity of movement made it easier to be in sound defense positions, walk the blue line, and maneuver into scoring pockets. Much of this fidelity seemed toned down or absent in the EASHL demo. Instead of drifting confidently in small spaces to protect the middle of the ice, for instance, one movement forward can cause your defender to drift right out of position and give opponents a great scoring opportunity.
- The lack of tie-ups in front of the net makes playing defense more passive than it needs to be. Positioning helps cut off passing lanes, but when a guy sets up in front of our goaltender, we want to knock them the hell out of there.
All in all, we're bullish on the opportunity that a revamped EASHL presents for EA Canada and hockey fans alike. The core offering of this mode - competitive hockey without the shortcoming of A.I. - is inherently compelling. If the studio can build a robust suite around this mode and hone the gameplay, it could once again be a destination mode. But doing so will require more than simply offering bare-bones functionality, and if this beta is an indication, then we may still be a few years away from realizing that dream.