On-ice first star, off-ice distraction
With regard to sports games, the most important facet of any given title should always be the actual playing of the sport. That’s how NHL 15 is. It mostly shines when you’re on-ice, leading the charge through the neutral zone or lining up a bone-crushing hit on an unsuspecting forward. Damn EA for making me want to say this, but with NHL 15, when you’re in the game, you’re in the game.
But, if that’s all that really matters, why’s it impossible to overcome the feeling that its off-ice issues drag NHL 15 down like a player that just got viciously hooked from behind?
NHL 15 (Xbox One [reviewed], PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Developer: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Release: September 9, 2014
The direction of EA Canada’s focus on developing a hockey title for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 is clear — prioritize the actual game of hockey. Through a thorough revamping of the physics system, the action’s more convincing than ever. With the puck acting as a puck and not a spherical ball, small quirky plays happen with regularity, such as a pass hopping over a forward’s stick.
Likewise, the new physics make their impact on the 12 players on the ice. Crashing the net has never been so fun, as the huge pileups can lead to plenty of sloppy scoring chances. It’s also a joy to watch the goaltenders make save after save in differing fashion as they react to the chaotic nature of both the players and the puck. It’s tough to estimate exactly how nuanced and deep this physics rehaul goes — like if the boards at Joe Louis Arena are livelier than other rinks — but it’s enough to make a noticeable and constant impression.
For all the work that’s gone into physics, it’d be a moot point if NHL 15‘s AI didn’t act like hockey players would. Fortunately, they do. Defensemen will almost always stay at home, making it incredibly difficult to go coast-to-coast alone. Forwards will immediately jump on the backcheck after a turnover, getting the headstart on regaining control. Everyone usually just feels like they’re in the spot they should be.
This AI competency means that there really isn’t anything in the way of a consistent scoring glitch or strategy that I could find. Maybe wristers halfway into the attacking zone went in more often than they necessarily should, but there’s no wraparound trick or one-timer combo that will almost always work.
Despite its mostly spot-on gameplay, NHL 15 isn’t without its occasional moments that remind you this is just a videogame. In Be a GM mode, I lost Gabriel Landeskog for an extended period of time, but not before he skated up-ice flawlessly and scored a goal immediately after the commentator declared that “he looks shaken up.” Likewise, I once surrendered a penalty shot for an infraction along the wing, despite having another defenseman directly in front of the net. Moments like these are staunch reminders that even though the gameplay is good, it’s still far from perfect.
Really, the one thing that may go the furthest toward tying together NHL 15‘s illusion of “this is real hockey” is the presentation. Featuring a commentary team of NBC Sports’ Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro, fans would be hard-pressed to ask for a better line-up calling the game (except for you, everyone in Canada). The beginning of each match-up starts with a “live broadcast” that genuinely makes each game seem more important than it really is.
What’s most impressive about the presentation is how in-depth and dynamic it is. The team will talk about different angles to the game, profile certain characters, or discuss who’s on a recent hot streak. Even though you think you know what they’re about to say, the commentary’s almost always a surprise, as there’s a bevy of lines for many situations. Adding to that effect is the mid-game contribution from Ray Ferraro, who’s at ice level, and will periodically analyze a player’s game, whether it’s showcasing his big hits or chronicling his tremendous saves.
Of course, this excellence in production translates to the visuals, as one would expect from a game on current consoles. Everything that’s happening is sharper and more detailed. The player models look fantastic, and give plenty of reason to watch post-goal celebrations. When you watch the ice shavings as the goalie carves up the crease after an intermission, well, you get sort of nostalgic for that trademark hockey rink smell.
But, for everything it does right on the ice, NHL 15 missteps horribly off-ice. This year’s iteration is simply stunningly lacking in game modes and options, especially compared to NHL 14. Fans of the franchise will likely be affected in some way, as the list of things nixed is too great to ignore. Just as a sample, gone are EA Sports Hockey League, GM Connected, Winter Classic, Be a Legend, and regular old season mode. Those are just some of the greater examples.
Even for the modes that remain, many are scaled back in inexplicable ways. For instance, in Be a Pro, it’s no longer an option to simulate to the next shift. You’re just forced watch mindlessly from the bench. Unfortunate enough to take a penalty? Then you might as well just go make a sandwich or take a restroom break.
Be a GM is similarly stripped. For a mode that thrives on control, NHL 15 gives you next to none. The AHL affiliate teams have been done away with, and players in the minors don’t accumulate any season stats — they just sort of exist without any progress that you can control. There are no longer any goals to aim other than winning (I guess). Probably most egregious, the year-end draft is completely run by the CPU, and the preseason and fantasy drafts are gone.
Predictably, the Hockey Ultimate Team mode is plenty intact. After all, EA looks at it as a central piece to making $1 billion from extra content this year. However, the only way to earn pucks now seems to be from playing online — no longer picking up a few from time spent in singleplayer modes. Or, (as EA would surely like) just open up that wallet of yours.
For what it’s worth, EA’s patching some of these missing features back into NHL 15. Already added are a playoff mode, coach feedback in Be a Pro, and the three stars of the game (how the latter was ever overlooked, I’ll never know). Coming soon are online team play and the aforementioned ability to control the draft in Be a GM. That’s the extent of the plans that EA has outlined thus far.
It’s all such a shame because at its heart NHL 15 is a very solid hockey game. It just doesn’t do any of the non-hockey stuff right. Honestly, newcomers to the franchise might not even notice. But, series veterans would feel incredibly cheated. If nothing else, this is a great foundation for EA Canada to build on as it gets more comfortable developing for Xbox One and PS4.
There are undoubtedly great things in the pipeline for the NHL franchise, but NHL 15 isn’t a part of those plans.