Among EA's many sports franchises, few have enjoyed the level of consistent quality that the company's NHL series has over the last several years. The on-ice action, even at its worst, has remained thoroughly entertaining, and the wealth of modes and features has generally gotten better with each successive installment. Considering that, like with the NFL, EA has no competition when it comes to NHL games, the fact that it has mostly avoided stagnation for so long is, in itself, something of a minor miracle.
After playing NHL 15, I can safely say that the miracle is over.
NHL 15 represents the series' debut on the current generation of consoles. As with all yearly games on new consoles, there's always a concern of some features falling by the wayside as a team works to ensure their game actually runs on the new hardware. Last year, those concerns mostly didn't come to pass for games like Madden and NBA 2K. Madden 25 managed to keep its game intact on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 by delaying any serious visual or gameplay upgrades to this year's installment. NBA 2K14 lost a few features, but still managed to deliver a game with solid depth and incredible visuals. NHL 15, despite being a year removed from the respective debuts of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, manages to both feel stagnant and deeply regressive at once. Here is the same core gameplay delivered by the last couple of NHL installments, tweaked and futzed with, but not greatly improved. Alongside it, it offers a featureset that is a mere skeleton of what hockey fans have come to expect from these games. It is, by and large, the same hockey game you've been playing for years, with even fewer ways to play it.
But hey, don't take my word for it. Just take a gander at this post from EA's official NHL blog, which outlines the content the developers plan on adding to the game over the next couple of months via free patches. If you don't feel like reading through all of that, here's a bullet-pointed list:
- Playoff Mode
- Be a Pro -- Coach Feedback
- 3 Stars of the Game
- Layout and Player Item Animation Changes for Hockey Ultimate Team
- Online Team Play
- GM Draft
With the sole exception of the Ultimate Team changes, every single one of the things on that list is something that's been in a previous hockey game. In fact, a few of them have been in nearly every hockey game over the last couple of console generations. This isn't new content. It's the content you're already supposed to have, stapled back onto NHL 15's emaciated frame post-release. I shouldn't have to tell you why that's not acceptable for a game a publisher intends to charge full retail price for.
That blog post offers no mea culpa on this, mind you. At best, it sidesteps the issue by referring to NHL 15 as "the foundation to deliver next-generation hockey experiences to you for the years to come." The points on which this foundation is built? The visual upgrade afforded by the jump to new consoles, more realistic puck physics, and an improved broadcast presentation. All fine points, I guess, but none make up for either what's missing, or what's remained unchanged.
Starting with those upgraded visuals, certainly NHL 15 on current-gen consoles is the best looking hockey game made to date. The upgrades to player faces and models are readily apparent the moment you boot up the game. Arenas look excellent, and the ice scrapes and deforms with terrific realism. Yet there are problems, too. Despite the uptick in model fidelity, animations often look stilted and awkward as players transition from move to move. It's not that much worse than what you've seen in previous NHL games, but it's more noticeable given how clear and hyperrealistic the on-ice action looks now. An exquisitely detailed goalie flipping up in an awkward spin maneuver to get back to his feet isn't made less weird by how good the model itself looks. If anything, it makes it weirder. You'll see a lot of generic, not-great-looking player faces too, especially once you start looking beyond the top players in the league. And for some reason, jerseys have been given an added coat of physics that makes them swish around in ways that make no sense. It's one thing to see a jersey flap as a player goes full-bore down the ice. It's quite another to have that flapping take place while a player slowly bends down in anticipation of a face-off.
That's by far the biggest offender when it comes to physics, though those new puck physics aren't entirely without issue either. By and large, the movements of the puck on the ice look correct. There is a proper weight and momentum to how it slides around, but for some reason, that properness doesn't always extend to goals scored. Apart from the usual issue of goals shot to the high corners of the net working incredibly often, a lot of the goals I ended up scoring throughout my time in NHL looked absolutely terrible. And I don't mean the kind of junky, off-a-rebound goals that are entirely correct for a real NHL game. I mean strange, unrealistic bounces and apparent saves turned into glitchy-looking scores. It's not all this way, of course. You can still set up beautiful-looking multi-pass plays, terrific one-timers, and the like. But those good moments come with a comparable number of bad ones.
Again, the on-ice portion of NHL 15 isn't really the issue. It's still the solid game of hockey it's been for a while, though it's arguably more the same solid game of hockey than it's been in a while. Meaningful advancements in gameplay just aren't there this year. The AI is strong, especially if you bump up the difficulty--you'll see teams react to repeated tactics and change up their play accordingly--and the feel of the game remains highly enjoyable, provided you're playing against a good competitor. And really, that's vital this year, because there aren't a lot of other ways to play NHL 15.
Yes, Be a GM and Be a Pro modes are still here, but they don't much resemble the modes as featured in the last several entries. The GM mode has its basic framework features, letting you trade, sign free agents, and futz with player lines for up to 25 seasons. But these features are greatly lessened this time around. All the minor league hockey interaction is gone--you can still send players to the minors, but you can't play any games with your AHL affiliate, nor do players in the minors accrue stats of any kind--rookie scouting has devolved into a brief menu interaction where you assign scouts to regions for various lengths of time, and you can't even draft your own players. Or rather, not yet, anyway. A GM Draft with a three-minute timer is coming as part of those content patches, which is a step, I suppose, to returned normalcy, but doesn't really fix how barren this mode feels.
Be a Pro fares even worse. This mode has never been a beaming example of how to do individual player careers in sports games, but it at least had a flow to it that felt like a decent representation of what being a player drafted into the NHL might be like. All of that is gone now. In NHL 15's Be a Pro, your created player is no longer allowed to exert any influence over what team drafts him. He is thrust onto a team, and immediately sticks onto that team. Again, because there is no minor league hockey gameplay, you never have any risk of being sent down to the minors. You're on your team until it's time to sign a new contract, which you then do, and keep doing until you get your player up to a high enough rating where he warrants longer-term deals. On the ice, you can no longer simulate through shifts you're not playing on, so instead you have to watch your team play through every segment of the game. Even more maddening, the game is insane when it comes to doling out ice time. Though there's no coach feedback during games (something that is also supposedly going to be added back in via patch), you will still find yourself periodically demoted or promoted to different lines while playing as a skater (goalies obviously don't have this issue). Instead of diminishing your ice time, the game just gives you the same amount of ice time (a lot of it) while pairing you with worse players. You can get bumped all the way down to the fourth line, and still end up with the most ice time of any player on your team. It's infuriating.
With those two marquee modes left as functional, if tedious husks of their former selves, all that leaves is Ultimate Team and online play. Again, online team play is coming back, but it's not in the retail release. The online GM mode, however, isn't coming back this year, so all you're left with otherwise is basic competitive play, which certainly works, based on the games I played during my testing. I experienced minimal lag and no major connectivity issues, so at least there's that. As for Ultimate Team, it is essentially identical to the way it's been in the last couple of games. Which makes a certain amount of terrible sense, given that Ultimate Team, with its microtransactions for card packs, represent the easiest way for EA to make additional money from the game.
Even the presentation of the game feels like it's walked back from previous years. Games are introduced with video footage of the arena you're playing in, as well as the real-life visages of Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. The choice to use actual video footage of the two commentators is an interesting one that I think helps get rid of the strange, uncanny valley-ness you'd see in, say, this year's Madden with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, but it also looks strange juxtaposed against the in-game players. More irritating is the in-game commentary itself, which is exceedingly light on detail or flavor. Olczyk barely talks outside of a few key game situations, and he rarely has anything of value to say. Emrick's play-by-play is strangely devoid of energy, and also feels like it was edited together by a complete lunatic. If you're into the idea of hearing Emrick yell the words "geometrically" and "catawampus" several times per-game, you may wring some amusement from this commentary, but none of it lands with any enthusiasm or excitement, and most of it barely qualifies as informative. The upgraded crowd noise is the lone audio upgrade of note, and it is certainly a huge improvement. Crowds react wonderfully to every play, booing the home team profusely when they give up a bad goal, and cheering wildly after a big play. If only the commentators could have exuded a similar level of energy and variance...
I haven't even mentioned the non-existent customization features, the absent Winter Classic game, or any number of other, smaller things that serve to render NHL 15 such a profound disappointment. Sure, the game on the ice is still capable of delivering a thrilling gameplay experience, but this is also true of last year's game, and the year before that, and the year before that. EA can tout its unprecedented realism as a reason to give this year's game the benefit of the doubt, but that's not a strong selling point when it's the selling point for every sports game you release annually, especially when it's meant to make up for a wealth of discarded features. Whatever NHL 15 gains in visual fidelity, it loses several times over in depth and replay value. In asking players to pay a premium price for this game, you're implying that all the stuff that's been tossed aside in favor of just getting a game running on these machines didn't really matter, that you should still buy this game because it plays hockey pretty well and looks nice. Given that I've just dusted off my copy of NHL 14, and tossed my copy of NHL 15 on the shelf with no intention of touching it for the foreseeable future, let's just say I very much disagree with that notion.