Well, it’s that time again. Can you smell it? That’s the smell of autumn or fall or whatever you want to call it, and that means hockey season is only weeks away. This also means virtual hockey is close at hand, and this time on next-gen consoles. So for those gamers suffering through a long hot summer waiting patiently for the sport played on ice with a frozen chunk of rubber, the time is close at hand. EA Sports is on the cusp of one of the most anticipated titles in its long running NHL series. The franchise is like gold to Canadians, and to some, almost as well loved as the real thing. The NHL franchise is also very popular around the world making it one of the best sports titles within the EA stable.
NHL 14 was probably the best incarnation of the series to date, with EA raising the bar continually since around NHL 07. I wondered all summer how EA could make NHL 15 any better. As NHL 15 will grace the Xbox One and the PS4 the added horsepower of the two machines really has me excited. I have been playing the Xbox One version for some time now and have come up with some criticisms and praises for the new game.
Right away the power of the new consoles comes to the forefront. The increase in graphical quality is immediately noticeable on multiple levels. EA made a point of making the game look even better and as close to the real thing as possible, re-working many different aspects of how it all looks.
Let’s start with the players; they have been rebuilt with three distinct layers. The body, equipment, and jersey all interact independently of each other; making every contact look more realistic. You can clearly see player’s jerseys flapping in the air as they gain speed or fold under hits from pucks, sticks and other players. The effect almost makes the character models photo realistic. Player likenesses have also been updated. Every player is almost immediately recognizable, stars and goons alike. Player’s faces take on emotions and different animations, like anger or just being out of breath. I noticed on more than one occasion hard skating players puffing hard trying to get their breath back at the end of a long shift.
Along with the players EA has accurately recreated every arena in the NHL from top to bottom. You can see the wooden rafters in Madison Square Garden (home of the NY Rangers) or the 3 tiered private suites or boxes in Staples Center (home of the LA Kings); the level of detail is quite amazing. In our hometown rink of Rogers Arena (Vancouver Canucks) I noticed the almost perfect lighting effects; it felt as if I was watching a home game on the television.
The overall presentation has also been completely redone this year, giving way to a new commentary duo and color man. EA has integrated real motion pregame video commentary against the NHL 15 in-game visuals; the results are pretty slick and quite seamless. I really like the new crew. It was time to get some new blood and re-do the script. Incidentally there are over 35,000 lines of brand new commentary. The new team is comprised of Mike (Doc) Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and the ever-popular Ray Ferraro. Mike and Eddie have been commentating in the NHL for a number of years, primarily in the east, while Ray Ferraro is a west coast native and has ties to Vancouver local sports talk radio as well. Of the three Ferraro is by far my favourite; he is a smart guy with great hockey knowledge with a healthy dose of arrogance. On the down side, at least for me, is the NBC branding. The typically Canadian feel of our heritage sport is lost in the TV style NBC broadcast. It is definitely not deal breaker but I’m sure they’re other gamers that will share my opinion and would rather do without the branding.
In regards to the crowds, who are just as important in recreating a layer of realism, they are rock solid. They have been built using 9000 different crowd models and they have the look of a real sporting event. They move independently holding signs with names of their favorite players; you can also see cameramen, as well as people and vendors, moving around the aisles. The atmosphere created by all of this is really quite amazing.
This leads me to the sounds of the arena. As good as they look the fans sound incredible. They are loud and proud if you are winning but if you are on the losing end they will let you know with boos and cat calls. You can also hear players talking at each other as well as grunt and call for the puck on the ice. I really like that EA has included each and every horn, siren, whistle or buzzer from each and every rink in the league. They are easily distinguishable and most hockey nuts will be able to tell what rink they are from. The game also runs in DTS or Dolby Digital Surround Sound, so you are not going to be missing anything audio related.
So what about the gameplay you ask? My initial feeling was that EA spent a great deal of time dressing up an engine that wasn’t broken. Sure it had issues but overall it was quite good for its age. In actuality EA has rebuilt the engine from the ground up to take advantage of the horsepower of the next-gen machines. There have been some fundamental improvements.
The most improved aspect of the gameplay is to the Skill Stick. The system has been completely rebuilt and with positive results. I can see and feel how the interaction between the two analog sticks is much cleaner and very fluid. I found myself pulling off moves I never could do before. EA has also added a whole host of new dekes that are going to take practice, but the learning curve is a gradual slope rather than a steep hill.
The controls as a whole are largely untouched except for a few minor button placements, which are really easy to learn. For once fans of the series may actually feel as if they are playing intuitively, at least I felt this way. As you master the moves you will begin to feel an almost natural connection with the player you are controlling. It is most refreshing to not to have to learn a myriad of new moves that don’t seem to work, or work often enough to reward you.
NHL 15 is also a smart hockey game as the AI is another highlight. The CPU controlled players are smarter and seem a bit more aggressive and their placements are way more instinctive, although with a bit of wrangling you can get by them. When they are defending leads late in the game it is almost impossible to knock them off the puck, or they seem to press unrelentingly trying to score and tie it if they are behind. While I love the challenge they can seem a bit cheap at times, playing keep away from your players for what seems like forever. Regardless you’ll notice some AI changes for sure.
The AI’s ability for better puck control and body positioning may have something to do with the new improved True Hockey Physics. Every player on the ice is governed by 12 new collision physics that mimic real life hits and reactions. To make this even more technical, the system accounts for a mental awareness which players remember who hit them, how hard and when. Of course this trickles down the line to how they will react next time in a similar situation. Who says hockey is played by goons!?
In terms of modes and online play, unfortunately this is where I have some issues. Although some modes return from previous versions there are a number of glaring omissions. Of the modes that do return some get a refresh and some minor updates. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in EA’s Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) over the last couple iterations of NHL and I really love the NHL 14 version of this mode. One thing I can really appreciate is the updates in the HUT store in NHL 15 and the streamlining of packs is a godsend. All duplicates and unassigned items can now be stored in your inbox. You do not have to deal with them right away and this is especially handy if you have a full roster and need to free up space for another player. The other notable point in the HUT is having a place to store your unopened packs. In the past you had to open them within a certain time frame or lose them, but now they can be accessed whenever you need to. I have had several bonus packs disappear because I did not open them in the time allotted, which is a bit unfair. Don’t get me started about unfair, how about packs that you have bought but they never download; how about them EA?
I must mention the player cards themselves. 2014 player cards are big bright and easily readable, except for the players name. No biggie you say? Try flying through tons of player cards and reading the names by tilting your head to the left. NHL 15 has fixed that problem, perhaps a very minor issue to some, but it makes a big difference if you are trading lots.
There are still more modes to list like Be a GM, Be a Pro, Practice, online Versus and my other personal favourite next to the HUT, NHL Moments Live. As a Canucks fan I did notice that there are no Vancouver NHL moments; what gives? I can think of many moments especially in recent years, like Burrows hammering a knuckler over the Blackhawks goalie Jamie Crawford in OT of game 7 or even Bieska’s surprise goal in OT of game 5 against San Jose. How about Pavel Bure in 94, or maybe the Greg Adams back hander past Felix the Cat in 84? Sure, this is personal, but for a hometown produced game where is the love for our team?
So things look pretty good for NHL 15 right? Well hold on, not all is right as rain here. NHL 15 is missing quite a few notable modes of play, along with certain parts of modes that are in the game. Most notably, and the ones that fans have been screaming about, are no GM Connected, no Online Team Play, no EA Sports Hockey League, no Be a Legend, and no Season Mode (you can only play seasons in Be a GM, which is limited to NHL teams) to name a few. There are also some omissions to features in existing game modes including Be a GM, HUT, and Be a Pro. You’ll find that many of what is missing does effect some of the enjoyment of the game, as many have come to expect a feature laden NHL series.
To be fair EA has said that some of these modes and/or features of modes will be eventually restored. NHL 15 lead producer Sean Ramjagsing (or Rammer as he is affectionately known in the industry) has previously said that they worked on NHL 15 from the ground up. This has lead to unforeseen issues that tried to address, but they ran out of time and had to make some cuts. Rather than having a glitchy issue ridden game they are releasing a game without some of the problematic modes and there will be updates to address some issues. EA is hard at work to fix known problems and will update as fixes and modes are ready for download. For a detailed list of what is going to be fixed sooner then later you can click HERE for the direct word from EA themselves.
There are a few options in every mode that affect my style of play which is disappointing, and I’ll be honest here, it affects my overall score for the game. For example, I liked to customize my camera angles and music; I play a ton of online HUT, and the mobile app was was an excellent feature. Of course there is a handful of stuff we can do without, like the 94 anniversary mode, as the anniversary was last year, or pre-season games, who likes ‘em? At the end of the day fans will be disappointed by a less usual list of modes/features.
After all my time with the game prior to this review I find myself at a bit of an impasse. NHL 2015 truly has glimpses of being a fantastic sports title on its own merit, given the improvements in the gameplay mechanics, visuals, physics and even sound. That being said, we have been spoiled to a degree by some outstanding previous versions with all the features and now I find that the series has lost a bit of its lustre given what they cut out to get this one out the door. The omission of key modes really hurts the end product, and in a way it feels like we’re stepping back somewhat. Part of me wants you to try this game to see the improvements I speak of, but I know that many will feel the pain of the modes and features they got rid of.