Every time I hear of a new video game console, I begin to wonder what type of advancements it’ll allow EA Canada’s NHL development team to make. I kid you not, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. Perhaps it’s the Canadian in me, but each and every new iteration of the franchise gets me excited. Say what you will about sports games, and feel free to have your own opinion of them, but there isn’t a series out there that has taken more of my free time than EA Sports’ NHL.
This year, We Got This Covered made its first trip to sunny Los Angeles, California for E3 2014. It was an amazing experience, which just so happened to coincide with the city’s noticeable but muted Stanley Cup Finals fever. After all, the conference came about in early June, when the Kings were taking on the Rangers, and were damned close to winning it all for the second time in just a few years. I never got a chance to go to one of the games, due to ticket prices and booked flights, but I was at least able to demo NHL 15 – something that substituted well, at least for this hockey mad Canuck.
Back then, it seemed like NHL 15 was going to be a content-filled home run, which would take advantage of new technology’s ability to create more realistic puck physics and more human-like hockey players. It wasn’t until two months later that shit hit the fan and word came out about the game’s significantly reduced amount of modes and options. And, while all of the talk and hatred certainly got me worried, I knew deep down that I’d still enjoy the game because its E3 demo was so fantastic. That’s something which ended up being true, because now that I’ve put a good amount of time into the final product, I can confidently say that I’ve had fun with it and that I’ll go back to it for more digitized NHL action. However, I’d be lying if I said that it ended up being everything I’d dreamed about, even with its missing modes taken out of the equation.
Upon booting the game up on either Xbox One or PlayStation 4, puckheads will find themselves tasked with choosing to align with either the Lundqvist-led New York Rangers or the Quick-led Los Angeles Kings, in an interactive rematch of last year’s finals. After doing so, the action begins, and NHL 15 starts to show off its major selling points: noticeably upgraded visuals, new commentators and a completely overhauled presentation style. Gone are the boring and repetitive lines spewed by Bill Clement and Gary Thorne, and in their place are NBC’s Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, as well as TSN’s Ray Ferraro. The American duo handle play-by-play and colour analysis in decent fashion, while Mr. Ferraro chips in with rinkside commentary pertaining to things like individuals’ performances and injury reports. All in all, it’s an upgrade, but not a huge one considering that repetition is still an issue and some of the new lines simply fall flat.
One of the most notable problems with this iteration is how unfinished it feels, and not just because of its missing modes. That feeling is accentuated by the commentary itself, because there are often times where Mr. Ferraro will attempt to confuse players by announcing an injury in the most counterproductive fashion possible. Instead of saying what team the player is from, most of his reports will contain the words “home team” or “away team.” Not only that, but it’s rare that the player’s name will actually be mentioned. Remember that this injury could’ve happened a period before the report, or may have occurred during a play that you weren’t a part of, and you’ll understand why this is such an annoying form of reporting. There was one time where the commentator (whose work I like in real life) actually named the team and its injured player; every other time, I was forced to try to think about who was injured and how it happened. It didn’t help that the in-game menus seemed to lack any sort of indicator towards the injured party.
What’s neat, but somewhat jarring, is the fact that both Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk appear in the game as themselves. They’re not digitized or mo-capped, or anything. Instead, they preview the oncoming action like they would in the real world, albeit with a computer-generated arena backdrop. It’s a cool feature that adds to the experience, and the same is true of the footage that precedes them. What you can expect there are aerial shots of the home team’s arena, and a scripted bit of dialogue about the city itself.
Right away, the fact that a ton of money was spent on NHL 15‘s presentation overhaul is made apparent. The NBC stuff is one thing, but the arenas and their crowds have also received noteworthy makeovers. In fact, EA says that there are now 9,000 individual crowd models in each arena’s stands, although that staggering fact doesn’t eliminate repeats. I swear, I kept seeing the same woman and her blonde bob over and over again. Still, the new crowd members are pretty impressive, and certainly do come in many different varieties. You’ll see the proud away team fans, the horny puck bunnies who want to marry a superstar, and even the super fans who don’t care what others think of them. They’ll show up in full dress, wearing jerseys, make-up and other gimmicks, like goal light hats or wigs.
Whereas last year’s arenas weren’t to scale, that has changed this time around. Each venue also has its own unique characterizations and facets, although those were highlighted more in pre-release trailers than in the game itself. EA Canada supposedly put all of this work into modelling cracked stairs and other accents, but you rarely see anything out of the ordinary while playing. The game’s basic camera angles — even during introductory sequences — fail to really zoom in or go into great detail. It’s a wasted opportunity, and makes you wonder why the developers even bothered, especially when you note just how much is missing from the core experience.
Gameplay-wise, NHL 15 touts brand new puck physics which really do make a difference. The team behind it actually went out and enlisted a scientist who worked on the Large Hedron Collider to help them revamp the title’s puck physics. I shit you not, they really went to that great length, which is to be applauded. Thankfully, the work paid off, because pucks now behave in a much more realistic manner. They bounce and hop after failing to land flat, ricochet off of players’ jerseys and do other tricks that you’d associate with actual hockey.
New physics systems also play a role in the digital action, and allow for some pretty crazy collisions. There’s no doubting that they add to the game’s realism and overall presentation facets as a result. I can’t remember ever seeing players fall over each other like they do here, and that’s for the better. Hockey is, after all, a very fast and unpredictable sport, where anything can happen at any time and players’ attempts to score often leave them flat on their keisters.
Although its gameplay is fast, realistic, addictive and accessible, NHL 15 has managed to leave myself and many others aggravated and wanting. The main reason for this is its lack of fan favourite modes like EA Sports Hockey League (6-on-6 online team play), Online Team Play (one-off games played with and against real people), Live the Life (a light-RPG flavoured career mode), and Online Shootouts. Those are just a handful of the missing modes and features that loom over the series’ first next-gen outing and will undoubtedly affect its sales. Joining them are missing pre-season games, a removed NHL 94 tribute mode and eliminated practice drills.
The modes that did make the cut include Play Now (exhibition matches), Be a GM (create your own dynasty), Be a Pro (Live the Life’s predecessor), NHL Moments Live (a chance to relive memorable moments from the NHL), Online Versus and Hockey Ultimate Team.
There’s no way that HUT would’ve been left out, because it entices players to empty their chequing accounts in pursuit of a dynasty-level roster of hockey cards. However, it has also received a bit of a haircut, because it no longer seems to allow friends to play each other. Instead, only Online League Play and Solo Play options are made available. Why? I don’t know. Ask EA. Then again, they’ll likely just tell you that it’s missing for the same reason as end-of-game 3 star selections and Online Team Play, both of which should be patched in later if EA lives up to its word.
You’d think that Online Shootouts would’ve made the cut, even if EA Canada’s mode-designing time was limited by its focus on revamped presentation, but they’re noticeably absent. That was actually one of my favourite modes from the previous games, and I miss it. I also miss Live the Life, because it was a nice upgrade from Be a Pro when it debuted a year ago (if I’m not mistaken). Going back and being forced to play Be a Pro instead of it is a definite downgrade. On top of that, this isn’t the Be a Pro we’re used to, because it doesn’t even allow for shifts to be simmed. Instead, you’ll have to watch as your teammates take their turns, or sit out the entirety of each penalty, unless a powerplay goal sets you free. Hell, the mode is so streamlined that it doesn’t start you off in the AHL.
Speaking of the American Hockey League, there’s no way of being able to play your farm team’s games during the season-like modes. That’s yet another thing that failed to make the cut. Add it to the list and let EA know your frustration, because they were the ones who said that they were skipping next-gen with NHL 14, in order to learn from the teams behind Madden and FIFA. That way, they’d be able to go in knowing how to develop for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and would be able to make sure to include a rich feature set. I’m paraphrasing from this interview with creative director Sean Ramjagsingh.
As much as I wanted to love NHL 15, after having a hard time pulling away from its E3 demo, its missing features and the above-mentioned lie put a sour taste in my mouth. Then, once I started playing the thing and was enjoying myself, glitches started to rear their ugly heads. For starters, there was a time where a fight was rendered moot because one of the players kept skating into the net instead of going behind it to where his opponent stood. Next, there was an occasion where an online faceoff repeated three times before it kicked myself and the person I was playing against. Those weren’t the worst of it, though. Far from it. Even worse was when I tried to play the first NHL Moments Live scenario as my beloved Maple Leafs, and ended up encountering a glitch that made the players skate at half their normal speed. Even after retrying four times, the quicksand skating persisted.
The most frustrating issue of all is how broken this game’s online play is. It may just be my luck, but every time I’ve been doing well, something has fucked up. I mentioned the repeating faceoff and the boot that followed, but there were two Online Versus games that I played just tonight, both of which resulted in me losing connection to my friend. When I went up five-to-two in one, he lost connection and I had to close the game and return to my dashboard, because it became stuck on an image of a faceoff dot. Then, after I tied the next game at two-a-piece, the damned thing decided to kick us both. I kid you not, it was a shit show.
Visually, NHL 15 is quite impressive. I’ve already talked about all of its television-style presentation facets and new physics, so I’ll just speak about the players and their jerseys now. Truthfully, the skaters (well, at least the stars who get close-ups) all look great. Every time the camera zoomed in on them, it was like looking at a photograph. Seeing them on the bench was also a treat, because they now talk to each other and joke around. It’s pretty neat, and the same is true of the new jersey physics, although they sometimes went a bit wonky.
If you decide to pick this game up, prepare for some questionable things on the visual side. Sure, it looks great for the most part, but referees like to skate backwards when they’re reviewing a goal, and only two players celebrate each score. For some reason, the others just skate back to the bench instead of getting involved in the huddle. There’s also a jarring animation that follows, as when they all make it back, the game switches to a cutscene that shows the line that scored high-fiving the rest of its team. The transition is less than seamless.
Audio-wise, EA Canada’s latest does a decent job of replicating the NHL experience. You’ll hear roaring crowds and the same great sound effects that you’ve become accustomed to from this franchise, on top of a good licensed soundtrack that kicks in during timeouts and after goals are scored. What you will not here, though, are chants. Not once did I hear, “Go Leafs Go!” or anything else like it, which took away from my experience and will likely affect yours.
To conclude this beast of a review, I’ll say this: NHL 15 is a fun but frustrating, glitchy and lacking game. Its core gameplay can definitely be enjoyable, but it’s plagued by so many things, both in-game and in real-life, that it’s hard to fully recommend. In the end, this is one that’s only for the diehards, who can’t go a year without a new hockey game and don’t want to return to last-gen. Newcomers will be better off waiting a year, in the hope that EA will get its act together and release a full-featured NHL 16.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
NHL 15 is a missed opportunity and a bit of a mess overall. It feels unfinished, and is lacking fan favourite modes, making it hard to recommend to anyone but the diehards.