NHL 15: Hands-On Impressions
Submitted on: 06/11/2014 by Glenn Wigmore
It was clear from playing NHL 15 (on PS4) at E3 today that the team at EA Vancouver still needs to optimize some things, but what was there had me believing in a lot of their new vision for the series. I got to run through several games, and the teams on offer include LA, New York, Montreal and Chicago. Producer Sean Ramjagsingh said that the dev team has “about a month to go” in terms of production. Still, while it was early, there was a lot of great stuff to see in this build.
The upgraded player models, lighting, crowds, arenas and NBC broadcast presentation all add immensely to the feel of the game, which everyone pretty much agrees has looked stale for a while. Probably the most immediate thing that is noticeable with the new game presentation is the camera angle, which defaults to a slightly lower iso angle that tilts a bit when the action heads into the corners. The effect on all of this (height, iso, tilt) is very subtle, and I found myself liking it almost immediately. It really allows you to see more of the crowd, which now has way more frenzy, detail and emotion when they rise up to pound the glass or celebrate a goal. On some replays, the crowd would fly up, blocking the camera and animating uniquely and passionately, which was a welcome change from some of the robotic and simplistic crowds seen previously.
As has been seen in the recent screenshots, the arenas have a tremendous amount of detail, and the unique angles, sight lines, scuffs and scoreboards are all captured from some new replay and camera angles. In particular, some of the shots of the penalty box really bring the game to life, as there are Gatorade cups and stick tape on the side boards and fans right next to the player in the bin. The scope and detail on some of the wide shots for the arenas is really something to see.
Just the same, player detail is much, much better than anything seen before. Of particular note is the lighting and how it falls down from a player's helmet, as well as the sweat on player faces. To be fair, all of these skaters still have a bit of a “computer man” look to them, but actually seeing “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews modelled correctly is a treat. It was even cooler seeing him talking to his teammate on the bench and having it look correct (lip-synching and gaze). Overall, some faces aren't spot on, but they are much closer than they were before.
In fact, that emotion was really evident whenever a goal was scored, as players like Patrick Kane would go down on one knee to celebrate and then crash into the boards, hugging a teammate and freaking out. I saw players smiling and yelling and generally acting like they'd scored a goal, and it felt a lot better than NHL 14. Speaking of goals being scored, the puck now flies in and out of the net in awesome fashion, which I know will make a lot of people happy. And as for those nets, the net cam on replays looks absolutely ridiculous, since the detail on the ice and players (and the new variety of goals) really make it look real. This was especially impressive later in periods when the ice was scuffed and full of powder.
For the new NBC broadcast package, the general look and feel of the overlays and replays is quite good. The flyovers for each arena are awesome, as they are in FIFA, and the green-screening of Mike Emrick and Ed Olczyk in front of the in-game arena works as a neat trick. As for the commentary innovations EA talked up (recording scenarios rather than scripted lines), it was hard to really tell at the show. Honestly, what I did hear sounded alright, but they seemed to be falling behind the action somewhat, which isn't a great sign this close to the game shipping. We'll have to hear more to know for sure.
As for gameplay specifically, the shot whip definitely feels different on wrist shots, as the release seems quicker and more direct. There were some great shots that wrung off the post and deflected past the goalie in the games I played. I suspect the demo was set to a lower difficulty, but the shooting and passing felt good (even though things were sluggish in this build and the framerate wasn't 60). There was still some legacy NHL stuff, such as goalies diving for the puck and missing and then having it tapped in for a goal. I found these moments few and far between, but a handful of animations or sequences did still remind me of the past.
As for the new puck physics, I'm happy to report that the puck carries much differently in NHL 15, with lower bounces and more realistic deflections. This created some interesting situations along the boards and around the net, and it resulted in some additional goal variety and unique scoring chances. I was happy to still see shots miss from time to time, and the puck would react much “flatter” than previous games, as it would hit the glass and roll the correct direction without bouncing wildly or accelerating randomly (not that there aren't some odd bounces, though).
In general, the offensive action feels crisp and interesting, and it's full of an energy and diversity that the franchise could really use. The added visual presentation certainly helps with the emotion, but the variety of shots, goals and hits make everything seem that much more dynamic. The skating feels nice as well, and exploding by defenders was made all the sweeter when you zipped home a nice goal. Passing definitely seems to have been nerfed a bit, as the new physics mean that some plays just won't work, even if you force them.
The other touted feature — 12-players being live for collisions — seemed fine, but it's not as dramatic as was being talked up. There were some entertaining pile-ups and trips in front of the net, and I was happy that players no longer ran into an invisible wall when nearing the goalie. To this end, the goalie was live, and players would go crashing into him when driving the net. I didn't see any crazy 8-man pile-ups or anything, and that's probably a good thing. This is probably one of those features that likely requires a lot of games played to really see what it means. As for the hitting from last year, it mostly appears in tact. However, a couple of things to note: a good deal of the hits now put the hitter down to one knee or didn't result in as ridiculous a hit, and the hitting does not result in fights as often, which is welcome.
Rammer also talked up the “Vision AI” as not being a one-and-done for EA, and he showed a series of slides detailing how the vision cones work for each player (what they see). The thought is that the players will judge all of the possible scenarios and passing lanes and then make the correct play. It was hard to really gauge this feature, as most of my gameplay was against human competition.
Defense felt mostly how it has in the past, with defensive strafing, the puck chop and a slightly deeper poke check animation than before. I was able to backskate about as well as before, and I had no problem lining up hits, using the kneel block or disrupting plays with poke checks. In fact, the poke check almost seemed to be dialed up again, so we'll have to see whether that ends up being where they leave it. Players did appear to hold their positions better on rushes and control the gap on point plays, but I need to see more action along the boards to know whether the puck support has really changed enough for my liking.
All in all, I was really happy with a lot of what EA showed. The NBC presentation seems like a good foundation for the future. The revamped players, arenas and crowds add a lot to the emotion and feel of the game (as does the great new camera angle). The improved crispness in offense and puck physics also help to create some diversity in how things play out once you cross the blue line. I really hope they clean up the framerate and sluggishness, but I have every belief that the final game will move and play how it should. If it does, there are going to be a lot of happy hockey fans in September.
Some quick-hit notes from talking to producers:
- There will be a demo.
- Ray Ferraro is modelled in the game (contrary to some reports), and Rammer confirmed that they'll place him in the correct spot for each arena, down at ice level.
- Ferraro will be brought in throughout the season to record new audio.
- Each team will have several intros from the main commentary duo, and EA is switching things around occasionally to help certain intros feel different (removing/adding screens, info, etc).
- There were no five-man celebrations yet, but some producers claimed that they were working on celebrations right now and that there would at least be some three-man huddles (and you now see the whole line skating towards the bench after a goal, which looks good).
- Benches have multiple coaches and backup goalies sitting in the right spot, which looked great.
- When specifically asked about manual goaltending, a producer told me that it's still “being tweaked”.
- Board play and fighting seem roughly the same, but the fidelity of the game adds a different feel to both situations (for the better, I'd say).
- Less fighting from big hits, though.
- The poke check animation seemed different, with a deeper lunge from the player
- The four officials on the ice are live at certain points, as the referee (on multiple occasions) actually blocked a shot when drifting in front of the net, which is a bit worrisome.
- That said, I don't know if the officials are always live, as the producers said they mainly "try and get out of the way".
- The puck bounces in and out of the net now, and it looks tremendous.
- The game uses the now-familiar EA menu system (blocks), as in FIFA, UFC, etc..
- The goalie stance appeared about the same, but I'll be honest that I can't be sure (I'll double-check this).
- Hitting doesn't cause fights as often, as EA realized it was tuned a bit high last year.
- Players who slide on the ice will get ice powder on their jersey.
- The game will be 60fps at launch.
- They weren't talking modes, but the implication seemed to be that HUT, EASHL and all of the usual suspects would be in the game.
Do you folks have any questions I should ask in the next two days?