NHL 15 Review (Xbox One)
NHL 15 on Xbox One and PS4 has presented me with one of the biggest cases of cognitive dissonance I've had in some time. From one perspective, it looks better than it ever has before, and it plays very well. From another point of view, it provides no meaningful ways to enjoy the game, offline or online. Sure, there are a handful of modes to be found in NHL 15, but when you consider the plethora of options that users have had before now, it just leaves a real bad taste.
Bottom line: this game isn't worth full price.
Believe me when I tell you that this isn't what I wanted to say about NHL 15. Like many others, I was jazzed about the awesome reveal trailers and even the slightly buggy showing at this year's E3. I kept on telling people: "Be excited."
I did this because I saw some great presentation in the trailers, and I enjoyed what I played at E3. I had no doubt that they would include many — if not all — of the standard modes. Well, I was half right. The gameplay, to an extent, and the presentation provide some next-gen sizzle and fill me with hope for where the franchise could go in a few years, but the lack of modes is just so mind-boggling that it almost drives me to cynicism.
I could be angry and say that the game's inclusion of HUT mode but none of its other tent-pole experiences seems calculated and cold. I could say that neglecting the online components seems like a complete misread of today's gaming landscape. I could even say that the absence of basic features — player creation, proper simulation features (Be-A-Pro, Be-A-GM), All-Star Game, Three Stars, Winter Classic and more — presents the game as rushed and haphazard. Maybe some of those things are true. For a company as bruised and battered as EA to take this approach, when they've recently said the contrary, is just crazy.
To be clear: I put this at the doorstep of the higher-ups and corporate paymasters at EA. The hockey dev team is following a schedule. They shouldn't be punished for getting half the resources they need to finish a game. These realities are made all the more galling when you know how much EA makes off of Ultimate Team modes and DLC. Some of this profit needs to be put back into the product; otherwise, that's a dangerous path to go down. Consumers hold sway over a franchise like NHL, as it doesn't have the built-in advantages of a FIFA or even Madden.
GameplayThe sad thing about all of this is that NHL 15 plays relatively well. To be clear, it’s not a major deviation from what the NHL series has delivered up until this point, but the addition of new puck physics, a weightier pace and an increased separation of upper and lower body on deking makes for a reasonably fresh gameplay experience. The speed of the game has been dialed down a bit, and I found the action satisfying, particularly when I turned the game up to hardcore sliders and superstar difficulty.
As always, the game plays much better when there is human cooperation or competition (which, I guess, means one-on-one online this year), but the AI does show some flash on that higher setting. They will actually possess the puck and move it around in the offensive zone for some one-timer and slot chances, and they even step up to close gaps slightly better than before (but still not enough). Then again, you can cut through the defense fairly easily in certain situations, especially with the new deking allowing for a bit too much control for low-end grinders. It’s not as much of an issue for me, but I can see how it will bother some users. I’ve written before about user input and sports games, and my sentiments still apply here. Vision control, joystick wankery and button spamming are always going to present problems for gameplay, and there’s really just no way around it. I’ve still had competitive games against the AI, and human competition (in its limited form) remains an option.
Some of the gameplay feel does benefit from a few other on-ice additions, including a better net cam, the puck bouncing in and out on goals, four officials on the ice, hybrid icing and an ability to collide with the goalie when crashing the net. These are all fun details on their own, but they each add something subtle to the gameplay that ends up having a meaningful cumulative effect.
Some players will be disappointed that defense and goalies remain relatively unchanged, other than the visual boost they’ve received and a deeper lunge on poke checks for d-men. Defensive strafing and hitting works as it did before, but now hits will cause both players to fall down slightly more often. Goalies have a few new animations, and they will let in a variety of goals thanks to the new puck physics, but they do still have some wandering habits and troublesome short-side animations.
The collision physics on all 12 players creates some oddities, but I do like the feature overall. There is some unpredictability to some sequences in front of the net, and it is amusing that you can take out your own players by losing an edge and bowling them over. But this feature still feels like a first-year effort, to be sure.
EA certainly touted the visual and audio upgrades that new hardware afforded, and they also perked some ears with their seemingly unique approach to commentary and game day presentation. Well, I consider the new arenas, crowds and player models to be a success, with a handful of small caveats. The arenas do look tremendous, as they feature great-looking banners, walkways and sightlines that really bring the place to life. Helping with that is the crowd, who has a lot of variety in terms of how they react and how they’re shown. You’ll also see all sorts of custom signs and props, and the explosion of frenzy when a goal is scored carries great emotion. It would be great to see more camera cuts and cutscenes involving the crowd going forward, but this is something that EA definitely did right as is.
The next-generation hockey player, as EA called it, looks quite good, with a meaningful upgrade in detail and a decent number of unique player faces (not everybody, though). Some of the animations are a bit all over the place during transitions, and the improved jersey tech does get into wind-tunnel territory, but I will take the advances the developers have made over where things were.
The game day presentation and new commentary are less of a success. In a basic sense, it’s nice to see fresh blood from the play-by-play of Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk of NBC, and TSN’s Ray Ferraro actually makes the most impact at ice level. Then again, hearing them in action kind of kills the effect, as you’ll hear lots of inaccurate comments, odd exclamations and poor line reads. Even the stitching of the audio is problematic. The NBC broadcast presentation permeates the entire game, and EA had the idea of superimposing the play-by-play guys (via green screen) in front of the various in-game arenas. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s limited by the fact that EA can only record so many versions of New York and LA… or any other team for that matter.
I should point out, too, that the collision physics that are now in the game do create some funny and entertaining sequences, but you will see when playing that they’ve also infused a bunch of awkwardness and jittery transitions during cutscenes and on-ice play.
Offline ModesThe offline selection of modes for NHL 15 is a touch better than the online offerings, but that’s not saying much. Even more problematic is that what’s here has been gutted and altered so much that it’s hard to recognize them from what they were. When modes like Be-A-Pro and Be-A-GM have been relegated to sub-menu status in NHL 14 and before, it’s painful to see them trotted out as “the ways to play the game,” especially when most are shells of their former selves.
When it comes down to it, the options available are HUT, Be-A-Pro and Be-A-GM. There is exhibition mode, which is so standard it’s not even a mode, and NHL Moments Live, but even that is just a novelty. Be-A-Pro is the only “career” equivalent left in the game, and it’s basically dead on arrival when you realize that you can’t edit your player in a meaningful way or play in the minors (you just get placed on a team). You can’t even guarantee a number on a team, as a player already there will take priority. The most damning thing is the inability to simulate to the next shift, which pretty much means you’ll be doing a lot of waiting to finish your games.
Be-A-GM is similarly problematic, with no player drafting, an inability to play with your minor league team, long simulation times and a clunky interface. While new menus help give things a bit more pop in this mode, everything just feels like a mode that wasn’t really ever put in a primetime spot, and now it has to be because there isn’t much else in the game.
Hockey Ultimate Team is also present and accounted for, and it remains more or less in tact, save for the inability to play against friends or in tournaments. The new line editing is definitely problematic, as the lack of “bench” makes it hard to swap out players with ease. While I’m not the biggest HUT fan in the world, I can’t see how a middling version of what’s been there before is going to get too many longtime fans that excited.
The online landscape for NHL 15 is quite barren, as the game limits you to basic one-on-one online play through either exhibition or HUT. As has been well documented, there is no EA Sports Hockey League, GM Connected, Online Team Play or Shootout. As bothersome as some of these bigger omissions are, how is that something as basic as shootout mode hasn’t made the jump to next generation hardware? Was that really so much of a time sink that they couldn’t get it in? Whatever the case, the absence of meaningful ways to play with your friends, either cooperatively or competitively, is just so blatant that it’s tough to really know what to say.
In this day and age, shipping a product that doesn’t have any meaningful way to play with or against your friends (online franchise, league, team play, etc.) just isn’t going to fly. What we’re left with is a one-on-one multiplayer option that admittedly is fun, but even that isn’t perfect. There was a touch of lag when I first played with some users, but this has cleared up for the most part. Also, the usual issue of tuning and penalty sliders comes up, as there really should be an update to add some interference penalties considering all of the collision physics and bumping that now takes place. I’ve had some good matches online, but it really just reminds me of all the fun I’m not having with friends.
I wish NHL 15 could’ve been the game that we were all hoping for, but sadly that’s not the case. The new presentation, taken as a whole, adds some much-needed life to the listless proceedings of years gone by, and the gameplay remains enjoyable (especially against humans), but the dearth of modes and copious feature omissions move past the points of “understandable” and “problematic” right on over to “downright troublesome.” If you’re looking for a basic hockey experience that provides some solid gameplay and no frills, I guess this game could work for you. But for everyone else, this is a game that does not — and should not — represent what sports gaming is and can be.
Learning Curve: As usual, EA provides a reasonable selection of control options and difficulty modifiers so that you can find the right gameplay experience for your skill level.
Control Scheme: The NHL 94 button controls remain an option, but the skill stick works well this year, even with slightly different timing on the deking and slapshots.
Visuals: EA has done good work imbuing the players, crowd and arenas of NHL 15 with life and detail, but some odd animations (thanks to collision physics) rear their head. The green screen stuff is also a bit hit-and-miss.
Audio: It's great to have a new commentary team, but I don't think EA has added much when it's really a first-year effort that's only distinguishing factor is that it's new. Music is pretty good this year, and the crowd audio is still great.
Value: There just isn't any — straight up. For offline you've got a handful of also-ran modes (that aren't even what they were), and online is missing the heart and soul of the franchise (EASHL). Other missing features and basic options add to the feeling that this product was rushed and under-resourced.
Score: 5.5 (Average)
What This Score Means
Scoring Note: I took into account where the series had been in the last few years and what was expected in this version. I felt the absolute dearth of features hurt the game so much that it negated many of the positives.