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NHL 15 preview: EA shows off improved AI, lifelike graphics, and uber-realistic physics

Read our full NHL 15 review.

The road to the Stanley Cup ends right around E3 —  this year, it’s the New York Rangers duking it out with the LA Kings — but for many, the race for the virtual Cup begins at the annual trade show. EA Canada’s NHL 15 is the first to be released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and its improved playability goes hand-in-hand with an amped up presentation.

It all starts with the players. In last year’s game, a texture-stripped character model resembled something akin to the Michelin man; just a stacked set of donuts, of varying sizes. In NHL 15, there’s an actual human-shaped player at the center of the model, with all protective gear and uniforms rendered as independent physical objects.

While there are obvious improvements to the visual execution as a result of the change, it’s the physical nature of the sport that benefits most. Bodies bend and twist in painful (but not wholly unrealistic) directions with contact. There’s an improved feeling of impact when on-ice momentum carries one player into another.

EA Canada also worked on improving team AI in a way the gives each player a longer view of the game. Previously, the AI made decisions based on what was happening in the moment, what was the best thing to do next. The rebuilt AI — which EA says is capable of making thousands of decisions per second — is aware of the rest of the game.

The score, the fatigue level of fellow linemates, the potential for a quick turnaround that could send the puck driving back toward an undefended goal … it’s all monitored, considered, and responded to.

Improved processing power also allows for enhanced physics. Some is purely presentational, such as a jersey fluttering against a player’s body as he speeds from one end of the ice to the other. But the physics limitations of older hardware that limited collisions to just two players at a time are gone. Every player has a presence on the ice in NHL 15. If four players collide in a heated scrum, that’s four bodies responding to contact with one another.

The improved physics extend to the puck as well, which has been completely reworked. Returning to the “Michelin man” image, the puck beneath the textures in previous years resembled a rounded-edged ball with a flat bottom. It’s a proper, sharped-edged puck in NHL 15, and it responds as such in the way that it bounces and ricochets.

Finally, rounding everything out, there’s an enhanced presentation that features Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick and Eddie Olczyk as commentators. Pre-game introductions are actually shot live-action, in a studio, with the virtual arena dropped in behind the physical set thanks to the magic of green screens. Doc and Eddie recorded a staggering 35,000 lines of dialogue to create a convincing, non-robotic pre-game show.

Everything else is similarly souped up. A partnership with NBC allows EA Sports to use the network’s NBC Sport Game Day presentation package and on-screen overlays. There are 9,000 unique crowd models, including dressed up, painted up super-fans. The ice shows real wear over the course of a game, with skates carving out marks in real time. It’s the hockey you know, just better.

It feels that way too. A brief hands-on showcases what amounts to a dramatic improvement over last year’s already-solid execution. It’s still the familiar hockey game we’ve been playing for more than 20 years now, but the significant step forward is immediately noticeable if you’ve kept up all this time.

Look for NHL 15 on PlayStation and Xbox consoles this fall.

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