Face it: Hockey just isn’t sexy.
Basketball? You’ve got dozens of colorful personalities mugging for camera time. Baseball? It’s an inescapable constant in our lives, with a pro season that accommodates 160-plus games. And football? That’s America’s new pastime, a six-month Sunday binge of wings, beers, and cheers. But hockey? Hockey’s just a bunch of dudes skating around with sticks.
Face it: Hockey just isn’t sexy.
Perhaps that’s why EA Sports’ NHL 15 feels so less-than in comparison to the publisher’s other annual sports sims. It’s a shame, really. The PlayStation 4/Xbox One version of the game – the first to be built using EA’s current-gen technology – is the strongest the series has been in years in terms of presentation and raw playability. But the treasure trove of features that defines so many EA Sports titles is dialed down here, to the point that NHL 15 might as well be a reboot.
That just doesn’t happen with sports sims. There’s an additive process with these annual releases, a piling on of modes that very much embraces the “bigger, better, more badass” notion of sequel design. Look at the version of NHL 15 released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles and you can see what might have been. Sure, the last-gen edition is little more than a re-skin of NHL 14 with a roster update, but it’s still got features like the GM Connected online franchise mode and the league-oriented multiplayer team play of EASHL. Both of those are absent on PS4/XB1, as is the player’s journey-focused RPG mode, Live the Life.
Then there’s all the stuff that developer EA Canada intends to add post-release, like online team play and playoff mode. Maybe some regression is to be expected when an annual game jumps to a new console, but to have a long-time feature like three stars – which nods to the real-life NHL’s practice of naming three stars for each game – absent at launch and pegged for a post-release update sends a very loud, very clear message to the fans: We’ve released an incomplete game.
That’s really a shame, because EA Canada is right on the cusp of reinvigorating the series for the new consoles. As we’ve already mentioned, playing NHL 15 is a dream. If all you’re looking for is some basic virtual hockey, there’s very little to be disappointed with here.
Managing momentum is more important than ever when skating across the rink. There’s real nuance and thought required in the way you move around, and there’s great visual feedback too thanks to newly improved player animations. It helps that EA Canada had a great foundation to build on from past games. The NHL series has always been accessible; the beefed up physics in the current-gen edition of NHL 15 is notable because it marks one of the more significant evolutions.
It also looks great. From the player models to the way the ice shows increasing wear over the course of a game, NHL 15 looks closer to true-to-life hockey than ever before. The in-game commentary from Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk is as uneven as it normally is – serviceable enough in exhibition games or season mode and downright confused in the more open-ended Ultimate Team – but new pre-game intros that feature live-action footage of the commentators in front of a green screen is a welcome touch.
Even with an extra year on the bench to develop and evolve, NHL 15 draws a major game misconduct penalty in its opening minutes.
There are still imperfections. The new player models break down into multiple parts, so (for example) the jersey is a physical object on a skater’s body rather than a painted-on texture. This allows for visual flourishes like flapping fabric as a skater careens down the ice… but sometimes you’ll see that same rapid flap as the same player make his slow shame-skate to the penalty box. The puck is similarly unpredictable; it usually behaves like it’s supposed to, but it has a tendency to take some odd bounces, particularly around the goalie.
Ultimately, it’s the backward step in terms of features that works against NHL 15 the most. You’ve still got exhibition matches, Be a Pro/Be a GM modes, and the ever-popular card-collecting-meets-fantasy-sports mode Ultimate Team. But even these are trimmed. There’s no player-controller draft in Be a GM, as it’s pegged for a post-release update. Ultimate Team loses tournaments and the ability to play against a friend. And Be a Pro, the single player-focused RPG-like mode, no longer allows you to sim(ulate the game) to your player’s next shift on the ice.
It is inexcusable that some of these features are missing on day one. Better to delay the release and get your content set than launch on time and dupe fans into purchasing an incomplete product. The NHL series was absent when the PS4 and Xbox One launched in 2013, and many fans suspected it would be primed this year for a stellar new edition for the annual franchise. Instead, we get a regression.
All of which beckons back to our original thesis statement: Hockey isn’t sexy. This didn’t happen with Madden and it didn’t happen with FIFA. Both of those series appeared in 2013 at the console launches, and they’re back again this year in new and improved form. Even with an extra year on the bench to develop and evolve, NHL 15 draws a major misconduct penalty in its opening minutes. It might not be a primetime sport, but that doesn’t mean fans deserve anything less than the very best.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 using a disc provided by EA Sports.
- Smooth on-ice play
- Huge improvements to the presentation and player animations
- It is literally half the game that the last-gen release offers
- Occasional visual and physics quirks