The NHL series is kind of the redheaded stepchild in the EA Sports brand. Seldom given much attention outside of Canada, EA’s NHL series has quietly fought the reputation of other EA Sports by being pretty, well, good. For the past several years, the team at EA Canada has done work in their one year turnaround time that eclipses the roster updates produced by EA Tiburon for Madden. However with the jump to a new platform, there are always growing pains to be expected. This time NHL takes several steps forward in terms of gameplay while drastically reducing the features of the game itself.
Last year NHL 14 didn’t come to the next-gen consoles, so expectations were understandably high with a two year incubation period for an annual release. So it was shocking to see this edition ship with so many features missing that were present in the past. Among the missing;
- Create a Team
- Playing AHL in Be a Pro
- Ability to Draft in Be a GM
- Single Seasons (seasons only available in Be a GM)
- The Winter Classic
- Create a Play
- Custom Music
- Many, many more
While there are gameplay refinements and graphical upgrades in the games themselves it’s distressing to see less content on an ostensibly more powerful platform. For what its worth EA has promised to address some of the missing features in updates, but it seems an odd strategy to release an incomplete product and then bring it to 100% afterwards.
For any player of the NHL series the minute to minute gameplay is very similar to what we’ve seen before. The dual stick skating and shooting controls make the transition to next-gen largely unchanged. The differences from NHL 14 to 15 are subtle but effective in making this feel like a new experience rather than a roster update. The skating tweaks initially introduced in NHL 14 are carried over and updated; players take time to get up to speed and can’t stop or turn on a dime. It takes some getting used to initially but definitely helps with a sense of immersion. The reactions on screen are closer to what would occur in a real NHL game if the defenceman abandoned his position to try to lay a huge check. You absolutely will feel like a fool in your first few games when your players are constantly out of position.
The physics of the hitting system have also been revised. You will see fewer canned animations and more variability in how players react to taking a big hit or missing one. How the player reacts to contact is dependent on speed, position of each respective player and of course, the size of the player you are trying to hit. It also trends towards realism and it can be frustrating to shift from NHL 14 and realize that it is much harder to throw a solid check, but it does create a great sense of satisfaction when you can pull off a massive hit.
Offence has seen a few tweaks as well; it is harder to pull off an effective one-timer, which is good as that has long been the golden gun of the NHL series. In other situations it has become easier to score with a relaxation of the dual stick aiming required for a well placed shot. Whether you love these changes or hate them depends on how hardcore a player you are. A generally easier offence might perturb the top ranked players, but opens up games for more arcade fun at the lower levels.
With the jump to the next-gen consoles (We reviewed on PS4) comes an expected jump in graphical fidelity, NHL 15 delivers on this promise quite effectively. Players are much more recognizable than in previous iterations where they typically looked artificial and very similar. This year Crosby looks like Crosby and Subban looks like Subban. Recognizability tends to trail off a bit depending on which player you’re looking at; the developers obviously spending more time rendering Steven Stamkos than Colton Orr, still this is a high-point in graphics for this series.
A great amount of effort has gone into modelling the crowds as well. In the past during the sweeps of the arena you would see fans dressed identically moving in unison which would create a hairline fracture in immersion. That issue has been addressed, but not eliminated; there are fewer clones in the crowd, but you will still see fans making the same motions. Nice touches have been made like the presence of rival fans and varied behaviour for the spectators. It is both cool and unbelievably frustrating to see a rival fan unabashedly cheering after a goal has been scored on your team at home.
With regards to the presentation, this time the broadcast is under the NBC banner with Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk handling the in-game commentary. They are unquestionably an improvement on Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, whose recycled lines had worn thin after 7 years. Annoyingly the commentary trends towards “Hockey 101” as is more common in American broadcasts. It’s a minor complaint, but it can feel patronizing as a long time hockey fan to have Shots on Goal explained to you.
Thankfully, EA has largely done away with the new age rock soundtrack in favor of something more subtle. A small quibble, but hearing those banal rock songs over and over was one of the things I dreaded in previous iterations.
The online and couch multiplayer are both rock solid. The only issues found were when playing online against poor sports who quit when they are losing. So long as your connection is decent you won’t experience any dips in performance or dropped games. This part of the game makes the jump from last-gen unchanged, if you liked it in 2013 you’ll like it this year, its the same mode with shinier player models.
NHL 15 is a good entry in the series; gameplay still smooth and enjoyable, the physics engine upgrades provide more realism and variety in-game and the game looks phenomenal on next-gen systems. What ultimately makes the decision is how much you care about the missing game modes. If you’re only interested in online games and couch multiplayer then this is perfect for you, if you feel the absence of those finishing touches wait to see what EA updates and make your call then.
A great game let down by its reduction of features on next-gen. NHL fans will be pleased with the gameplay but potentially disappointed by apparent laziness from EA