EA Sports had a secret weapon in its pocket, something it called the NHL series, a franchise that grew better over time despite facing zero competition in the hockey space over the last few years. Leading up to its PS4 and Xbox One debut, NHL 15 looked to be another clear step forward for the EA Canada series, a franchise known for its solid adaptation of the sport and one that has earned the respect of its fans.
To the dismay of this NHL franchise fan, however, EA Canada has lost its way in the transition to new consoles, and it has presented players with a half-baked product.
Before we get to NHL 15's more disappointing aspects, let's discuss what it gets right. For one, the on-ice action impresses. Superbly detailed players move fluidly in a gorgeously re-created NHL arena. Replays of the action look so picture perfect they could be mistaken for the real thing at a quick glance.
EA Canada has implemented a few changes to the physics layer found in its NHL series. Now each player and the puck have physics applied to them while on the ice. This allows for things like multi-player pile ups in front of the net, which didn't occur realistically in previous games on Xbox 360 and PS3. Each player also has a trio of physics layers applied to them individually: their body, their equipment and their sweater. What this means is that players crash into each other with more force than before, and that a puck can change directions if it comes into contact with the fabric of a jersey or part of the equipment.
In theory the idea is fantastic, but it can lead to some awkward situations. Players sometimes crash into each other so violently it's improbable for them to be able to shoot back to their feet so quickly without some strain. The puck sometimes fires into weird directions after making contact with elements on ice, and it often picks up speed without the proper amount of required momentum. This can be frustrating in games against the computer, which is often better at predicting puck movement. This can sometimes feel like a cheat, but the AI is so bad at defensive positioning that it almost balances itself out. Sweaters also sway in strange ways, flopping in the wind even while players remain perfectly still. While the new physics system can take some time to get used to, and it has a few quirks, I liked how it replicated the unpredictability of real hockey games.
Part of NHL 15's visual success can be attributed to the game's new take on crowds, which number in the thousands of unique character models per game. They're certainly not of the same quality as the on-ice players, but they offer a fantastic variety during matches. Animations are staggered as well, so sports fans leap out of their chairs at different moments after a home team goal, for example, adding a little more realism to the often forgotten element of sports games.
NHL 15's new NBC Sports-themed broadcast package is another new and welcome addition, refreshing an element that has grown stale over the last few iterations of the game. For NHL 15, EA Canada has added the NHL on NBC commentary team of Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk for play-by-play, while analyst Ray Ferraro from Canada's TSN offers insights from the rink level. It's a decent first outing for the new team, but commentary is often extraordinarily generalized, which can be distracting. Rather than discuss specific team match-ups, the color duo typically speaks in broad strokes about "the home team" or "the top scorer."
NHL 15 also features fantastic graphical overlays borrowed from NHL on NBC, adding a level of production quality that the series has never had before. I even enjoyed how the game puts the actual Doc and Eddie into the game, with a shot of the arena in the background, as they introduce each match. The new broadcast package is exactly the level of refreshment I was calling for in my NHL 14 review.
While the game takes leaps forward to make it a quality production, NHL 15 ultimately slips on the slick presentation. Huge swaths of features feel missing from the PS4 and Xbox One versions – features that were present in last year's game and remain in NHL 15 on Xbox 360 and PS3.
Entire modes have been removed. EA Sports Hockey League, a multi-player online league mode that was first introduced in NHL 2009, is gone. GM Connected, an online version of the team management mode, has disappeared. There is no Season Mode, forcing players to either play a season via the game's offline GM mode with team management, or as an individual player in Be a Pro. There's no Winter Classic game, which has become a famous spectacle for the NHL by bringing regular season hockey games to outdoor stadiums. There's no Live the Life mode, which added some off-the-ice content to a regular career mode, giving players the opportunity to manage the personal and public life of their player. Some of the missing pieces aren't even modes. When you score a hat-trick, for example, no hats are thrown – this despite the fact that the color commentary team mentions that hats are flooding the ice.
Online team play, which allowed for more than 1-vs-1 online matches, is nowhere to be found, although EA promises that mode will be added via patch. Even EA's Hockey Ultimate Team is limited, only allowing for randomized match-ups and won't permit players to compete against friends.
Not only have modes been completely removed, the modes that survived the transition have been reduced to husks.
The single-player career mode dubbed "Be A Pro" has abandoned all ties to minor league hockey. In previous iterations of EA's NHL series, you were forced to rise through the ranks of the minor league before you were deemed worthy of playing professional hockey. With that element gone, so too is much of the challenge and personal accomplishment Be A Pro offered. You also cannot simulate to your next shift, so some of your game will be spent watching hockey from the bench. (Note: EA has added coach feedback into the game via a free update, though it was missing at launch.)
NHL 15 has even lost elements from its create-a-player mode, which drastically reduces the customization you have over your created hockey hero or heroine. You can no longer unlock and adjust player equipment to give your created hockey star attribute buffs. You can't select elements like the type of skate blades, which allow you to tweak a player's skating speed and acceleration, and you can't adjust the curvature of your stick, which can tweak the accuracy and power of specific shot types. You can't even, and this is a personal thing, have a space in the surname of your created player despite the fact that players with spaces in their surnames exist in the game! In other words, my created player was "Xav DeMatos." It's a tiny detail, but you shouldn't have to spell your own name incorrectly.
The General Manager Mode is underdeveloped, as well, missing the ability to draft players manually. The computer will decide for you who to draft every season, making things like scouting or planning your sports franchise's future completely moot. (Another thing EA has promised will be re-added.)
All of the missing modes mentioned above existed as part of NHL 14's launch-day feature set (in fact, these modes all exist in NHL 15 for Xbox 360 and PS3, though they remain unchanged versus last year's game). It's not unreasonable for sports fans asked to spend $60 at launch to expect feature parity between a year old product and the latest to hit the market, especially since EA identified this as a concern for its Madden and FIFA franchises at the start of the PS4 and Xbox One generation.
With NHL 15, EA Canada has taken its secret weapon and buried it under a thick sheet of beautiful, glistening ice. There's a grand quality to the core of playing individual hockey games, coupled with the superb new presentation, that is made all the more disappointing in a package that lacks so much content, heart and passion for the sport. Though there's some enjoyment to be had on the ice, NHL 15 feels like the first major misstep the series has made in years.