The sports game hierarchy has been pretty well set since 2010 or so. At the top have been FIFA and NBA 2K, with MLB: The Show and NHL hovering just below. But with the new generation now well underway, that pecking order has a chance to be shaken up a bit.
In that regard, no sports game has been more impressive than NHL 15, which is making its next-generation debut after essentially taking a year off to rebuild the series from scratch. It's not a stretch to say that it is essentially a completely new game, with a much-improved graphics engine, better physics, and an entirely new broadcast package. For all of you who like to complain that sports games never change from year to year, this is your game.
It's almost hard to decide where to start in talking about all of NHL 15's changes. It looks great now, more or less matching the excellent graphics of NBA 2K. And it plays completely differently now, too. One of my chief complaints about the NHL series has always been that it feels a little too much like a videogame. The puck has long kind of stuck to the stick; the dekes have been oddly mechanical, and the animation stiff and unrealistic. If you want to know the truth, it was a look that had gotten a bit stale by NHL 14, which was poorly balanced and looked outdated.
By comparison, NHL 15's puck feels almost like it has a life of its own. I found that I had to be more mindful about playing the angles, corralling bouncing pucks, and keeping it on my stick. When I was on the attack, I was stunned by how natural it felt to put the puck on the net. One of my most eye-opening experiences of the show came on a breakaway as Los Angeles Kings sniper Anze Kopitar. Without even thinking about it, I faked out the goalie, smoothly brought the puck around, and backhanded it into the net.
It was those moments that made me feel as if EA Canada had finally cracked one of the problems that has bedeviled the series for years—the difficulty of scoring goals. For years now, it's been either too easy or too hard, with absolutely no in-between. Veteran players have compensated by relying heavily on one-timers, slapshots to the corner, and pucks that are banked just around the goalie and into the net. Obviously, there's an element of skill to it, but scoring has often felt almost like a crapshoot.
In NHL 15 though, scoring is an artform. Elite scorers can often flatout beat the goaltender for spectacular goals—a rarity in the previous games. Even the misses feel different. In years past, the misses have often felt like flatout denials, as if there was some trick I was missing to get a goal. By contrast, many of my misses in NHL 15 felt excruciatingly close. It felt like all I needed to do was play a little better and I would be rewarded with a goal. It's not easy to describe the difference between this year and last year, but trust me when I say that it feels way better.
Obviously, there's still some work to do. There was one surprise slaptshot goal that gave me flashbacks to NHL 14, where scoring was often a matter of getting into the crease and cranking a shot into the upper corner. The physics also felt just a little bit overtuned at times, resulting in hits and bounces that felt a hair too strong. These are pretty simple balancing issues though. I fully expect them to be remedied by launch.
And even if they aren't, NHL 15 is still one impressive sports game. It's the first EA Sports game I can think of that comes close to matching NBA 2k in the presentation department, expertly mixing real-life footage of Mike "Doc" Emrick and exterior shots of the arenas with in-engine graphics. If they follow in NBA 2K's footsteps and mix in fake promos for upcoming games as well, I'll be really impressed. True, it's all just fluff in the end, but sports fans seem to prefer that sort of fidelity to real-life television broadcasts. And up until now, NHL's presentation has been pretty staid, relying on bland commentary and simple cut-ins to get its point across (though I hope EA keeps the dynamic in-game highlights in place).
The real test now, I suppose, is what EA Canada does with NHL's solid but relatively outdated franchise and superstar modes. NBA 2K in particular has made great strides in recent years in using its MyPlayer mode to reproduce the feeling of being a real star athlete, but it's also been badly hampered by a reliance on virtual currency that makes boosting stats a real grind. Ideally, NHL 15 will take some of NBA's better ideas—sponsorships and in-game rivals among them—and present them without the encumberance of microtransactions, clearly establishing it as the best sports game of the new generation. Even FIFA would struggle to match that level of presentation and gameplay.
As it is, NHL 15 is a really strong contender. EA Canada took a real gamble that NHL would be rendered irrelevant by skipping the next-gen console launches; but in retrospect, it makes sense. As a somewhat niche product, EA Canada is no doubt keenly aware that a bad run will put them at risk of being cut by a cost conscious Electronic Arts. It was absolutely essential that they nail the next-gen transition and reestablish NHL as one of the top sports games with a complete makeover. This they seem to have done with a revamp that feels like a massive leap of its predecessor. To me, NHL 15 is the surest sign yet that the next-generation of sports games is upon us. If the final product lives up to the promise that I saw on the show floor, sports games may well have a new champion.