NHL 15 is a case study of how a demo isn't indicative of the final product. A few months ago, I named it my E3 2014 Game of the Show and argued that it had a chance to be this year's best sports game. Now I find that I'm being forced to eat quite a bit of crow.
NHL 15, as it turns out, is much more of a rebuilding year than I initially supposed. There are some interesting new presentation and gameplay elements in place for this year's version, but the overhaul isn't quite as extensive as I first imagined. Worse, it commits one of the cardinal sins of next-gen sports sims and cuts a large number of features, including one of the previous-gen version's most popular modes. In this case, "barebones" is an understatement.
This is surprising in light of the fact that NHL was not present for the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, ostensibly so that EA Canada could make a splash with a true next-generation hockey game. As it turns out, however, NHL 15 was developed over the course of 12 months rather than two or three years. and it shows. I can't entirely fault EA for wanting to focus on getting the gameplay up to speed, but the numerous cuts have diminished the overall product considerably. Outside of NBA Live, which is in a category all its own, I think it's fair to say that NHL 15 is the worst of the major next-generation sports games.
That's despite being, on the surface at least, a serviceable improvement to NHL 14. That might be damning with faint praise given how unbalanced last year's version was, but the action is definitely smoother, the physics are more realistic, and the puck feels livelier. The changes are most apparent when the puck is loose down low and everyone is trying to jam it into the net. With the way the puck moves now, there are quite a few more rebounds and dirty goals, which is more in keeping with the real sport. One-timers and slapshots from the crease aren't completely dead, but they aren't the only way to score either. Considering where NHL has been over the past few years, that's a relief.
And yet, it still plays a lot like the previous-gen versions of NHL. The board play still feels weirdly artificial, with players getting sucked into board animations, though it's admittedly somewhat better than before. The puck feels more realistic, but player interactions like dekes still feel a little canned and fake, and the puck itself feels magnetized to the stick at times. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the A.I. in this version has driven me nuts at times with goalies flailing pucks into goal and overly-enthusiastic teammates killing drives by going offside. I like the subtler touches, but there have been times where the issues in this game have made me think, "This is still a problem?"
My feelings on the presentation upgrades are similarly mixed. I'm delighted that NHL is now using full-motion video to introduce games, and many of the overlays look great, but I was surprised how little I cared for the commentary. I was initially really excited to hear Mike Emrick's voice in NHL 15's commentary, since he is generally synonymous with NBC's high-quality hockey broadcasts, but he sounds all wrong here. When calling real games, Emrick has a knack for capturing the excitement of a scramble around the net for a goal, which he punctuates with his distinctive cry of, "SCOOORE!" You can tell how a game is going just by the way his voice quickens and grows more excitable as the action intensifies, which is a crucial element that kind of gets lost in NHL 15. It doesn't help that he doesn't seem to have as many lines as he should, with most of his recording time having seemingly been devoted to the matchup-specific introductions that open every game.
Unfortunately, the disappointing commentary is rather typical of the NHL 15 experience, which on paper has so much potential. Once the excitement of the new rosters and the new presentation wears off, the reality begins to set in: The improvements aren't as big as I initially imagined, and the cuts are downright huge. I've already written a bit about my disappointment over the removal of GM Connected and the EA Sports Hockey League, but the cuts go deeper than I could have ever imagined. The Winter Classic and custom soundtracks are gone, and numerous other features including Online Team Play and Tournament Mode have been delayed. It's so bad that even the Three Stars of the Game summary and coach feedback are being held back for a later update.
For their part, Hockey Ultimate Team and Be a GM have survived more or less intact, but Be a Pro has been completely gutted. Previously one of my favorite modes, it now lacks minor league demotions, the ability to sim to the next line shift, and the ability to influence draft position by playing in a prospect tournament. It's still possible to roll up a custom character and skate as one player, but much of the thrill of advancement is gone. As superstar modes go, it's now as basic as basic can be, rendering moot one of the franchise's strongest modes from the previous generation.
Such cuts speak to the tyranny of the annual sports game development cycle. If NHL 15 had been practically any other game, it would have been pushed back into 2015. But after what happened with NBA Live back in 2010, any kind of delay is basically a death sentence, and EA Canada knows it. Unfortunately, the alternative in this case is a half-finished game. I can't fault NHL 15's developers for focusing on getting the gameplay up to speed, but neither can I ignore the sheer amount of content that has been cut from this version. EA has announced extensive post-launch support for NHL 15, including the restoration of Online Team Play and the addition of a draft mode for Be a GM, which is a nice gesture. However, I can only really evaluate what's in the box, and what's currently in NHL 15's box feels almost more like an early access release on Steam than a finished $60 product.
For that reason, as much as it pains me to say it as a longtime fan of the series, NHL 15 is a disappointment. It lays a good foundation for the future with enhanced physics and an improved presentation, but it's still mostly potential, and there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of how players interact with the puck and each other. Beyond that, the modes feel like a major step back, with Be a Pro being cut down to pre-2011 levels and pillars like EASHL missing the cut entirely. I had really high hopes for this year's version, but those hopes have been largely dashed. I guess NHL's coronation will have to wait another year.
Major improvements to the arenas are welcome, as are new camera angles that do a better job of showing the crowd. FMV clips mixed with in-game graphics makes the presentation look more polished.
The crowds sound better, but the commentary feels artificial and doesn't match the flow of the game. Custom soundtracks are gone.
Definitely more polished before, but still a bit laggy. Load times between menus can feel a bit long at times.
NHL 15's cuts dramatically impact its lasting appeal. I spent more than a hundred hours with GM Connected in last year's version. I might already be done with this year.
NHL 15 is right to focus on improvements to the gameplay and the presentation, but they aren't nearly good enough to justify the cuts made elsewhere. It dazzles out of the box, but it doesn't take long for the upgrades to feel shallow in comparison to what's missing. Ultimately, NHL 15 feels like a major misstep for a franchise that doesn't necessarily have a lot of room for error.