Last year was a difficult year for EA's NHL franchise, to say the least. After all the hype surrounding the generational shift, fans were left with a disappointing sim bereft of most of its major modes. Can it make a turnaround in Year 2?
What happened with NHL 15: Unlike FIFA and Madden, NHL opted to wait a year to make the jump to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, leading to speculation that EA Canada was using the extra time to put out an especially great hockey sim. That speculation proved false. Instead, they moved from NHL 14 to NHL 15 as usual, giving them 12 months to prep their next-gen debut.
NHL 15 arrived with some neat full-motion video openings, new commentary, upgraded stadiums, and revamped physics, but otherwise it failed to follow the first commandment of sports sims: "Thou shalt not cut major features when transitioning to a new generation." Several notable features wound up on the cutting room floor, most notably the popular EA Sports Hockey league - the team-based mode that had been one of the franchise's major selling points.
In giving it 2.5 stars in my review, I wrote, "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.
What NHL 15 Did Well: I think most people would say that the actual gameplay on the ice was its biggest strength. Though it lost some notable features - players would no longer jostle for position in front of the net, for instance - it also benefited from the removal of the "tractor beam" that would suck players into animations along the boards. The improved physics were also evident in the way that the puck would move. NHL has always been an enjoyable game, and though it hasn't changed a ton since introducing momentum in NHL 13, it still works very nicely.
NHL 15 also got a nice bump in the presentation department, which had been rather generic for years. True, the commentary by Mike "Doc" Emrick wore a little thin after a while, but the NBC Sports broadcast package and the newly revamped arenas constituted a nice step up. The new presentation did a good job of laying the foundation for the future, even if it wasn't quite enough to carry the whole game.
Where NHL 15 Struggled: Honestly, take your pick. The loss of the EA Sports Hockey League really hurt, removing one of the franchise's unique selling points and badly hurting its long-term replayability. Be a GM launched without a draft mode. The cuts were deep, and they were painful.
Of the modes that actually made it into NHL 15, though, Be a Pro was hurt the most. It lost pretty much all of its major features, including the draft position tournament, the ability to sim to the next shift, and even demotions to the minors. With that, Be a Pro went from being one NHL's best modes to being completely unplayable overnight. Be a Pro, moreso even than the absence of the EASHL, was emblematic of just how much got cut from NHL 15.
This Year's Outlook: After taking a beating from fans and critics last year, the NHL team buckled down in an effort to put out a much better product in NHL 15. Pretty much everything but GM Connected (RIP) and custom soundtracks is back, and most of the modes are getting new features as well. The EASHL has a new class system, which EA Canada spent a long time balancing, Be a Pro has a completely revamped feedback system, and Be a GM has a new morale system that will cause players to complain or even demand a trade if they aren't happy about something.
Given all that, there's reason to expect a much better showing from NHL 16 this year. It will have stiff competition, though, with pretty much all of the major sports sims looking really strong this year. It stands a very good chance of pleasing core hockey fans; but to earn a look from more general sports fans, the EASHL will have to be especially strong. Opinions on the beta were mixed, but with a month to tune up, it ought to be more polished. In general, though, NHL looks primed to bounced back after a really rough year.