A shorthanded debut

NHL 14 was the pinnacle for EA Sports’ NHL franchise—and that’s saying something, considering its quality and consistency for more than two decades. It seemed like the folks at EA Canada had crammed in every mode and feature they could come up with and pushed the technology to its limits on the last generation of consoles. But this peak seemed to come at a perfect time, since it was just as we began the transition to new consoles. It seemed more than plausible that EA Canada could reach new heights this year with NHL 15 on new-gen hardware.

Unfortunately, this is another case where expectations were greater than reality. It’s not that the on-ice product is bad with NHL 15. In fact, once you decide to start a game in Be a Pro, Be a GM, or any of the other modes, actually playing a game of hockey might be better than ever. The new NBC presentation package makes it feel like every game is Game of the Week, and commentary from the team of Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro is stellar. I’m about 40 games into my Be a GM mode (I play every game of the season), and I’m just now starting to hear some repeat commentary, but I’m still getting surprised here and there.

The graphics have also made a spectacular transition to the new console generation, and everything looks sharper and crisper—you can almost feel the chill of the ice itself. What’s more, the player models are amazingly realistic and even borrow a few tricks from EA Sports UFC when it comes to bruising and facial contortions from fights. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the eye of a guy you pummeled in an earlier bout swelled shut by the third period.

The biggest improvement comes from the revamped physics, though: huge player pileups when you crash the net, realistic puck bounces that lead to frustrating turnovers or fortunate close calls, and more dynamic goalie saves make it seem like you’re watching a game in real life. All the goal-scoring glitches of past years have seemingly been erased as well—the AI’s improved all around, and your opponent always tries to anticipate your every move. And even the issues with faceoffs—my one disappointment from last year’s game—are now fixed, since you can use your stick with more pinpoint precision than ever before.

When you get off the ice, however, everything takes a horribly sour turn. Countless modes from previous years have been nixed. Even with patches coming in during the next 60 days to bring back Playoff Mode and Online Team Play, you’re still missing EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic, and Be a Legend. NHL Moments Live mode from NHL 13 was brought back to cushion this blow, but you still don’t want modes completely removed from the game. It feels like instead of continuing to build on what they’d created over the previous few years, EA Canada instead hit the reset button with new-gen.

The worst part, though, may be the fact that EA Canada scaled back the modes that did make it into the game. Be a Pro has lost the “Live the Life” feature introduced in last year’s game, which allowed you to interact with teammates, family, fans, and the front office and deal with a balancing metagame as you tried to keep everyone in your life happy while also maintaining a high level of on-ice play.

You’ve also lost the ability to simulate to your next shift in Be a Pro. Now, you have to watch the entire game on the bench when you’re not playing, whereas last year, a button press would move you forward in time. This becomes particularly painful if you take a penalty and then have to watch the minutes tick off on the clock from the sin bin. I don’t want to watch a hockey videogame. I want to play. These subtle omissions have turned one of my favorite modes from last year into an afterthought when I boot up the game now.

Be a GM has its own set of issues now, too. To begin with, your team’s AHL affiliate has been completely done away with—now, minor-league players are just “in the system” instead of accumulating any stats or progress whatsoever. There’s also no GM tracking mechanic anymore to let you know how you’re doing or to give you an idea of what goals you need to aim for. The preseason and fantasy-draft options have also been removed, and the year-end draft for each season is fully automated by the CPU. If I’m running a franchise, I want to run the franchise! Don’t take any aspect of that away from me—and especially don’t assign it to the computer!

To make matters worse, the little control you still have left becomes all the more complicated due to the panel user-interface system that’s now permeated every EA Sports franchise. Yes, being able to jump to my favorite modes as soon as I start the game up is a welcome addition, but making trades, changing my lines, and even just resting my goalie have all become a chore because of this new system. The old list system had its problems, but it was nowhere near as bad as what this universal UI homogenization by EA Sports has done. Changing your lines is so difficult that in Hockey Ultimate Team, one of the patches is solely to help adjust this. I wish this patch were for all game modes, because changing lines and making adjustments in Be a GM right now is a nightmare.

And speaking of HUT, nothing has infuriated me more than not being able to earn pucks (the HUT currency used to buy packs to get new players) in single-player modes outside of HUT. Yes, you earned many more for playing online, but as someone who loved Be a GM and Be a Pro modes and spent more time there than anywhere else, it was nice to still earn a few pucks for playing the modes I wanted to play. This only helped extend NHL 14’s life for me; after a while, I would play a little bit of HUT because I’d accrued so many pucks. Now, it feels like the best way to get pucks is to buy them through microtransactions. EA Sports trying to squeeze more money out of us? Color me surprised.

After playing limited demos of NHL 15 leading up to its release, I could not be more disappointed with the final result. It feels like so much time and focus went into getting the graphics and physics systems up to snuff for new-gen that EA Canada forgot about the rest of the game. At the very least, there’s hope, though. Now that the transition’s been made—however painfully—next year’s title can bring NHL back to its former glory.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.09.14
7.0
The new physics system, presentation elements, and graphics are definitely a step forward for the franchise, but the wholesale removal or scaling back of so many modes leaves you wondering how such a great series could struggle so mightily with the console transition.
The Good The physics and graphics are the best the series has ever seen.
The Bad So many modes and features are missing compared to NHL 14 that it’s hard to believe this is the full game.
The Ugly This will go down with Madden 06 as one of the most disappointing generation transition games for a sports franchise.
NHL 15 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.
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