NHL 15 Review

Hitting the ice, face first.

One thing that has always annoyed me about sports games is feature creep. As something of a purist--and as a guy whose first sports gaming experiences involved the LED bleeps and bloops of Coleco handhelds like Electronic Quarterback--I've never needed a lot of frills. Get the sport itself right on the field, or the ice, or whatever. Then we can talk about collecting players like sports cards, or bobblehead modes of play, or whatever. Less really can be more.

But NHL 15 is something else entirely. EA Sports has ripped the heart out of its long-time arcade hockey game, taking what was supposed to be a brave first step for the franchise on the new-generation PS4 and Xbox One and turning it into a pratfall. Many, many modes of play are missing in action. Even the features that have survived EA's new-gen purge are present in much-reduced circumstances, with far fewer options than seen just last year with NHL 14 on the 360 and PS3. Some aspects of the game have been stripped down so much that they are barely playable. Action on the ice is still pretty impressive for the most part, and everything has been spruced up further with refined hockey smarts, improved puck physics, and mostly impressive new visuals and sound. But the gameplay isn't so much better that it offsets what has been lost. The only way that EA could further annoy hockey fans with this game would be if the company had Gary Bettman personally deliver every copy.

So much has been pulled out of NHL 15 that I spent my first 10 minutes with the game scavenging through the menus wondering where everything had been hidden. Even though I was well aware going in that the feature set had been scaled back, I still found it astonishing just how much was left out this year. When EA representatives say that they set everything back to square one to start over with the current generation of consoles, they really mean it. So, roll call. EA Sports Hockey League for online play? Gone. Online team play? Gone. Season mode? Gone. Tournaments and battling for the Stanley Cup? Gone. GM Connected? Gone. Be A Legend? Gone. Live the Life? Gone. Winter Classic? Gone. Ability to create teams and edit individual players? Gone and gone.

On launch day, you can consider the game gutted. Heck, you don't even get the three stars of the game awards right now, which is about as essential a part of the NHL hockey experience as broken teeth. Only the essential aspects of NHL gaming have been maintained. You can play individual matches both solo and offline with the NHL and pretty much every other major hockey league on the planet, and hit the ice to practice your moves (although you're stuck going one-on-one against a goalie, so there isn't much else you can do here except play showdown over and over again). Be a GM lets you run through up to 25 seasons at the helm of your favorite NHL club, which works quite a bit like a standard season mode in that you can sim or play games. Hockey Ultimate Team returns for more team-building and collectible fun (although I have always found this mode of play too gimmicky to fully enjoy). And that's pretty much it.

New AI and puck physics definitely help NHL 15 on the ice, but these improvements don’t elevate the gameplay much above what was offered up with the franchise a year ago.
New AI and puck physics definitely help NHL 15 on the ice, but these improvements don’t elevate the gameplay much above what was offered up with the franchise a year ago.

Just about everything that has been left in the game has been diminished in one way or another. In Be a GM, you are now limited solely to the NHL. All of the AHL, junior, and foreign teams have been removed. Your level of control has also been decreased. Drafts are all automated. Hit the end of a season, and the game essentially just gives you a bunch of random new prospects. The minor pro AHL is essentially gone here. You can see each team's farm club, but they mean nothing, and players sent down don't seem to record stats. There aren't even any preseason games. Not that I ever played them, but still. All of these missing features kill any sense of hockey realism. And Be a GM still isn't a good replacement for a pure season mode, as you're stuck with at least some of the financial and management duties that players might want to avoid.

Be a Pro is nearly unplayable now. In years past, I could barely stop playing Be a Pro. The combination of the role-playing, coaching input, and simply feeling like I was building a real NHL player hooked me for hours. In NHL 15, I couldn't get out of this mode of play fast enough.

The fantastic Memorial Cup tryout period--where you would improve your NHL draft position by kicking ass in the yearly Canadian tournament deciding the best major junior team in the world--has been yanked out of the game. Now you just create a player, gear him up, and either pick your favorite NHL club or let the game assign you to one randomly. You don't even have to worry about toiling in the AHL, as you stay in the NHL no matter what. This already makes the whole experience a lot less involving from a role-playing perspective, but it's even worse on the ice. Feedback from your coach at the end of every shift has been dropped--at least for now, as it is also being promised as a patch addition in September. At present, this ruins the whole mode of play for me, as without those direct comments, I feel like I'm playing in a vacuum. No matter what I do, from scoring a goal to screwing up and taking a bad penalty, I go back to the bench and am greeted with absolutely nothing. Without a coach there to praise or berate me, everything I do seems fake and pointless.

And to make everything just a little more aggravating, skipping forward is no longer allowed when you're on the bench waiting for your next shift. This time out you have to sit around and twiddle your thumbs until a whistle lets you get back out there. Games seem to have been sped up a bit to accommodate this missing option, however. It seems like you're on the ice a lot more than you should be, even if you're playing a top-six forward or top-pairing defenseman who already should be getting a lot of ice time. As a result, stats seem screwed up when it comes to key areas like shots on goal.

Visual improvements include uncannily lifelike player facial expressions, including the one on grumpy Nik Backstrom here.
Visual improvements include uncannily lifelike player facial expressions, including the one on grumpy Nik Backstrom here.

Customization is another area that has been cut way back. There is no way to create a player from scratch. Editing players is also verboten, which is a real shame in NHL 15 because some of the ratings are beyond bizarre. I noticed all sorts of strangeness, such as blue-chip rookies being projected to top out in the AHL, budding stars rated as mediocre, and relatively average talents being given elite rankings. Granted, a lot of this is in the eye of the beholder. But almost everyone is going to disagree with one player's ratings or another, so every modern sports game needs to allow for changes here. Unsurprisingly, the abilities to create plays and customize team strategies are also gone. You can't even mess around with new plays and strategies on your own, as the practice mode has been limited to one played going one-on-one with a goalie.

Which finally leads me to the on-ice action. Even with so many core features of NHL 15 deleted, a lot of this could be forgiven if the game was lights out on the ice. Unfortunately, it isn't. Or at least, not quite. This is still a very solid game of hockey (after you heavily adjust the gameplay sliders, as the default settings are ridiculously fast), complete with smart teammates and opponents on the ice. But it feels a lot like last year, with a few improvements due to revamped AI. Defenders are smarter. They play a smothering forecheck, stick close to their men (maybe too close, its sometimes like they've got you in a tractor beam), and adapt if you get predictable. Teams now seem to play more like their real-life inspirations than ever. The Minnesota Wild, for instance, play the exact same dump-and-chase style here as they do in the actual NHL, and rely on counter-attacking to win games. Offense is still a little off, though, due largely to the frequent presence of impossible plays. Too often I spotted star forwards like a Phil Kessel or a Patrick Kane doing something absurd, like snapping a no-look, lightning-fast backhand across the slot by barely moving their sticks. There are still too many tape-to-tape bullets and too much pinball puck movement resulting in supernatural feats of hockey not possible in the real world.

Just about everything that has been left in the game has been diminished in one way or another.

Improved physics make for more realism, as well. Skaters seem to have more heft. I could almost feel blades cutting into the ice, which gave skating more impact as compared to the slighter feel of earlier games in the series. The puck flies and bounces around more authentically, too. This is mostly noticeable around the nets, as the disc tends to carom off the goalie into corners, bounce high and over the net off the glass, create big fat rebounds into the slot, and so forth.

Given the new-generation focus of NHL 15, the visuals and sound should be real pluses. And they really are, at least for the most part. The new-generation graphics are particularly noteworthy when it comes to player faces. The game is getting close to photo-realism now, right down to specific facial expressions like smiles and grimaces when reacting to incidents on the ice. Arenas and crowds have both been completely redone. Rinks have been modeled on their specific counterparts in the real world, and the stands are now crammed with what seem to be thousands of individuals with different facial features, shirts, and so forth. This is often used to great effect. A fat guy in costume wearing a retro Winnipeg Jets sweater circa 1980 was twice shown in the Air Canada Centre stands taunting my Leafs after goals during a blowout, for example.

Redone arenas and more realistic crowds provide exciting backdrops for games now.
Redone arenas and more realistic crowds provide exciting backdrops for games now.

Other aspects of the visual presentation need refinement. Player models have been divided into different layers for body, equipment, and clothing. A new tech for cloth has been used for uniforms, which looks absurd given that jerseys now constantly flap around like Superman's cape. The ice looks a little off, especially when it comes to how clean sheets reflect the glare of arena lights. Everything is a bit too bright, more like you're standing on a desert highway at noon than looking at flooded ice in a modern arena. These are fairly minor points, though, that barely scratch the surface of one great-looking game.

Audio is also extremely good. Arena sound effects are powerful enough to rev you up during games. All of the atmospheric noises like the puck ratting off a post or the oomph of a big hit are right in your face. The new crowds are pretty mouthy, too. They react with cheers and jeers to good and bad plays. Even your hometown fans get on you and start booing if you allow a bad goal. Having such a lively crowd is vital this year, as well, because EA has really scaled back on the soundtrack. Generic rock fills the menus and most of the stoppages of play during games. Gone seem to be the days when the likes of The Black Keys and Judas Priest were prominently featured in NHL games.

Player models in NHL 15 generally look fantastic, save for the dynamic clothing that makes jerseys look like they are forever flapping in the breeze.
Player models in NHL 15 generally look fantastic, save for the dynamic clothing that makes jerseys look like they are forever flapping in the breeze.

NHL 15 moves to an NBC-styled broadcast presentation with Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in the booth and Ray Ferraro chipping in from between the benches. This results in some of the best commentary in the history of the series, with a tremendous number of specific observations about players that really nail exactly what is going on during every game. Somebody has a great night, chances are awfully good that Ferraro will tell you all about it. The only occasional drawback is Emrick. He's an acquired taste already, to be sure, but some of his lines here have been stitched together so strangely that it sometimes sounds like English is his second language. I don't know how you create danger, nor do I understand what he means when he talks about a team "recoiling," as he uses it in so many situations that it comes off as nothing but gobbledygook.

Even though NHL 15 plays a good game on the ice, the overall game is unconvincing and unfinished right now. EA could well deal with a number of these issues in the coming months, but it's hard to understand why the company would launch such a major franchise for the new consoles with such an incomplete effort. A lot of work is required over the next few months to get this promising game on track with all of the game features that series fans want and deserve.

The Good

  • Marginally upgraded AI and physics
  • New crowd visuals and player expressions look fantastic
  • Dynamic crowd reactions to in-game action and brilliant broadcast commentary

The Bad

  • Missing a tremendous number of core features and options
  • New AI and physics still hampered by unrealistic plays, mainly on offense
  • Be a Pro so cut back and hampered that it’s all but unplayable

About the Author

Brett Todd skated, shot, and slashed the best players in the NHL for over 10 hours while putting together this review of NHL 15.