NHL 14 was a great step in the right direction for the long running hockey franchise. The previous generation versions on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 were excellent, filled with plenty of game modes to entertain those who purchased it, and seemingly had it all down pat. The jump to the next generation held a lot of promise for this franchise, promise that NHL fans wanted to see realized. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. We found out a few weeks ago that NHL 15 was going to be a little stripped down, according to EA Sports. That statement, however, was a gross understatement. The gameplay is here, but NHL 15 has left a lot to be desired.
Gameplay and Presentation are, for the most part, enjoyable.
The gameplay of NHL 15 on the Xbox One is very impressive. I jumped straight into the game to find out just how it felt to be controlling players on the ice, how they responded to my movements, and if it really felt like a hockey game. The promise of robust gameplay was met, thankfully. My first game involved a grudge match between the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings, so I assumed that last year's fighting mechanic, which was woefully overdone, was going to get plenty of overtime. To my surprise and enjoyment, the fighting problem has been solved. Fights were not nearly as rampant as last year and could be controlled far more in regards to when a player wanted to enjoy knocking a player's block off. For example, in last year's version, fights pretty much happened when one player checked more than a couple of players in one shift. An enforcer for the other team would make a bee line for the player doing the damage, instigate the fight, and the player was pretty much left with no choice but to fight. This year, though, I didn't have a single fight that I didn't have to accept (A push of the Y button when alerted will start the fight) and, even then, sometimes it didn't respond because I wasn't actually switched to that player, which was a mild annoyance. Fighting felt better put together for the next-gen and didn't seem like an impossible and daunting task.
Skaters' motions seem more natural on the new consoles. Don't expect to be abusing a turbo button, though, because it still doesn't exist. Players are judged how fast they are by their stats alone and nothing else, so a winger who flies is going to have an easier time getting around a slow defender now that the defender doesn't have some phantom gear that doesn't exist. This adds to the fantastic realism that the gameplay brings to the table. The other motions, such as skating backwards, side steps, and body checks all look to be as real as they get, though there are some issues with needing to be in proper position if a player winds up for a slapshot. The game can get a little confused if the player is skating to the left and then needs to wind up in the opposite direction, creating a very quick tornado move but the skater manages to get into perfect position even with this.
The controls have gone through quite a change this year, though the shooting stick is still in place with the right analog being everything a player needs to throw the puck on net. Passing isn't done with the thumb buttons anymore but, rather, the right trigger. Pointing in the direction of a pass and hitting the right trigger will send the puck to that player with a normal pass. Saucer passes are used with the right bumper now. The reason for this is that the right trigger is being used to switch players while on defense, so it feels natural to have that button do everything. It's odd at first, but easy to get used to after a couple of games.
One positive that has to be pointed out that involves the entire experience in-game is the excellent build up that features the fantastic commentary duo of Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. Each game will have a great build up that includes a video shot of the city that the game is being played in and then a short pregame involving Emrick and Olczyk. Their commentary, which also includes Ray Ferraro rink-side, was a breath of fresh air and generally kept the play by play and color commentary to necessary parts of the game. Exciting situations, such as game winning goals, were never dull with Emrick making the final goal call. A big thumbs up to the development team for making the presentation portion excellent.
There are some problems, though.
Scoring this year seems to be easier and, perhaps even too easy. I've always enjoyed the challenge that past NHL titles brought to the table and how it was almost necessary to be able to move the puck around in the attacking zone, rotating with players and managing to find that perfect spot in the slot to rifle a wrist shot past a goalie. Now, that artwork isn't necessary. Players can calmly wrist one home from just about anywhere in the attacking zone. One timers across net are almost a guaranteed tally on the scoreboard. My first game ended in a 7-6 loss (more on that later) in which my first three shots were all goals. The defense seemed to pick up at that point and it became harder to get into position. After playing 50 or so games, though, there seem to be sweet spots that players can get to that will almost surely result in a goal or rebound attempt. Goalies in this game really have their work cut out for themselves because they seem to be just a step slower than everyone else.
Regarding that 7-6 loss in the previous paragraph, NHL 15 is almost unforgiving when playing the CPU. I started out on the default "Pro" difficulty that the game suggested with my knowledge and past skill of the game. The game starts out innocent enough, some back and forth up and down the ice, but this game was foreshadowing in the worst way for what was to come. Leads almost never held up at any stage of the game with the CPU almost getting harder the more I got ahead. In this particular game, I was up 4-0 in the second period. In the span of just a few minutes, on five seemingly impossible passes to players, I was down 5-4. All shots were in the net, all passes were from long distances, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. EA Sports has always claimed that they never use the dreaded "catch up AI" but I experienced some form of this in just about every game I played. If you buy this game, I would highly recommend playing it online more than offline because at least user error is going to balance things out.
The AI, unfortunately, experiences some terrible little bugs during play. Attacking players on my team casually would cross the blue line of the attacking zone well before I would get there with the puck to draw an offsides call. This happened far too much for my liking and really did force me to change the way I played. It didn't matter if I was a defender, winger, or center bringing it up: One skater was guaranteed to want to beat my skater across the line. This really frustrated me as my playtime wore on, but I learned various ways to combat it such as long passes, waiting for my CPU skaters to skate across and then back, etc. Once in the attacking zones, though, things usually ran fairly smooth unless the AI bugged out against the boards. NHL 15 has implemented the skirmishes and tie ups against the boards, and it looks very slick, but the AI can sometimes get confused and after kicking the puck out from where its at, the skater will just stay there, stuck to the boards. My first experience with this was really unusual as I kicked the puck out while a second skater was just off to the side of the player I was controlling. The puck was intercepted and we headed back the other way. My defender forced a quick turnover and we charged into the attacking zone, only to be called for offsides. The camera panned up and, sure enough, there was that CPU skater, stuck against the boards doing absolutely nothing. This instance occurred less than once a game, but out of my 50 or so games that I put in for this review, I would say there was at least once instance of this in half of the games I played. That's incredibly disappointing.
Where are the game modes?
Speaking of disappointing, it's time to address the game modes in this title. A couple of familiar modes will be available such as the popular Ultimate Team that is now available on practically every sports title that EA publishes as well as the always enjoyable GM Connected mode, which is essentially a franchise mode. However, this is where NHL 15 falls apart. Some of the most popular modes that players were looking forward to, including the EA Sports Hockey League and Live The Life modes, are missing. They just aren't there, and there are no plans to add them in. Online Team Play will eventually be patched into the game later, but it will not be the same experience as the EASHL. Live The Life is now just Be A Pro mode, and it's been stripped down quite a bit as well. Last year, players enjoyed the challenge of being forced to start in the minor leagues, make personal decisions that would have positive and negative effects on their player, and ultimately have to perform in order to reach the NHL. Now, it's just like most any other superstar mode: A player makes a skater and picks a pro team to start on. There's no build up and the player essentially starts right away; a far cry from last year and a monumental disappointment that should have been the cherry on top of an overall great gameplay experience.
There are some other head-scratching decisions that have been made in the title as well. For instance, in the GM mode, there is no deciding to play as the team's minor league club at all. Updates from the minors will be given to players as the season progresses, but forget actually playing with them unless they are called in individually. Pre-season is also missing for some odd reason, which is disappointing because players don't have the chance to practice with their team inside the franchise mode at all. They're essentially just thrown into the fire right away. In the Be A Pro mode, there's now no option to sim ahead to the next shift once the skater comes off the ice (I searched high and low for this option in the menu and, unless I have missed it, it is not there.) Now, we've been told that some options may be patched in, so we will see in the future if some of these crazy decisions actually do get addressed but, in the long run, this seems really strange to have this much missing from a title that was absolutely loaded with game modes last year.
Is this really worth $60?
I have spent the last several days trying to rationalize how this many modes and features could be missing and the title could still be considered a full game. Fans of the series are upset, and rightfully so. Being asked to pay $60 for a game that is missing a lot of the best game modes from last season is a tall request to fulfill, especially when the 360 and PS3 versions are going to have all of those modes available because it was easier to port them for the same system. I understand that there are development hurdles that need to be cleared when going from one generation to another, but this is inexcusable to ask gamers to pony up the full amount for a game that feels incomplete. As I said before, the gameplay and presentation can make up for some of it because it really is the meat and potatoes of the game. I can't rave enough about how great it was to see the first opening of a game and have a full video of Columbus from the banks of the Scioto River appear on my TV, followed by outstanding commentary by Emrick and Olczyk. But the sheer lack of options and features ripped away from this game just cannot be made up for.
Long story short, though: The in-game enjoyment is there. It feels fantastic to be controlling teams on the ice, but it may be smart to wait it out a bit and see what patches come in the next several weeks to make up for what's been lost at launch. The game has so much potential to be one of the best in the series, but it just falls short with the necessary features and modes to realize that potential.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Sean is a 15 year veteran of gaming and technology writing with an unhealthy obsession for Final Fantasy, soccer, and chocolate.View Profile