National Hockey League loyalists are used to getting their emotions tossed around, whether it be by frustrating TV deals, the way the sport gets swept under the rug by popular American culture, and the general lack of media attention and press it gets. They must endure these harsh realities, forever cursed in knowing their sport is secretly the best thing to ever happen to humanity.
Part of that tragedy was realized a little less than a year ago when we found out that the iconic NHL series would not be making an appearance on the brand new Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles. At the time we were told the team was focused on delivering the best-possible experience on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (http://o.canada.com/technology/gaming/nhl-14-why-there-wont-be-a-next-generation-nhl-video-game-year), but the final product proved to be a step back.
The debut of NHL 15 marks an important milestone in the franchise's lifespan, but unfortunately it's tainted by a severely watered down feature set if you compare it to what was available in last year's Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 offering. In fact, NHL 15 on the older consoles still maintains a lengthy list of game modes and features that are nowhere to be seen on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions. The result feels like a ghost town compared to its fleshed out last-gen brethren and its barebones offering is sure to disappoint new and old fans alike. In fact, the vocal groanings regarding the absence of the ultra-popular online EA Sports Hockey League have been cycling for weeks now.
But before we ask "how" and "why" the game could be missing so much, let's focus on what's new, what's great and what's not so great about NHL 15.
For starters, NHL 15 does a masterful job with the NBC Sports license and game day presentation. If you watch a lot of hockey on TV you're sure to catch a few moments of one-to-one realism that mirrors a regular NBC broadcast. Games start with an establishing shot of the arena or city you're playing in and then transition into a canned introduction from the game's new commentators, Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. It's a bit awkward with them green screened in front of a virtual arena, but for the most part it works. The juxtaposition of real people and virtual characters mashed up goes over better than I thought it would.
With the addition of Doc and Eddie, the game's commentary system has also received a complete refresh. Emerick's commentary is just as charmingly peculiar as it is in real life and it nails his quirky and dramatic tone. Of course, there are some oddities that do pop in from time to time, but so are the shortcomings of sports videogame commentary in general. That said, it'd be nice to hear some newly recorded phrases to enter the game through updates throughout the year.
NHL 15 recreates the feeling of being at a live game quite well. From licensed arenas to impressively detailed crowd modelings, there's little that's been left out from the experience of attending an NHL game. These details combine for some remarkable true-to-life instant replays, all complementing the complete NBC Sports presentation.
So how do things fare on the ice? Considering the amount of graphical and presentational advancements, the core NHL series aesthetic still shines through. Gameplay has a noticeably different tinge, which favors offense more than it does defense. Any player, whether he's a first-line sniper or a fourth-line grinder, has access to a reservoir of superstar moves and dekes.
The problem is that not every player should be able to make moves like these. When anyone can pull them off, they make for an inauthentic representation of the diversity of talent in the league. It's easier than ever to pull off one of these "one-touch dekes" and it's never been more agonizingly difficult for the defending player to cover them effectively. Consequently, I've been able to utilize them too often, especially in online play. I wouldn't knock the feature so hard if it were easier to defend against, but the way it's currently tilted, it's as if the game punishes players that rely on solid defense to combat an offensive minded opponent.
NHL 15 introduces 12-player collision physics, which means the game calculates non-essential player collisions out of the play or even off-screen. Computer controlled players are now vulnerable to the elements because they're constantly being simulated in real time. This works for and against the general semblance of realism. There's nothing better than seeing two players knock into each other, only to open the perfect lane for a fast-break to the net. But there's also a decent amount of goofyness too, where players seem to stumble for no reason. In the end it all makes for a handful of questionable plays -- sequences that would likely merit a penalty call in reality -- but nevertheless go undisciplined.
EA Sports has made a substantial effort to revamp the game's puck physics -- to the point that the team called upon a Hadron Collider physicist, Michele Petteni, to help in their efforts. At first glance, the new the new puck physics are light years ahead of what they were in previous years. Finally, the puck will react almost exactly as it would in a real game, from pinballing around in the goal crease, to deflecting organically off a skate or stick, to behaving naturally when fired into the net. Most importantly, there doesn't seem to be a set of rules governing the way the puck plays and I'm thrilled to see that restriction lifted.
Mostly high praise notwithstanding, I'd be doing the sport an injustice if I didn't bring up the few minor quirks I've noticed about the puck, particle physicists aside. Oddly enough, the puck seems to favor rolling up on its side -- and even coming to rest like that -- more so than it does in real life. Also, I've noticed the puck comes to a stop quicker than it rightfully should on ice. At times its behavior reminds me of an roller hockey arena puck -- it has a tendency to bounce an awful lot too. A puck is nowhere as unpredictable as say a fumbled football, but it occasionally acts like one in NHL 15. It's as if at times the puck forgets it's on ice.
In general, AI is significantly improved. Non-playable teammates cover the appropriate areas on both sides of the ice and more often than not I'm able to confidently make a pass to the point without even seeing a player there on-screen. There are, however, some low points. I've had a surprising number of offsides called when it's the computer player who's at fault. Also, players will drag out of position more often than I'd prefer in the defensive zone -- it's frustrating trying to wrangle everyone back to where they belong.
I've also noticed an imbalance with penalties -- meaning they're infuriatingly inconsistent. The biggest issue has to be goalie interference penalties. While it's called often, rarely do I find them done so appropriately. Offensive players will smash into the goalie, knocking him off-kilter, and play astonishingly continues.
Tripping penalties are frequent because of the use of the poke check button, but that's always been the case. But because defensive maneuvers seem weakened this year, I find I need to rely on it too often, thus more tripping calls result. Boarding calls seem more sensitive as well this year, as they've also been amped up in the league, but the severity of them needs to be settled. During just my third game, I incurred a seven-minute penalty (a major with a double minor tacked on), I'm not even sure that's supposed to happen at all.
And while NHL 15 features rebuilt gameplay, there are still familiar oddities that pop up. Players will occasionally lock into animations that aren't relevant, while others will glitch out, becoming stuck and totally unresponsive for seconds at a time. It's still too easy to accidentally engage a pass to no one because you've hit the switch-player button before your defensive teammate possesses the puck.
Player facial mappings are also a mixed bag. Some players look astonishing like their real life counterparts while others are just generic people seemingly randomly generated. Their behaviors though, are strikingly realistic. From going down the line of bench players for a glove bump after a goal to looking up at a scoreboard to catch a reply, the post-whistle motion captures in the game are all spot on.
I've played 21 online versus games and 68 offline games during my testing. Online play is noticeably more sluggish than offline, which has been an issue with the NHL series for quite some time now. Even with the revamped gameplay, the slowdown translates to online play. Players need to adjust to a different speed in multiplayer because you have less time to react in certain situations.
Overall, NHL 15 is a bittersweet event. It regularly exudes shades of brilliance and heightened moments of action that truly captures the best parts of hockey. But alas, it's soiled by a harsh truth. NHL 15 is missing an awful lot of features.
The list of what's missing is long and surprising, but I was shocked to see that I couldn't do something as simple as start a season. Instead I had to enter "Be a GM" mode and deal with the managerial logistics of salary caps instead of just diving into opening day.
There's also no tutorial. That's right -- if you've never played an NHL game before, you're going to have to learn the old-fashioned way. Feel like practicing? You'll only be able to do so with one player against a goalie. That's it. Even the three stars of the game are nowhere to be seen. Seriously?
Keep in mind, this is all in addition to the omission of the aforementioned EA Sports Hockey League, a Winter Classic mode, action tracker replay highlights, ultimate team restrictions, custom team creations -- the list goes on.
You may ask yourself, "how can this be?" I'm not sure I have a concise answer to that, other than what the game's producers have said publicly. According to NHL 15's lead producer Sean Ramjagsingh, the Xbox One and PS4 experience isn't done yet and will continue to grow with free add-ons. Over the months of September and October, new modes and features will be added to the game through a series of updates, but it's safe to say that the full $60 value NHLers are used to might not make a full comeback until next year's game, or -- gasp -- further iterations down the road.
The takeaway here is that if you've formed an unbreakable relationship with a specific game mode from NHL 14 or an earlier game, it's possible that it won't be available in NHL 15 on Xbox One or PS4.
If you can ever wrap your head around the insane amount that's missing from it and how unacceptable that is, there is fun to be had with NHL 15 buried below the initial disappointment. Things can only improve from here. Hopefully the game will see some productive software updates -- not just to beef up the lacking game modes and features, but also gameplay tweaks and refinements. Make no mistake, loyalists are going to find themselves torn. NHL 15 is incomplete, but it's also the most advanced hockey sim made to date.
Beyond the missing features and modes exists the potential for a great hockey simulation. Unfortunately, NHL 15 doesn't have everything in sync just yet. Peppered with moments of greatness, there no place to go from here but up.