Last year, when EA made it apparent that NHL 14 would be the only sports game to be skipping out on arriving on the (at the time) next generation of consoles, some people were distraught – this author included. Why would the publisher miss out on introducing NHL to the PlayStation 4 as soon as possible? It was explained to everyone as a means of giving the team the most time and the best opportunity to bring a complete package to the brand new system the following year. Some of us were able to rest easy with that knowledge, assuming that NHL 15 would be great. And it is – in some areas. Elsewhere, however, this game is about as barebones as is possible without taking the puck out of the release altogether.
As some of you will already know, the EA Early Access initiative gave people an early look at the ice hockey simulator for the Xbox One. Then, reports of an astonishing number of missing items and modes started to trickle in. This list is astounding and numerous; from creating custom teams, entire online modes (such as the EA Sports Hockey League), or even a manual draft in the Be a GM mode, it’s all been removed.
The extraordinary lack of features is even more heart wrenching, as the actual game feels more polished and fun than it has in a while – since NHL 12, perhaps. There are a few significant changes, like the broadcasting team, replacing Gary Thorne and Bill Clement’s announcing – which had grown quite tired and repetitive – with the NBC Sports team of Eddie Olczyk and Mike Emrick. This wider change is great, as rather than everything being branded with EA Sports’ logo, the NBC Sports layout makes matches look and feel more like an actual broadcast game of hockey.
Additionally, the actual arenas of the NHL teams have been recreated and represented in the game. As a lifetime Colorado Avalanche fan, it’s pretty great to be able to play in the Pepsi Center. Moreover, the rinks now have drastically different dimensions and capacities, and this helps with the improved dynamism of the crowd as well. There are more characters models, for example, and they actually have depth to them, as opposed to past years, where it felt more like playing in a stadium full of cardboard standees.
Sadly, these improvements don’t really make up for the lack of content elsewhere – and it raises the question, what has the development team been doing for the past year? A lot of the gameplay tweaks, for example, are almost imperceptible differences. New group celebrations for goals and new celebrations in general have been touted, but a lot of them look and feel the same. Sure, there might be small changes, but it’s not an addition that warrants being paraded as a “new feature”. This applies to the Stanley Cup celebration as well, which is said to have been redesigned; it certainly seems the same to us.
The players themselves don’t feel fresh or new either. Physical appearances are, for the most part, quite authentic, and, in many cases, you can identify the players by just their faces – but a lot of the tendencies and issues with artificial intelligence remain. The goalies, in particular, seem comparably easy to spoof to past editions. Certain weak spots like cross-crease passes or slight fake out dekes remain strong weaknesses in the goalie AI, and they practically guarantee a goal. These aren’t new issues with the goalies, either: they’ve been present in the series for at least half a decade now.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The puck physics have been completely reworked, meaning that it now behaves in a more believable manner. Cloth physics have been introduced for player jerseys, too, where the uniforms flow and ripple during the action more authentically than ever before – even if they move an alarming amount near the shoulders compared to real life.
An additional bright spot is shooting. The shots don’t come in as slowly now, and for the hulking defenseman with 100MPH shots, they actually look and feel that way. After the puck leaves the stick, it’s almost instantly at the goalie, making the shooting feel a lot more realistic. This also plays into the collisions physics of the players on ice, as they bounce off of each other and collide in more plausible ways. In the past, if two players came into contact without initiating a check, they would clumsily stand there, but they now glide into each other, and subsequently tumble to the ground.
Still, the online modes – or at least the ones that actually found their way into the game – function great, and playing NHL matches with others is a blast. The absence of things like standalone shootouts – they remain at the ends of games – hurt somewhat, but the few modes that exist are solid. Be a GM – develop and play as an NHL team – still brings with it depth in spite of the missing features, while Be a Pro – where you create yourself and put yourself in a team – is missing quite a lot of elements, but it still offers a lot of fun.
The series has also enjoyed decent success with its licensed music soundtrack in the past, and this year is another solid one, although it doesn’t stand out as one of the best. Putting generic music for the menus helps to make the licensed music feel far less repetitive and obnoxious than in the past, though, which is a good move.
Ultimately, how much you get out of this game will depend upon how important the missing features are to you. Fortunately, some of the absentees will be restored with updates in the coming months, but even with that, the game will still be lacking a lot of content. It should be noted, however, that the majority of the missing features on the PS4 will in fact be present on its last-gen counterpart.
Considering that EA Sports took an extra year to craft NHL 15, the wealth of missing features here is inexcusable. The solid, exhilarating gameplay is still present, and feels better than it has in a couple of years, but the astounding absence of features and game modes overshadows everything that the game does right. If you love hockey, and desperately need a hockey fix, this will still provide that – but it may not have the depth to keep you occupied until next year’s edition. In its current state, the price tag of $60 feels more insulting than reasonable, and those of you interested would do well to keep your distance until the asking fee comes down. Put simply, this is not a complete game.