There are moments when NHL 15 is simply brilliant. The electricity of a raucous crowd reaction to an overtime, game-winning goal screams “next gen!” The agony--and instant stick slam to the ice--of a defenseman that accidentally tips the puck into their own net is palpable. The back-and-forth speed and intensity of a tight online match against a friend is unmatched by any other sports game. Yet these moments are fleeting. Despite a core experience that’s undeniably strong, NHL 15 is--in many ways--a major step back in modern sports gaming.
The reason for this is simple. Most of the ways that hockey fans have come to play EA’s well-regarded NHL series for the past several years have vanished in the leap to new-gen consoles. NHL 15 is not just a slimmed-down version of its former self; it is one that is utterly gutted. Not only are significant game modes missing--no online leagues, no EASHL, no Be A Legend, to name just a few--but those that remain are also so devoid of core features that they feel barren.
It's tragic, especially considering how strong the on-ice gameplay is. The processing power of the PS4 and Xbox One does wonders for skating and collisions, which sometimes match what you see in real NHL games. Checking someone into the boards no longer feels like a purely one-sided affair, as both bodies involved in the scrum take some punishment. Unless you completely nail the speed and angle of a hit, the attacker will need a moment or two to collect himself as well as the poor fellow that bore the brunt of the check. Goaltenders are finally intertwined in the pileups and action in front of the net as well, even to the point of their masks flying off when things get particularly violent.
The development team has begun to communicate their plans to remedy the glaring content holes of NHL 15 here. While modes like EASHL and GM Connected remain in cold storage, online cooperative team play and a standalone Stanley Cup Playoff Mode are promised by the end of October. More nuanced items like Coach Feedback in Be A Pro, a human-controlled draft in Be A GM, and showing the Three Stars of a game are also in the works. None of these is present at launch, however.
Despite obvious improvements from previous-generation hockey games, though, there are problems. While the NBC Sports presentation layer is quite slick--the graphic overlays are as crisp and smooth as a television broadcast, while announcers Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk are nice choices to inhabit the new-gen commentary booth--rough edges abound as you peer more deeply into NHL 15. The puck will strangely hover near the stick of the players in possession, jerseys wave wildly as skaters move across the ice, and goal celebrations start and end awkwardly. All of these issues contribute to NHL15 feeling rushed and incomplete.
Many of these problems could be partially excused if there was more of NHL 15 to actually play. The Be a GM mode, for example, lets you take the reins of an NHL franchise for up to 25 seasons. In years past, you were able to truly control every aspect of the organization, playing as your minor league club and completely controlling your draft. NHL 15 offers none of this; you are unable to head down to the minors and, while you are able to send scouts across the world to look for players, the entire draft is controlled by AI. The intention is to streamline experience, making it more user-friendly to newcomers. The reality is that it offers little appeal to longtime NHL fans that have become used to managing their team at a deep level.
The single-player career mode Be A Pro is similarly stripped. Instead of proving yourself in the minors, getting feedback from coaches on how to improve, and fighting your way up the depth chart, you’re simply placed right on the top line, and play major minutes from Day 1 as a rookie with ordinary attributes. It’s utterly implausible. What’s worse, for some reason the ability to simulate the action between your shifts has been removed. When not on the ice, you’re forced to watch all the action from a lousy viewpoint on the bench. This nearly doubles the amount of time it takes to play a game, and it’s extremely boring.
NHL’s biggest shortcoming, however, is that it abandons modes that many fans have come to love while keeping one that earns extra revenue for EA. GM Connected, an online franchise mode that allows hundreds of individuals to play together in a common universe--or even just a couple of friends who love to be in the same league--has been eliminated. EASHL, the online team-up mode that spawned entire communities of tens of thousands of fans, is gone. These are not ‘extras’ that only the hardest of hardcore fans look for; they are basic, fundamental features that NHL games have offered for multiple seasons. Meanwhile, Hockey Ultimate Team, a revenue-generating mode that lets you buy (with real money or earned in-game currency) virtual player cards and assemble a fantasy team to take on others online, is present and accounted for.
NHL 15 is a shell of its former self. Despite some impressive work to bring the on-ice experience and game presentation up to a new-generation level, it is so devoid of modes and features that its appeal will be limited to fans that have been waiting for hockey on their new machines; after all, NHL skipped the launch of the latest console generation last fall. While most other sports games have made the transition to the PS4 and Xbox One quite nicely, NHL finds itself in a very different position; at the bottom of the pile, looking up.
This game was reviewed on PS4.