NHL 15 was supposed to be a celebration of hockey. A true coming of age that would have us flying banners and cheering EA’s name as they masterfully took the step up to the new generation and showed us their skills on previously untouched ice. When the puck dropped, it would provide the graphical and gameplay benefits that the more powerful consoles would allow. In the back office, it was supposed to provide improvements to a game that had been slowly improving, year after year, so we’d brought even further into the world of professional hockey with leagues, deep career modes, and a million ways to play against our friends.
Well, they got one part of that right...sort of.
The actual sporting section of NHL 15 – the play of the puck itself – is great. Sure, playing the boards feels a little scripted still, but the improvements to puck physics, collisions, and goaltender reactions all make for an outstanding game of hockey. Scrambles around the goalmouth are about as frequent as they are in the real world NHL now, with not every goal being scored from by a big slapshot from the point or a wrister from a one-time pass, as was the case in years gone by. You need to work hard to score, as improved defensive reactions will cut out quite a few of your options when playing the AI and although those goalies concede goals in a more realistic manner now, they aren’t fools. They’ll put up a stone wall to kill off your beautiful breakaway move more often than not, and look great whilst doing it. Graphical improvements are in place of course, and everything looks sharp. Players are animated better and collide much more convincingly now, although they are somewhat more robotic than we’d like at times.
The game presentation – complete with a full motion video commentary team and decidedly low-definition video of the arenas introducing the game – is generally good, although you’ll probably not watch it all that often. We say ‘generally good’ as the commentary once the puck drops has taken a massive step backward. Goals go in, players careen into each other at centre ice, and the commentary team seem to remain almost indifferent to what’s going on. What they’re saying is generally interesting, but there’s just no excitement to it at all. It wouldn’t be too much of a push to say that NHL 2000 had more exhilarating commentary. In fact, we’ll say it. NHL 2000 had more exhilarating commentary.
These failings are nothing compared to the colossal step backwards that has been taken off the ice. A few weeks before release, people were wondering why EA hadn’t made any mention of which game modes would be included in the final version. It’s quite easy to see why they were keeping quiet. Upon loading the game, you can play a quick match, play as a general manager for 25 seasons, play a career as a player, or play Ultimate Team. Oh, and you can only play against the AI in single matches in Ultimate Team, since there’s no offline season.
That’s not a healthy roster of game modes when you compare it to what we saw in NHL 14. There’s no GM Connected, EA Sports Hockey League, Online Shootouts, Live the Life, Be a Legend, Winter Classic, Tournaments, or Season mode. That maybe wouldn’t be so bad if the modes that were on offer were even half of what they were in last season’s game. This year’s Be a Pro mode is so far away from the depth that last year’s game provided, that it’s unrecognisable. You pick an NHL team, rather than get drafted based on your skills, and then you play match after match for them. That’s it. There isn’t even any coach feedback to let you know how you’re doing, although we’re told that this will be added in a patch. You can barely even edit your custom player anymore. This year, you choose a preset head, and then set their favoured hand, their height and their weight. No, you can’t change facial hair or different colour eyes, modify the hairstyle of your player, or even pick a jersey number. Oh, and if you’re thinking about becoming an All-Star, you can forget it. There’s no All-Star game.
In Be a GM mode – which is the only way you can play a season of hockey outside of Be a Pro – there’s no way of drafting players, since the CPU does it all for you. You can’t kick off the game with a fantasy draft. Heck, you can’t even play preseason games to see how your offseason trades are going to fit into your lineup.
Even Ultimate Team – which is a mode that we would imagine would get the most love, given the money it makes the publisher – is somewhat limited. You can’t play your friends, changing players is an absolute chore, you can’t get the CPU to automatically set your best lineup, and there’s no “scratched” roster. For the uninitiated, what this last missing thing means is that if one of your players becomes injured, the only way to cure him is to use a healing card. If you don’t have any healing cards, or don’t have enough healing cards, he stays injured no matter how many games you play. The more cynical amongst us would suggest that this has been done in order to sell a few extra card packs.
EA has promised to release a patch in September that adds an offline playoff mode, some changes to Ultimate Team, and Coach Feedback in Be a Pro mode. In October, they’ll patch in Online Team Play, and allow you to draft your own players – what a revelation! - in Be a GM mode.
Frankly, that’s not good enough. The launch version of NHL 15 – which is the version we have to review, as we can’t score a game based on promises – is missing huge chunks and what it does include feels rushed and hacked together. The on-ice improvements are so good that some will be convinced to soldier on with the game and play single match after single match against their friends offline, or solely play Ultimate Team online, but to say that EA have let the puck slip through their fingers on this one is a massive, massive understatement.
NHL 15 plays a great – if somewhat atmosphere-free – game of hockey, but the sheer amount of modes missing from the package as a whole mean that unless you become obsessed with Ultimate Team or enjoy playing severely limited career modes, there’s very little to actually do. When a publisher steps up a week before a game is released and admits that it’s dropped the ball and will be patching in bunches of stuff in the future, that’s kind of a sign as to how poorly things have gone.