NHL ‘15 went from being a possible sleeper sports game of the year to no longer even being in the conversation. We had plenty of discussions about how this game had a serious shot at being the hit of the 2015 video games sports season, until EA decided to derail the train about two weeks before launch. I wanted to love this game so badly, and at times I do, but I am inevitably thrust back to the reality of the missed opportunity that it is.
I will start with what they did right. The gameplay is spot on, quite possibly the best pure hockey in a video game. The controls take about a game to get used to, but a franchise to master. They are quite intuitive and inviting to those new to video game hockey, yet balanced enough that pros don’t feel alienated. I was a bit hesitant to jump onboard the dual-stick train when I first heard the announcement, but after my first game I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is obvious that the in-game experience was EAs focus and they nailed it.
From the moment you select your teams and load into a game, the presentation is impressive. From the welcome scenes featuring real life announcers Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk to the NBCSN flair between plays, the presentation is top notch. It truly feels like you are watching a game on NBC, except for the fact that the scripts are recycled after about eight games. The in-game commentary also begins to get really repetitive after a handful of games. I can honestly say I have never heard the word “recoil” watching a live game, but it’s about every other word in NHL ‘15.
When so much focus is placed on one area of a game other areas usually pay the price, and that couldn’t be truer in this year’s iteration. NHL ‘15 is the most bare bones featured sports game I have played since possibly the Genesis era. Other than the required quick play and online head-to-head, there is only Be a GM and Be a Pro modes. I’ll start with the menus, they are clunky and unintuitive. EA has gone with the tile look of Microsoft fame, which isn’t a bad thing but the homepage tiles are suspect at best. The first tile is you’re most played mode, which for some reason defaults to quick play, which I have only played twice at best. Then the second big tile is Hockey Ultimate Team, which I have never played, with the two mini-tiles wrapping it up with a recommendation to play either Hockey Ultimate team or Practice. Last but not least you can watch the trailer for the game you are currently playing. Yes that is correct the trailer for NHL ‘15 is on the home menu of NHL ‘15.. I’m just skipping over the fact that if you tap the track pad for a “Help” menu it just gives you a link to EA’s website. So in other words, if I want to pick a different game mode I have to press a button to get to the second window. Which leads us to the in-game menus. Who came up with the brilliant idea of burying player’s game stats three clicks deep? Plus I have to hold a trigger and press left or right to switch teams?? It should not be that difficult to see Jonathan Quick’s save percentage. There is more to complain about with the menus but I want to get into the few game modes that actually did make the cut.
I will start with the Be a GM mode since it was the first mode I tried. For starters it’s pretty in-depth. Not only are you in charge of making roster moves, but you also get to do some contract negotiations and budget balancing. For the first time that I can remember in an NHL game, you get to scout players from a number of minor league affiliates. While I do think it is cool to have the added responsibilities of being the GM I wish I could have just played a regular franchise, as in pick a team, NHL or amateur, and play as many or as few games as I would like. I am a Seattle sports fan and since we don’t have an NHL team I was really looking forward to playing a franchise as the Seattle Thunderbirds, which I was able to do in the last NHL game I played. This is the first missing feature that I was disappointed about. I was also looking forward to playing in an online franchise with my few hockey fan friends, and that’s not possible either. With NHL ‘15 the only option is to be the GM of an NHL team, which wouldn’t have been a problem except for the fact that three years ago that wasn’t the case. In case you were curious, the Thunderbirds are in the game, and from what I can tell it’s their actual roster, but if I want to take the ice at ShoWare Arena I have to play an exhibition.
Sorry for the slight tangent there, I’ll get back to features that actually made the cut in the game. I mentioned earlier that you are now able to scout amateur players in preparation for the entry draft. I was excited when I first saw that feature had been implemented. I excitedly assigned my first scout on a one-week assignment to the OHL to find me some promising forwards. I played my two games for the week and received a notice to check in on my scout as he had completed his assignment. From the scout menu it wasn’t clear what he had done for the week, to the best of my knowledge he got a free trip to southeast Canada, as he didn’t give me any updates on the players I sent him to look at. Also on the main screen it confusingly said he was still on assignment to the OHL for the next five days even though it had notified me he was done scouting. I ignored the screen prompt and sent him off to his next assignment in Russia. They produce solid forwards in Russia right?? I would have assumed a week later my scout would have had some info for me but again all he returned were question marks. Chalk that up to two international trips on the company dollar for pretty much no reason. Maybe the scout needs more time, so I doubled his next assignment, 2 weeks in the WHL. Two weeks and a still unclear status screen later, I know as much about the talent level of the WHL as I would if I had gone to a Thunderbirds game personally. Having my scout rack up frequent flyer miles on the team’s dime during a full season when you play a truncated 15 week season, doesn’t feel terribly effective. After a bit of a losing streak and chasing my tail for a month hunting for amateur talent, I decided to try my luck on the trading block to bring in some immediate help. It was here I ran into the absolutely worst designed menu in video game sports history. Ok that may have been a little harsh, the presentation of what a team has on the trading block is nice,but it is mired by the fact that the player has to hold down a trigger button and press left or right to scroll one at a time through the 30 other teams. On top of this it takes about three to four seconds for it to load., In other words, to check the trade block it would take over a minute and a half just in load times. Just to add a little more excitement to the matter, there doesn’t appear to be a way to compare players on the wire. So if you find someone you like, you might as well just get to work on the transaction, because shopping to make sure you are getting the best available talent is only going to cause you a migraine. So to sum things up, the menus in the GM mode exist to fill your rage meter before you face your next opponent. Luckily playing the games themselves is almost enjoyable enough to help you forget how frustrating and cumbersome it is to manage a virtual hockey team in 2015.
Time to talk to the other mode that managed to make the cut, Be a Pro. I will start by saying this is the best mode in the game. After yet another pretty un-intuitive menu, in which your players name, number, and position are segregated from personal information. In other words when you create your player, make sure you edit personal info or you too will end up being six feet tall, 185 lbs, from Vancouver BC, born January 1. When creating my player, I for some reason did not think the personal info would be buried under an extra tile, instead of being on the initial page. Silly me. After creating your player, you are thrust into one of the most uninspiring draft scenes I have experienced. A blank screen counts down then a random team pops up to pick you. . It would have been nice to have a play-in game or games which put you on an amateur team and let you prove your worth to your future professional employer. After stumbling out of the gates this mode really picks up. They do give you a pretty solid experience of being a player. They even make you sit on the bench and watch as your teammates battle on. Since this mode is all about keeping you on the ice and not bogged down in menus, it is already a leg up on the GM mode. The progression is pretty steady albeit slow; it took me about 5 games before I was able to move my overall rating just one point. It is not a problem though, since playing the games is such a great experience. You start off with a decent rating so you are able to hold your own from your first face-off. The camera angles and controls are tweaked slightly in this mode but it takes about a game or two to get used to them and then it’s off to the races.
I would love to move on to the next game mode here, but unfortunately EA didn’t feel like NHL fans could handle any more game modes. Ok I am skipping over Hockey Ultimate Team, but I have no interest in it. I got my fill of collecting hockey cards as a kid, and I get my fantasy rock soft every Sunday with fantasy football. EA found success with their Ultimate team with FIFA a few years back and has more or less gone all-in with all of their sports franchises. While I do enjoy a good game of fantasy sports, I get my fill with fantasy football. I would have been better served if I could have just played a franchise and had a fantasy draft with the current NHLPA roster.
I wouldn’t be doing my reviewer’s duty to not mention the beloved EASHL did not make it through the chopping block this year. Having taken a couple years off of the series I am not too familiar with the EASHL so I don’t feel as cheated, but it definitely sounds like something I would have loved to check out. Maybe next year.
Unfortunately the awesome gameplay of NHL 15 can’t withstand the crushing weight of EA’s missteps with this year’s entry. To be fair, they have announced their intentions to add some of the missing features over the next few months, but it will be too little too late since the floodgate of must-play games is about to open up for the holidays. With the extra year to get ready for this console generation one would have thought they were building a winner, but in the end they missed the net by a mile. It pains me to give it such a low score after being so excited to finally lace up my skates again.
*Review based on PS4 version. Also Available on Xbox One, and PC.