Review: NHL 15 (PS4)

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Title: NHL 15
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PlayStation Network Download (19.4 GB)
Release Date: September 9, 2014
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Original MSRP: $59.99 (Standard Edition) / $69.99 (Ultimate Edition)
ESRB Rating: E10+
NHL 15 is also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox One and Xbox 360.
The PlayStation 4 Ultimate Edition disc version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy.

Audio Review:
The audio review for this game is available on Episode 388 of the podcast.

Gameplay:
So, where to begin. If you’re a fan of the series and you’ve been digging up information over the past few days, you’ve probably heard that some things are missing from NHL 15 on the new consoles… a lot of things actually. I can confirm that the list at Operation Sports is accurate, and it’s a big list. The day before this review was published, EA posted information about a series of free post-release content patches that will add in a number of the missing modes and I’ll mention them as we go. Before we break that down however, let’s talk about the good parts of the game because really, if you sold your PS3 and/or Xbox 360 and you really need to scratch that NHL itch, you’ll want to know if the game is worth it, gimped as it is.

The addition of physics to pretty much everything on the ice has improved gameplay allowing for (somewhat) more realistic collisions between everyone on the ice at any time. It also allows the puck to move more realistically than it ever has in an EA hockey game. Goalies still tend to flop and dive unnecessarily at times but overall they seem to play better than in previous versions of the game.

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For the first time in the history of the series, all four on-ice officials are present, two Refs and two Linesmen. This is something I’ve wanted for years and I’m happy to see it finally happen. It doesn’t necessarily add anything to the gameplay itself but does add another layer of realism which is appreciated.

The Skill Stick has been upgraded and is now being called the Superstar Skill Stick, but if you don’t follow EA and regularly watch the developer videos, you’d never know it. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t choose the Beginner Skill Level when starting the game, but there was no mention of it and no tutorials or instructions to get me up to speed on the wealth of control it offers. After the training mode I just experienced in Madden 15 a few weeks ago, this feels downright wrong. I’m including the video here because it can really change the way you play and enjoy the game… but only if you know about it.

So in terms of modes, what’s available? If the menu looks a bit thin, well, that’s because it is. You can play a simple offline match, Online Versus, Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), Be a GM, Be a Pro, NHL Moments Live and Practice. The really sad part is that even the modes available here tend to be a bit gimped in some way or another.

In a quick rundown of some of the features missing or changed, the Winter Classic and NHL 94 Anniversary modes have been removed. Online Versus has been limited to a max of four players, down from the full twelve on the ice in NHL 14 (this will be added back in with an October content patch) and the Online Shootouts mode is gone. While you can still change camera angles during gameplay, the custom camera option is gone. The 3 Stars of the game has been entirely removed from the conclusion of games but will be added back in as part of a September patch. The Ultimate edition of the game includes two Gold card packs per week for ten weeks which is a great value if you’re really into the HUT. Unfortunately, in that mode there doesn’t appear to be a way to find or play against your friends.

The Connected GM has been removed and while it’s been said that it would be coming in a patch, it’s not listed in the September and October updates. The yearly Entry Draft in the offline GM mode is currently automated but will be updated in an October patch in an interesting way. For the first time you’ll be put “on the clock” much like the real draft and you’ll be given three minutes to make your selection while trades can be made at any time. The Fantasy Draft option is gone, pre-season games are gone and the ability to play AHL games for your franchise has been removed.

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Live the Life and Be a Legend are gone and while Be a Pro is still around there’s a lot missing from that mode as well. For example, when you create your player you no longer have the option to play any games in Juniors leading up to the Draft. Your only options are to pick the NHL team you want to play for or let the Draft run and go to whatever team randomly picks you. You never play in the minors in this mode, you can’t get sent down and there is no All-Star Game. All pretty big knocks against a favored mode for many players, but the likely deal breaker is that there is no option to sim to the next shift. When you get to the bench, you’re stuck there until your line is up again. If you get benched, you’re stuck watching until the end of the game. This is not good, to put it mildly. Another oddity I ran across is that I was drafted as a third line Center with pretty mediocre abilities. Yet every game (so far) I’m on the ice for the opening Face-off, the top Penalty Kill and Power Play and I end up with more ice time than anyone else on the team, even with getting off the ice when I’m supposed to.

This is just a small sampling of what’s missing and if you’re interested in all of it, I really suggest checking out the list over at Operation Sports if you haven’t already done so.

It’s worth noting that with the content patches coming, EA is also soliciting feedback through Facebook and Twitter for future updates so let them know what you want in the game and it just might happen.

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Visuals:
EA made a real effort this year to bring an authentic broadcast experience to the game and it’s a great first step but there’s definitely room for improvement here. The NBC Sports branding is all over the place with logos and presentation styles and the commentary crew has changed as well. Before big games, you’ll see Mike (Doc) Emrick and Eddie Olczyk setting the stage for the game. When I say you’ll see them, I really mean it. It’s full video of the actual guys sitting in the broadcast booth with the arena behind them as if it were an actual game. You’ll also see a (real video) shot of the city or arena before the game, just like you would on TV. The effect is outstanding but it kind of ends right there and I’ll get into that more a bit later.

While the game itself looks pretty slick at first glance it kind of falls a bit flat the more you play. First, the good. The players generally move and react better than they have in previous versions of the game but they still could use some work. The attention to detail in the arenas, at least the ones I’ve actually been to, is pretty outstanding. It’s something that’s been long overdue as each arena in the NHL tends to have its own quirks so it’s great to see that all reflected here. The camera angles for replays and such also tend to feel like a broadcast presentation adding to the feel of the game.

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Where things start to break down however is with the faces on the player models. They’re a bit of a mixed bag in terms of actually resembling their real-life counterparts and while they look great in canned shots of the bench and such, the lack of a good lighting model tends to make them look somewhat bland while on the ice. The relative heights of the players is also an issue as they all tend to be pretty much the same size, at least as far as I could tell.

EA has also been touting over nine-thousand crowd models along with a variety of clothing and unique options to spice up those fancy new arenas. You’ll see people wearing nearly every variety of the home team’s jersey along with a scattering of the away team’s jerseys as well, just like in real life. People will hold up signs during the game that are (usually) relevant to the situation but tend to be pretty bland in terms of how they look and what they actually say. In general the crowd looks great but… as with pretty much every other sports game that’s ever had a crowd in it (except recent versions of MLB The Show), you’ll see groups of fans dressed the same and all moving together with the exact same movements at the same time. It’s enough that it catches the eye and that’s enough to detract from all the other work done in this area.

Overall it’s the best looking game in the series, but it doesn’t really have that “next-gen” feel. The game just doesn’t look as crisp as other sports games that have come out for the PS4 so far and even though EA has stated that the game had a full twelve month development cycle, it feels rushed and a bit incomplete.

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Audio:
Ugh, okay, here we go. We’ve been told that over 35,000 lines of new commentary were recorded with the inclusion of a new broadcast team, yet you’ll still hear constant repetition from game to game and often within the same game. If I hear Doc Emrick say that a shot was “accidentally blocked” one more time I’m going to punch someone (Extra Life should be fun this year with Glenn close by).

Since this is a new team, they don’t seem to have gotten their line reads down yet. Either that or EA Canada didn’t do such a great job at stitching them together. Emrick is an excitable guy, it’s what makes him a great broadcaster for hockey, but at times he’ll have an up tempo line stuck together with a low tempo one and the cadence and rhythm sounds off and artificial. Ray Ferraro has also been added this year for ice level comments and he does a pretty good job but I’ve had him cut off mid-sentence as the game gets going again and the main commentary starts up.

Back to the “live” intros for the important games. I’m not sure how many of these they shot, but in all the games I’ve played where these come up at the beginning, I’ve only seen maybe four or five variations repeated over and over which quickly takes the magic out of it.

The other various sounds of the arena, skates on the ice, sticks on pucks, bodies colliding, the arena announcer and the roar of the crowd all sound great which just tends to shine a bigger spotlight on the flaws in the game.

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Online/Multiplayer:
As with everything else in the NHL 15, the Online modes have been pared down considerably. The GM Connected and EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) modes are gone, though EA has said that GM Connected will be coming in a later patch. With EASHL relegated the PlayStation 3 and future editions of the franchise, what we’re left with for online play is a mode limited to two to four players and the basic HUT, not exactly ideal. Again, full team online play will be patched in sometime this month, but as of today, it’s not in the game.

The omission of online tournaments, shootouts, EASHL and more, the online modes in the game, like the rest of it, feel like the basic foundation for a game, not a completed retail version.

I was able to try each of the modes online and had only one instance of slow-down in the last five minutes of one of the games. The rest of the time everything ran smoothly as if I was playing with a friend on the couch. The game just tends to feel a bit thin overall, especially when stacked up against the past few iterations of NHL on the PS3.

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Conclusion:
With so much missing, is NHL 15 worth it? Not at $60, no. The framework of a really good hockey game is here but it just feels unfinished. Too many modes, some very popular, are missing to justify a full priced release. It’s a shame because the core of the game is really good and bodes well for the future. The problem is that there’s this thing called NHL 14. It exists, and it makes this fancy new version look like a hollow shell of a game.

Clearly the game was shipped in an unfinished state in terms of features and EA is working to address at least some of those deficiencies in a series of post-launch patches. Once done, the game should be in a better state for sure but it’ll still be a long way from the wealth of options available in NHL 14.

What if you’re a huge hockey fan, you sold your older console(s) and you only have a PS4, what then? Well it really depends on what modes are your favorites in NHL. If you enjoy the single player and online one-on-one games then you won’t be disappointed. The promised patches won’t add back in everything that’s missing so even with them, if you’re looking for an experience closer to NHL 14… then it’s going to be a long, cold winter.

Score:
6.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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  • I’m so disappointed. I cancelled my pre-order when I heard about what has been left out. I play BAP mode almost exclusively so not being able to sim to my next shift was my deal breaker. I am disappointed that the Winter Classic has been taken out. That was always fun.

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  • Oshawa Fisher

    The gameplay is still great, just not being able to go through a season is terrible. My opinion is that ea wants every player to play the ultimate team mode so the can make a few more bucks from us. These content updates can come quick enough, I want to season mode back.

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