Sports games are a tough thing to consider when it comes time to draft a review. Typically, on a year to year basis, each game will enjoy some minor gameplay tweaks, some additional modes, some renaming of features, roster updates (of course) and a brand new UI.
The changes that go into the game on a yearly basis are ones that really only core fans will be able to recognize, typically. It takes years of playing Madden, for instance, to notice that the run-block system in 15 is a bit of a mess compared to previous years.
With NHL 15, though, the differences between this year’s entry and last’s are tremendous. I’m not using tremendous as a positive adjective here. I’m using it to suggest that the gap in features between the versions is enormous. It’s huge. It’s almost mind-boggling.
But, let’s set things straight for the record before we dive into this review. I only played the new generation version of NHL 15. I played it on the PlayStation 4. The new generation version features new physics, new arena presentations and better graphics. The old generation misses all of that stuff, but it keeps the modes that are absent in this year’s game on the PS4 and Xbox One.
The Missing Modes Include…
Let’s start with the bad. If you buy the new generation version of NHL 15, you’re getting a product that arrives without several of the series’ now staple modes.
The biggest of the bunch? The EA Sports Hockey League is gone. With this mode, introduced in NHL 09 and retained ever since, players would create an athlete, take it into online play, join a club (or play with random teammates), earn stat upgrades and slowly become an exceptional player while doing the work of a single position.
This mode was, for some gamers, the crown jewel of the NHL series. It provided an enormous amount of replayability, it stoked the flames of an entire game’s community and it created a constant sense of competition both individually and on a group basis. I had club teams built with close friends that competed month after month for virtual trophies. The EASHL was a constant in my circle.
That mode is gone in NHL 15 on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The bad news? It’s only one of many that are missing.
New generation console owners lose the EASHL, Online Shootout, Be a GM Connected, Online Team Play, Online Tournaments, Winter Classic… the list, my friends, goes on.
EA Sports has said that they’ll patch some of this content in down the line. We’ll eventually be able to draft in Be a GM mode, we’ll eventually have Online Team Play (that’s where you can control an individual skater for a game online), we’ll eventually see the Three Stars of the Game, we’ll even eventually be able to play through a Playoff Mode.
At launch? Well, no, all that stuff is missing.
How About the On Ice Gameplay
When it comes to the actual game of hockey? NHL 15 is pretty solid.
The new physics engine makes for a game that feels much less controlled than ever before. The puck doesn’t just constantly feel stuck to each player, and hits, although way too powerful for my tastes, result in animations that seem truer to life than ever before.
As for the feel of play, it’s not all that different than what we’ve had in recent years. The game has slowed down tremendously as momentum is now a big portion of skating and making plays. If you over commit to a hit or a deke, you’ll wind up gliding out of position and leaving your team in a really bad situation. That’s been the standard as of late, but the way NHL 15 feels makes it even more of a constant here.
The deking has been improved to the point that all major moves require a single right stick directional push while holding L1. I found that breaking into the zone is much easier with deking this year, and I know exactly when to pull which move on a defender based on his positioning and speed.
My only real complaint comes from the defensive AI. You can’t really tweak their individual performance in the same way you could with previous years, so you’re sort of left to whatever they do in between difficulties and degrees of simulation. That finite control is gone.
The problem I consistently had with the defensive AI is that they almost never played good positional defense when off the puck. When attacking the puck carrier, the AI is fine. But, if left to defend the crease or watch for any backside plays, it’s like the AI just quits. They’ll either skate out of position, or they won’t lift sticks as the puck slides in.
Stick lifting while playing defense is standard pee-wee hockey stuff. This is a barebones need for playing D, and NHL 15’s new AI just sort of misses the boat on positional play like this.
One of My Favorite Presentations in Sports Gaming
If I were to award NHL 15 for anything on new gen consoles, it would be the presentation. It sounds cheesy on paper, but I sort of love what they’ve done here.
First of all, both generations feature brand new commentary from new announcers, Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. They repeat their new lines a bunch, but the change from the same announcers for nearly a decade is a welcome one.
The new generation also features completely new arena presentations (that’s full and accurate recreations for all but two NHL arenas) and full motion video. The external shots of the hockey barns and Doc and Eddie themselves are all done in live action. Doc and Eddie are then imposed over the virtual arena for pre-game chatter.
Like I said, it sounds super cheesy, but it actually makes the games feel like they’re being played on NBC. Sure, that’s not the best hockey broadcast outlet, but it’s cool here. I only wish we could play through the Winter Classic with this new presentation stuff.
A Solid Game with Huge Feature Gaps
As far as the new generation of NHL 15 is concerned, this package isn’t nearly strong or complete enough to justify an immediate purchase. The missing features create huge content gaps that are practically unacceptable at this point in the franchise’s lifespan.
On our new scale of Buy, Wait and Don’t Buy, NHL 15 gets a Wait with a potential slide towards Don’t Buy. If you hold off until the game gets a minor price drop and EA Sports patches in a few of the modes that didn’t make the release day cut, you’ll get an experience that comes much closer to what we should have.
If, however, you live and breathe the EASHL and use it as the sole reason for buying this game on a yearly basis, you’ll want to skip the new generation version of NHL 15. EA has said they’ll be working it into NHL 16, hopefully, but its absence from 15 is huge.
Disclaimer: We purchased a copy of NHL 15 for the PlayStation 4 with company funds. We logged more than 15 hours with the game (with time in all modes) before starting this review.