Tuesday, 14 October 2014

He shoots! He scores! - Review: NHL 15

I was there. At the beginning. EA Hockey on the Sega Megadrive, 1991. Sure, there have been gaps since then. I got the follow-up, NHLPA ’93, but didn’t get another until NHL 2000 on the Playstation and then it was 2004 on the PS2. Being a fantastic game, it suited me just fine until a new console and the next big step up for the series in NHL 07. From then, I haven’t missed an entry.

There have been misteps along the way for sure. In NHL 08, while spoken of with reverence by myself and friends, it was - if we’re honest - a little too easy to score. NHL 09 went totally in the other direction, making it incredibly hard to hit the back of the net. NHL 10 balanced things out, but then 11 and 12 could be accused of treading water. But for the most part, EA’s NHL series has been an awesome ride through the years and NHL 13 and 14 came along and perfected the formula - Truly great hockey games and amongst the best sports games on the market.

With the arrival of new consoles I was particularly looking forward to NHL 15. Every year as a new entry in the series approaches, my mates and I always say “they’ll never beat this year’s.” But they always do.
Will we be able to say that next year before NHL 16 is released? Probably not actually, but that isn’t to say NHL 15 isn’t great. Let’s get into it….

NHL 13 and 14 looked the business, but the last gen consoles could only take things so far. NHL 15 is perhaps not the biggest jump visually as you might expect, at least not at first glance. But once you pay attention to the details, you’ll appreciate a lot more. On the ice the player’s faces look better than ever, more life-like and expressive. Around the rink you’ll see Ray Ferraro in his booth, TV crews and cameramen. Further back, a lot of attention has been paid to the arenas this year. They all look very distinctive and, I’m sure, as identical to their real-life counterparts as they could get. 

There are now over 9000 individual crowd models, which makes repetition hard to spot and the folks in the seats are animated and individual. You’ll see people in outfits for their team trying to get the crowd fired up; some fans remain seated even when their team scores; they bang on the glass when your players are against it fighting for the puck; they taunt visiting team players in the penalty box; you’ll find away fans dotted around the arena or grouped together in the cheap seats; security staff stand at the exits.

When they switched fighting back to third person in NHL 14, that was it for me - there was nothing more I could think of that needed tweaking for gameplay - and NHL 15 hasn’t done a great deal. And that’s fine, because it plays like a dream. 

Commentary/Broadcast presentation:
The commentary has been a real sticking point for the series for some years now. They’ve basically been phoning it in each year. When they announced a deal with NBC and a whole new broadcast presentation and commentary team for NHL 15, I was excited to see the difference.

I don’t think the commentary is as good as it could have been, but as a whole, I’m enjoying the presentation.
Before each game you get a video of the home team’s stadium or city and then Mike Emrick and Ed Olczyk appear to open the broadcast. Their comments are quite generic, but as they are actually on camera at this point, you can understand it in this case. To their credit, some of the scenes do mention the home team and are specific to the city.
On the Ice, the commentators will talk about the starting goalies and any players to watch out for and when playing a season, Olczyk will often comment on a team’s progress so far.

The actual play by play is…..sufficient. It’s lively enough and does the job, but there are too many generic statements - “the player did this..” “he hit the opposing player…” and so on. Some of the statements are laughable: “We now have a scoreline other than zero-zero.” What?

I like the new broadcast presentation and I like the commentary team, but I think a lot of that comes from the fact we’ve had it the same for so long, so any change would have been welcome. When you play 2K’s NBA or baseball games, the commentary is truly remarkable - conversational and so varied you simply don’t notice any repetition. EA Sports have done a good job with NHL 15, but they aren’t quite there yet. The problem is, if the past is anything to go by, this will be the default commentary now for a good few years, so don’t expect much change next year.

Here’s the area responsible for some low review scores. As we approached release day, EA Sports admitted that some features would not be available in this year’s game. Strangely, some of the features would still be there in the last-gen versions, which puzzled everyone. EASHL is out, as is GM Connected and Be-A-Pro’s Live the Life, while continuing on last-gen versions, are not on the PS4 or Xbox One, leaving a very stripped down mode without even coach feedback or the ability to sim to your next shift.

Since launch, EA have added coach feedback back into to Be-A-Pro, 3 stars to the in-game menu, online play where every player on the ice can be user-controlled and other features, but for many, the fact that some fundamental options weren’t there to begin with has been jarring.

Personally, I didn’t play EASHL or GM Connected, so I wasn’t bothered by its absence and I don’t mind developers adding things post-launch, providing the core experience I came to the dance for is present, correct and awesome - which in NHL 15, it is.

The move to new consoles was bound to be a bumpy ride, but NHL 15 has far from derailed the series. If you want a realistic sports game that plays brilliantly and looks great, NHL 15 comes highly recommended.
All EA Sports has to do for NHL 16 is add a few bells and whistles and it’ll be back into everyone’s good graces.

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