What do you want out of your hockey video game? If the answer is simply “to play some hockey,” then “NHL 15” (XOne/PS4; $59.99; Rated E10) may be a good choice for you.
Thus far in its short life, “NHL 15” has been marred by constant reminders of what it lacks (it seems that in order to perfect the gameplay engine, the developers at EA Canada needed to make some cuts). The “Live the Life” mode that allowed for off-ice decision-making in addition to on-ice play? Gone. The online 5-on-5 team play that assigned every human player to a specific position on the ice? See ya. A GM draft that features actual player picking? Nope.
So what do you get if you decide to spring for the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 version? You get shine.
In terms of actual on-ice play, “NHL 15” is by far the best-looking, smoothest, most realistic hockey game you can buy – it’s not even close. Some examples: many of the exploits that online players took advantage of in past games have been closed up; the fighting engine feels a little more natural; hits crunch the way you’d hope they would; and the crowd is alive and responsive to the game.
Almost as impressive is the presentation surrounding the game. Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk are a nice change of pace to the established play-by-play team of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement. One of the biggest problems of the “Madden” franchise of late is the almost lackadaisical approach to announcing the games, and that’s definitely not a problem here; Emrick is as animated and intense as you could hope for in a video game announcer.
Speaking of “Madden,” though, the “NHL” series is in the difficult position of competing with “Madden” for timeshare year after year, since football and hockey seasons start around the same time. It’s tough as a player to go from the polished finished product that “Madden” has become to “NHL 15,” which still feels like a rough draft. When the Ultimate Team mode of “Madden” can generate your best lineup at the push of a button and “NHL” requires player-by-player swaps, it feels like an inconvenience. And when “Madden” offers a multitude of offline and online modes, while “NHL” only has the basics, it feels like there’s something missing.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs for a game franchise whose quality has remained at the top of the sports gaming heap regardless of the waning and waxing of the NHL’s popularity.
It seems that EA Canada made a choice here. Chances are they could have added a few more modes in exchange for a glitchier, rougher in-game experience, but they went for the smooth game. Assuming such a choice had to be made, they made the right one – sacrificing game modes for a smooth, polished on-ice experience is a good trade, as upsetting as that will be for long-time fans.
Now that they have created a new-generation game that looks and feels like hockey, let’s hope they can concentrate on bringing back some options for next year’s edition.