FIFA and Madden might well get all the praise (they unquestionably make all the money), but those in the know will tell you that EA Sports’ true jewel in the crown is EA Canada’s consistently fantastic, NHL series. Culminating in the crescendo that was NHL 14, last year’s release, with its pitch perfect gameplay and the inclusion of the retro, Megadrive inspired, NHL 14: ’94 Annivarsary Mode, provided what I would argue to be EA Sport’s most comprehensive and well-crafted sports package. A bold claim given how many sports titles they release, but one warranted by NHL 14’s peerless coming together of mechanics and content. For NHL 15, EA Canada’s first tentative steps into current-gen waters, those quality mechanics remain intact, but sadly, despite missing out last year, the content still isn’t up to scratch.
This is still a fantastic game, and out on the ice, NHL 15 is arguably as good as the series has ever been, but sadly, while the gameplay continues to deliver the kind of quality that must leave the Madden and FIFA teams somewhat envious, the current-gen release is sorely lacking in content when compared to its last-gen brethren. Sure, there’s plenty to see and do, but considering that they gave current-gen a miss last year (presumably to give the development team more time with the new hardware), the lack of a sizeable number of game modes has to go down as a painfully disappointing omission.
Online is probably the least affected – the online game modes that are available tend to run very smoothly with little to no slowdown. Standard matches run at a silky smooth rate while Ultimate Team, which also appears to run very smoothly online, will still be the go to game mode for many players (no surprise they got the money maker up and running). When it comes to Online Team-play and EA hockey league though, yeah, they are gone. Not diminished, no stripped – completely gone. EA have promised to add missing modes via upcoming patches, but given the time in development and the fact that the last-gen release is little more than a roster update, it’s surprising that they couldn’t get these pre-existing game modes up and running.
It’s even worse offline – Ultimate Team is once again unaffected, and in fairness, still rather brilliant, but Season Mode and The winter Classic are both gone (really, Season Mode?), while the Be a GM and Be a Pro modes have seen major cuts when compared to the last-gen version of the game. Be a Pro mode feels particularly gimped with your new rookie player now walking straight into the starting line-up of a pro team rather than having to make his way through the ranks. There is no build up via progression through an organisation; you’re simply put straight into the big time without any sense of earning your place. Casual players probably won’t mind, but those looking for a full career from top to bottom will be bitterly disappointed.
Still, while it’s easy to crucify NHL 15 for these missing features (and crucified it has been), it would be criminally unfair to overlook just how good this game is in terms of its moment to moment gameplay. Get past the missing content and you’re left with the most beautiful, accurate and brilliantly customisable game of virtual hockey ever created.
This is still NHL as you know it, but it’s an even slicker experience than last year’s already fantastic NHL 14. Whether played at full simulation level or via more basic arcade settings (great fun with friends), NHL 15 delivers an engine and an experience that works just as well at either end of the spectrum. I would argue that it’s at its best when the majority of the more simulation-based settings are turned on, but even with a more basic, Megadrive-esque control scheme implemented and rules all but turned off, NHL 15 still feels like a game completely comfortable within the confines of simplified, arcade sensibilities. Yeah, it’s a shame that last year’s, NHL 14: ’94 Annivarsary Mode didn’t make it across (it was an anniversary mode in fairness), but with that classic Megadrive control scheme available and an array of customisable gameplay options, recreating the simplified brilliance of NHL ’94 is certainly within your powers.
While the improvements to the core gameplay have arguably been subtle, the same cannot be said for the visuals. Already one of the best looking games on the market, NHL 15 does a great job of bringing the series up to current-gen standards. While it might not be quite as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as 2K’s, NBA 2K15, it is arguably the best looking sports game in EA’s stable and unquestionably a stunner in its own right. Sure, some of the animations are still pretty stiff, but for the most part, this really is a great looking game with player likenesses, crowds and general TV style presentation all vastly superior to the last-gen version.
The TV style presentation in particular really does make a big difference with an array of subtle animations, camera shots and incidental details making all the difference. The most notable change in this respect however comes in the form of the commentary team. While unchanged out on the ice and still a little repetitive, ahead of games, alongside the very cool location shots, you now get actual footage of an NBC-style broadcast featuring Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. The sight of their real life recordings superimposed over a virtual background is a tad jarring, but for the most part, it gives the whole experience that true to TV effect with games feeling that much more important thanks to some pretty genuine sounding introductions and pre-match analysis.
The missing content really is a major issue and, even if it is all reinstated via future patches, simply isn’t good enough for a game that has been in development for over a year. Still, while many will be understandably unwilling to overlook the omissions, those who can will be treated to the best on ice action that EA Canada has ever created. This is as slick, enjoyable and accessible as the NHL series has ever been and, while it may be an ultimately hollow experience, what is here looks great and plays even better.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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