NHL 15 Review (Xbox One)
Imagine yourself waiting for a blind date at a fancy restaurant. You're sweating and popping breath mints like they're candies in order to make a good first impression. Suddenly your date walks in, and you're completely in awe. Drop dead gorgeous this person is, and you're immediately thinking you've hit the jackpot. You introduce yourself, you sit down, and the date begins... but there is no depth, no spark. The superb physical attributes of this person are immediately countered by a lack of substance, with little to no interesting conversation and a quick desire to cut and run.
That in a nutshell is the NHL 15 experience. The first new-generation hockey game looks incredible, with player models that look exactly like their real-life counterparts. For example, as soon as I saw Sidney Crosby, I wanted to punch him in his stupid face (DISCLOSURE: I am a Philadelphia Flyers fan.) Games feel like you're in control of an actual NBC Sports broadcast, complete with green-screened Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, especially if you switch to the True Broadcast camera angle. Even more impressive is the physics system, which is more realistic than any sports game I've ever played. The puck bounces just as a normal NHL puck would, creating some exciting play right in front of the goal line. It's the perfect game to show those who aren't familiar with video games in order to say, "Look how far we've come!"
However, the hardened NHL fans look past those visual achievements, and when I did so I found a hollow experience devoid of some of the depth in play modes that made NHL 14 so good. Popular modes like EA Sports Hockey League, Be A Legend, and Winter Classic have all been permanently axed, while Playoff Mode and Online Team Play will be patched in at some point. The gameplay modes that did make the cut have all lost some part of their functionality, making the experience a little more hollow. Worst of all, some of the choices they did decide to leave in the available play modes are beyond explanation.
Take Be a GM mode for example. If I'm entering a mode where I am tasked with running an NHL franchise, there are things I expect to control. Drafting players, consulting the AHL affiliate team for who is ready to come up, and more were all part of the fun in NHL 14, but NHL 15's GM mode loses all of them. The draft is CPU-automated, the up-and-coming players are merely waiting to come up, and I'm basically a figurehead, not a GM. I want to run a team, EA Sports, and you took some of the best parts about running a team away from me while assigning others to the A.I. What if I don't want the player the CPU drafts for me? What then?
Elsewhere, Be A Pro Mode should change its name to "Be A Pro Sometimes, Be A Fan Other Times." The features are basically the same, as I can still create a player in my image and build him into a star player on a professional hockey team. However, the ability to skip through a game until it's my player's shift has been eliminated, forcing me to watch the entire game from the bench until I take the ice. What's the point of this? If I wanted to watch hockey, I'd wait until the season started and watch a game. I'm supposed to be playing this game, so why am I sitting on the bench?
Hockey Ultimate Team may be the worst offender of all. HUT starts just like any other year: I start the mode, I get my starter pack, and I build a team. Because I'm just starting, my team isn't rated all that great, and that's fine. HUT then gives me two options: play solo against the CPU or play online, nothing out of the ordinary yet. Thankfully playing HUT online is just like previous years and everything is fine there, but playing solo is the most frustrating thing in the entire game.
The game chooses my opponent for me, I can't decide who I want to play, This wouldn't be a problem if the CPU took my low-rated team into consideration, but it doesn't. Suddenly I find my 65-rated MalkenStein (because Evgeni Malkin looks like Frankenstein, see picture above) matched against the 88-rated Anaheim Mighty Ducks at full strength. At least in Madden I was playing against pro teams but their ratings were dropped, but not here. The ensuing game looked a lot like the "Stanley's Cup" 'South Park' episode where the Stan Marsh-coached pee-wee hockey team had to face the Detroit Red Wings. No hope indeed.
NHL 15 is a beautiful game, there's no doubting that, but all of that shimmer and style comes at the expense of substance, and that's a huge problem. It's not enough to look wonderful, a sports game has to be fun to play off the ice or field as well, and NHL 15 took everything that made NHL 14 great and axed it. Perhaps the upcoming patches will restore some of the depth, but I'm not sure I'm going to stick around to find out.
This review is based on a purchased retail copy of NHL 15 for Xbox One.