NHL 15 Review (Xbox 360)
If the long list of things that NHL 15 doesn't have on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 got you thinking about buying the game for the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, be forewarned: Though NHL 15 retains every mode and feature from last year's title (minus the retired EA Sports Arena), the only enhancements it offers over NHL 14 are updated rosters, new announcers, some subtle tweaks to Be A GM's prospect progression, and slight improvements to puck physics and player collisions.
Almost everything else appears to be a copy-and-paste job from last year's source code, which means that the game's many on-ice issues cannot be saved by community rosters or by custom sliders.
Hockey videogames can only be as fun as the types of goals that they allow, and unfortunately for NHL 15, the majority of shots that end up lighting the lamp usually leave you thinking, “How in the heck did that go in?” Netminders, can somehow routinely make sprawling stops on open-net opportunities, yet they frequently can't prevent slow-moving wristers from squeaking through their pads or sneaking past their glove. Short-side, sharp-angle snap shots still seem more reliable in NHL 15 than slappers and one-timers from the center of the slot. The same basic forehand-to-backhand and backhand-to-forehand dekes will still fool AI goalies at an insanely high rate, regardless of the goaltender's or the skater's attribute ratings. You can put up more points in NHL 15 if you skate through the same buggy “hot spots” and repeatedly launch toedrag wristers off the rush than you can by settling down in the zone, moving the puck around, and shooting from the middle of the ice with lots of traffic in front of the net.
NHL 15 simply does not reward good hockey strategy like it should. As a goalie, you're better off passing the puck through a crowd of bodies or sliding it down into the corner boards instead of freezing the play and taking a defensive zone face-off. As a defenseman, you'll notice that it's easier to hog the puck and skate end-to-end to gain the offensive zone instead of setting up a proper breakout or trying to dump and chase. As a forward, you'll have more success shooting from the side of the net or from just inside the blue line instead of passing to teammates who are waiting to hammer home a one-timer. Even as a coach, you'll open up more scoring opportunities by playing right-handed skaters on the left side of the ice and left-handed skaters on the right side of the ice, so that you can trigger the game's most powerful one-timer animations more easily.
The AI's behavior in NHL 15 runs contrary to everything that you're taught in hockey school. On offense, the CPU is extremely indecisive when carrying the puck through the neutral zone. AI teams often get stuck in a loop where they'll skate back and forth across the red line, making multiple east-to-west passes while their teammates all stand still, waiting for the inevitable failed dump-in attempt. On defense, they'll sag all the way back into their own slot, letting you bring the puck up the wing and into the offensive zone without a single attempt to poke, chop, or push back. Your own AI linemates struggle to provide forwards, backwards and lateral support whenever you have the puck. On the rare occasions where the AI does find a good spot to settle down for a one-timer, they'll often neglect to square their shoulders to the pass, which prevents them from getting any power behind their shots. EA's NHL series has had the worst AI in sports videogaming throughout the Xbox 360's lifespan, and NHL 15 has done nothing to reverse that reputation.
The franchise's physics have at least taken two small steps forward this season, by creating more realistic collisions and generating more believable puck bounces. The “moon physics” displayed during NHL 14's absurd dump-ins are mercifully gone. The invisible, protective forcefield around goaltenders has also disappeared, and while this is a welcome change for offline matchups, people online are already exploiting the fact that goalies can now draw fraudulent penalties by running out of their crease and initiating contact with innocent skaters. Online players have also discovered new ways to abuse the old left bumper + right bumper “lie down” animation, which this year, does not draw a tripping or interference penalty whenever opposing skaters stumble over a prone player.
Offline, on the default five-minute periods, penalties generally only occur once or twice per game, even on “Hardcore Simulation” settings. Pushing the penalty sliders all the way up doesn't raise the number of infractions by much. Slashing and tripping are again the most common penalties in NHL 15, due to the game's randomized, "dice roll" stick checking system. Because the right thumbstick is being wasted on body checking commands, defenders have little control over their hockey sticks, and instead, are at the mercy of animation roulette whenever they press the A button to stick lift or the right bumper to poke check. Stick checking needs to be reassigned to the right joystick in future NHL videogames, so that players can finally have more control over the angle and the amount of force that's being applied during these deft defensive maneuvers.
Having to “charge up” each pass' power by holding down the right trigger for a second or two beforehand is another poor gameplay mechanic that continues to hurt the fun factor of EA's NHL games. With a fast-paced sport like hockey, where passing lanes are constantly opening and closing all across the ice, a pass' strength should simply be determined by how hard the trigger is pressed, not how long it's held down. Players could lightly tap the trigger for a drop pass, apply medium pressure for an easy slider, or squeeze the trigger firmly for a hard saucer. This would eliminate the frustration of being stuck with a full-power pass if a lane closes down before you can complete the required "power charge" in time; it would also free up the left bumper for another command, since it's currently being used to cancel "fully loaded" passes.
NHL 15's equally archaic "rock-paper-scissors" face-off system continues to employ the same tiny selection of predetermined win/lose animations. Some moves like the stick lift actually put the winning centerman's team at a disadvantage, due to how slow the animations are and how unrealistically quick the defense can explode out of their stances to intercept the puck or poke it free from the recipient. Face-off participants still cannot get ejected from the circle for drawing early, despite the fact that this rule is enforced at all levels of professional hockey.
Boardplay also remains limited by its outdated, one-on-one interactions, plus it continues to be abused by online players who are intentionally pinning themselves against the wall to “ghost” through incoming body checks.
Fighting contains all the same flaws as last year's game, too, as danglers and snipers are still being challenged to scraps during stoppages in play. If you press Y to accept these lopsided duels, five-foot playmakers like Martin St. Louis can somehow win battles against six-foot bruisers like Brian Boyle, simply by mashing the right thumbstick rapidly. Many attributes, including “fighting skill,” don't seem to matter in NHL 15, as you can deke through the entire AI defense and pop a goalie's water bottle with John Scott just as easily as you can with John Tavares.
After eight years of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement, Electronic Arts finally replaced their dated booth duo with some relevant announcers: play-by-play man Mike Emrick, color-commentator Eddie Olczyk, and bench reporter Ray Ferraro. Though Emrick and Olczyk are employed by NBC Sports, you won't hear any NBC music or see any NBC overlays in NHL 15, unless you're playing on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are stuck with the same generic, brandless presentation package. The pregame introductions also recycle familiar warmup scenes that have been in the game for years, only now Mike Emrick adds one or two nondescript sentences before each identical-looking puck drop. Doc's delivery in NHL 15 sounds uncharacteristically wooden, as most of his lines lack the energy, fluidity, and poetry that hockey fans are accustomed to hearing on television. His partner, Edzo, stays unusually silent during the live action, chiming in only during the occasional stoppage in play. TSN's Ray Ferraro gives the best performance of the three, though he, too, is barely heard outside of instant replays.
Circuitous menus and long loading times make navigating through NHL 15 a persistent annoyance. GM Connected, which hasn't received any new features or options for NHL 15, still runs incredibly slow when switching menu screens or advancing to the next scheduling period. Be A GM also suffers from sluggish simulation speeds and frequent pop-up messages, making it tough to get through 1 season, much less the maximum 25.
Let me tell you a story about the Nashville Predators' first-line center, Mike Fisher, which will illustrate how crazy the CPU's signing, waiving, and trading behavior can be in NHL 15. Fisher was waived by Nashville on February 27, 2015. This surprising move came after the CPU-controlled Predators had already waived their top center prospect, Calle Järnkrok, earlier in the season. CPU Winnipeg quickly claimed Fisher off waivers, only to immediately trade him to Florida that same day for the Panthers' first-round pick and two prospects. Before the sun could set, Florida shipped Fisher back to Nashville in exchange for the Predators' first-round pick and two prospects. If that scenario wasn't wacky enough, the Predators would then waive Fisher again a week later, where Winnipeg would claim his rights for a second time, only to immediately send Fisher off to Detroit in return for the Red Wings' first-round pick and a prospect. After losing in the opening round of the playoffs, Detroit let Mike Fisher, whom they traded their franchise's future for, become a free agent in the offseason. Nashville didn't even qualify for the playoffs, as they would lose a four-way tie for the final Western Conference playoff spot. Winnipeg and Florida finished 15 points and 18 points, respectively, from reaching the playoffs. Mike Fisher, rated an 85 overall at age 35, started the 2015-2016 season as the second-line center for the Calgary Flames -- his fifth NHL team in seven months.
Some of the other zany CPU trades I've seen are offering a second-round pick for third-line grinder, Zach Smith, parting with two third-round picks for 35-year-old tough guy, Chris Neil, and sending a pair of third-round picks for 36-year-old defenseman, Chris Phillips. The CPU seems to prioritize players' present overall rating when making trades, instead of valuing things like age, potential, speed, and skill. Similarly, the CPU has a bad habit of waiving 3-star and 3.5-star prospects who will easily turn into mid-80-overall NHL players, just because those athletes' current overall ratings are in the low-to-mid 70s. I was able to grab Calle Järnkrok, whom the real-world Predators traded their leading point scorer to get, after Nashville's AI owner waived Järnkrok early in season one. The former Predators prospect quickly progressed into an 81-overall, bottom-six forward for my Ottawa Senators by the start of season two.
Year-to-year attribute progression is much more consistent in NHL 15 for players with high star potential, as your young studs will grow about one to three overall points every year, so long as you keep giving them ice time in the NHL or the AHL. Conversely, guys who spend too much time being injured or being scratched, or who get few opportunities on your third and fourth lines, won't progress much, regardless of their potential rating. In the five seasons I was able to simulate, older players seem to regress properly, based on their age and yearly performance. Veterans in their early 30s can still make slight improvements to their skills if they have a great statistical season. Player progression in NHL 15 is simply a matter of whom you decide to play and how well those people perform when they're on the ice.
Be A GM's biggest shortcoming is its lack of ratings fluctuation during the regular season, as the hot/cold streak system that was added to NHL 14's Online Versus/Play Now rosters is still confined to those two modes for NHL 15. Most of the in-season progression that does occur is limited to AHL players, as top NHL draft picks like Seth Jones and Aleksander Barkov won't improve much throughout the year, even after getting 60 to 70 games of NHL experience. Then all of a sudden, once the season finally ends, your players' ratings will magically improve overnight.
There's a nice amount of statistical variance to players' yearly performances, as you won't see the same guys topping the charts every season like in previous NHL titles. CPU teams accurately give their backup goalies 20 to 30 starts, though truthfully, they don't even need to, since progressive, game-to-game fatigue is not supported yet in Be A GM or Season mode; that feature does return, however, for the third straight year in Ultimate Team. Injuries also carry many of the same quirks that have existed for years now. Although the “goalie forcefield” has finally been removed, allowing skaters to collide with netminders at any time, the men in masks still cannot be injured during live gameplay -- only during simulated games. Regular skaters rarely get injured during live action, too, regardless of how hard or how often they get hit. Simulating games, though, will cause tons of injuries to occur at all positions, which can be a pain if you can't complete your GM Connected schedule before the commissioner advances the league, and you lose a key player in a game that you didn't even play.
The list of modes that have received no meaningful updates in NHL 15 is disappointingly long. The EA Sports Hockey League is identical to last year's edition, aside from some changes to its microtransactions system, a few new equipment options, and the removal of the jersey number 0. Ultimate Team now rewards untradeable card packs instead of valuable marketplace coins for completing collections. It also fails to introduce any interesting single-player content that would put "HUT" on-par with Madden NFL 15's and NBA Live 14's solo challenges. Be A Pro, Be A Legend, and Live The Life all return without any visible enhancements. Season mode and GM Connected, too, show no signs of improvement. It's especially sad that GM Connected, which has the potential to be one of the best modes in all of sports gaming, has basically gone untouched since it debuted back in NHL 13. There is no excuse -- two years into this mode's existence -- for not including the option to play shortened seasons, at the very least.
If you were expecting to play last year's Winter Classic between Toronto and Detroit at “The Big House” (the University of Michigan's football stadium), you'll be disheartened to see that only the 2011 and 2012 Winter Classics, which were already in NHL 14, have been included for NHL 15. Mike Emrick at least provides new pregame introductions for these two outdoor events. Last season's Stadium Series and Heritage Classic aren't present in NHL 15, either, though you can at least use the special jerseys that those 10 teams wore during their games. Speaking of outfits, the Ducks' and Coyotes' new sweaters are in NHL 15, but the St. Louis Blues' redesigned uniforms are missing. Blues fans will have to make do with St. Louis' 2006-2007 sweaters, which are very close to the team's new 2013-2014 design.
NHL 15 isn't a bad game, but at $60 (or $70 if you're Canadian), it's a bad value, considering how little the core mechanics and suite of modes have improved from NHL 14, or even since NHL 13.
Unless last year's broken Be A GM progression system and goofy dump-in puck physics were game-killers for you, NHL 15's few minor fixes won't justify the extra $40 to $50 that it costs over a used copy of NHL 14.
Apart from the new trio of announcers, whose unenthusiastic delivery actually ends up sounding worse than the tired duo they replaced, NHL 15 feels like it could just as easily have been released free of charge last spring as a patch for NHL 14.
Score: 6.5 (Above-Average)