EA NHL 15 Preview: I played it and didn't want to stop
With the exception of the dubious soundtrack, I consider NHL 14 one of the finest video games I’ve ever played. From the fast-pace, to the crushing hits, to the slick stick handling, it really wasn’t difficult to see why IGN described the game as “the hardest hitting, most enjoyably violent hockey game [they’ve] played.” While there were some minor quirks that needed fixing, I wasn’t quite sure how the game could be significantly improved upon for next-gen consoles.
And then I played NHL 15.
At an event hosted by EA, I had the opportunity to test out the new game on PlayStation 4 while speaking to one of the franchise’s producers. It took me less than a full period of play to understand why NHL 15 was named the best sports game at E3.
(Please note that I only played a beta version of the actual game, so while I can speak to gameplay features, I don’t have any knowledge of what online features or other game modes will be included in NHL 15)
The leap between NHL 13 and NHL 14 in terms of physics was truly remarkable. The crushing hits and improved skating truly set it apart from anything that had been previously released. NHL 15 was successful in integrating what its predecessor did right, while utilizing the superior engines in next-gen consoles to improve upon it.
It really started with the players:
You might also enjoy this infographic that shows how far the player graphics have come over the years.
The controls are more or less the same, with the exception of an improved skill stick that eliminates the need hold down the X button (or A, on Xbox) in order to protect the puck. A lot of care was put into making the actions and reactions of the players appear more natural than the last game. Producer Sean Ramjagsingh told me that the AI in this game was built from the ground up. The result was a slightly sloppier -- but by that virtue, more realistic -- experience.
While in ’14, slap shots from in between the face-off circles and cross crease one-timer attempts were nearly automatic, ’15 places a premium on different tactics. Greatly improved puck physics and player movements (and collisions) now make it more possible to score tough, ugly goals. Ramjagsingh told me he frequents Xbox Live in order to get a feel for how gamers were consistently scoring, which helps him know what adjustments needed to be made for ’15. “We have this vision for how we want the game to play, and then we put it out there in the wild where people are just playing to win,” he told me. “I have to see online the ways that people are trying to ‘game the game.’”
If I’m being honest, I’ve never paid much attention to or cared about how the crowd looks in a sports video game. In most cases, they’ve served more or less as wallpaper that makes noise. Hockey fans are amongst the most passionate in the world, and NHL 15, for the first time ever, has truly accounted for this. The game boasts 9,000 unique fans with four times as many animations as previous generations, which is enough to essentially fill the entire lower bowl of the greatly improved arenas.
While the crowd in previous games were more or less all wearing casual clothes, NHL 15 distinguishes between away fans, super fans and those who don't even appear to really care about the game. I was very pleased to see a female fan chatting on her phone during the game, resulting in her reacting late after a goal was scored. Intermittently dispersed fans of the Away team will go wild when their team scores a goal. And I spotted diehard home fans making weird celebratory fish faces at the camera (although I did spot multiple instances of this, which seemed more bizarre than authentic).
On the whole, similar to EA Sports UFC, NHL 15 is the rare sports game in which the crowd actually lends to the overall sports gaming experience.
A few months ago, I began muting NHL 14 while I played it in favor of listening to music or even just silence. Yes, over time silence became a superior alternative to listening to Gary Thorne and Bill Clement repeat the same emotionless observations and (in the case of Bill) really bad jokes. It's clear that NHL's developers were aware of this weakness, and they decided to fix it with steroids. NHL 15 brought on Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk (arguably the most respected duo in the biz) to provide fans with what EA has described as the "most realistic broadcast package in a video game to-date." In total, Doc, Eddie and on-ice guy (another new feature of the game) Ray Ferraro recorded 35,000 lines of dialogue.
I was more or less blown away by the opening sequence of the game, which included an overhead shot of the arena we were playing in along with a live-shot exchange between Doc and Eddie describing the teams involved. Granted this is a feature that gamers will likely skip over while jabbing at the A button to begin the game, but I couldn't help but let out an audible Wow while taking it in.
I didn't catch too many of Doc's signature witticisms during gameplay but here's to hoping that we'll uncover a few of his signature anecdotes as we play the game more.
By my estimation, no sport lends itself better to video game play than hockey. It essentially takes the very best aspects of soccer and speeds it up, while throwing in the best aspects of football, and, at least during power plays, chess. And thus given the great source material available, it should be expected that hockey video games are phenomenally fun to play. This one most definitely is. While I was wandering around the EA event testing out new games, I kept on floating near the NHL station in hopes that a spot would open up so I could get another game in.
The one thing I came away thinking from my experience playing NHL is that EA, a company with a dubious history of mistreating their customers, is listening to its fans. Many of the misgivings I had about the gameplay in NHL 14 (and I didn't have a bunch) were answered in NHL 15 -- in many cases resoundingly. So while no, the game is still not perfect, it's difficult to come away from the experience of playing it not thinking that it's as perfect as it should be right now.