To date, the developers at EA Sports have shown that when it comes to the NHL series, no improvement or advancement is too small to matter. After years of pushing their game's mechanics and physics forward in increments, the series' arrival on next-gen consoles with NHL 15marks one of the largest steps forward in recent memory. Much of the game will feel familiar, but now that the playable demo has been released, fans have a sense of just how much re-learning and conditioning lies in their future.
We got our chance to play a small portion of the game ourselves at E3 2014, and walked away feeling that the developers had - at least on the surface - added enough to the formula to pull hockey fans in once again. Since then, the absence of some core-oriented game modes has shown that there is more going on under the game's hood than might have been implied. And stunning next-gen graphics aside, that will remain a cause for concern for many.
The demo still offers but a slice of the retail game, although the chance to devote hours to NHL 15's core gameplay has established that the most memorable updates to the game are, indeed, a marked improvement over past titles. However, it has also shown that (just as the series encountered issues with the last cross-gen release) a heightened simulation and refined mechanics comes with its fair share of... hurdles.
As seems to be tradition, the improvements made to the physics of the simulation have been a high priority for marketing, citing a new approach to player movement that simulates body mass, equipment, and the fabric over top of it. The new attention to detail pays off both in-game and during cinematics, raising the visual bar for the series once again. But as stunning as equipment shifting under fabric may be to the eyes, the physics is designed for hitting, skating, and shooting.
Where skating is concerned, the developers have once again tweaked the mechanics in almost imperceptible ways. Regular players may find themselves swept up in the gameplay immediately, only to hesitate when a high speed turn, a slow start, or a standard glide seems inexplicably strange. The explanation is that the developers have taken yet another incremental step towards simulating real skating (and its momentum, handling, and speed).
It's just one of a hundred adjustments that will only become apparent after extended play (and even then, only to seasoned players), and while it may throw a wrench into habitual play styles, there's no question that EA Sports is continuing its march toward realistic physics.
If the game's skating can be openly praised, then it's the physics governing the bodychecks and contact that is more of a mixed bag. During our first time with the game, the refined range of impact was one feature that stood out immediately. In certain plays, a well-executed hit didn't just send the victim of the hit careening off of their line and out of the play, but also ran the risk of eliminating the attacker from the play as well.
What seemed at first to be a serious increase in risk and difficulty - players who favored hits over stick work would find their defenseman... defenseless - isn't quite the flawless improvement in the demo. The increase in realism (fewer glancing hits, or inexplicably dodged checks) is still clear on a broad scale, but given the heightened resemblance to the actual game, the times when the physics fail to perform as expected are twice as frustrating.
Since EA Sports is taking the mechanics and physics to a new platform, hiccups like these are to be expected. But where the skating changes can be learned over time, the inconsistency in contact is a symptom of the programming, not the play style.
Thankfully, players will no sooner be frustrated by a flawed outcome than they'll be won over by the improved presentation and small touches. The puck, once again, behaves more realistically in and around the goalies - losing its momentum but remaining free to bang off of players around the goal mouth instead of dropping dead in anticipation of the goalie's glove or a player's stick.
With the increased fluidity of the animations, and the overall visual improvements to the player models made possible by the Xbox One and PS4, we can say that while NHL 15 may not be photorealistic by any stretch, it's the first game in the series that implies that may one day be possible.
Outside of the basic gameplay, it's the presentation package that will likely convince fans that a next-gen purchase is worth the price of entry. Starting with the new NBC coverage starring Mike 'Doc' Emrick and Ed Olczyk - with reporting from ice level by Ray Ferraro - it's clear the the developers are eager to keep pace with their competition in the sports simulation genre, doing their best to mimic a live broadcast, and coming closer than most may expect.
As fans are well aware, even the best commentary can wear out its welcome within the first dozen games of a years-long dynasty. That being said, the new voices alone will bring a breath of fresh air; and while it's impossible to determine just how varied a catalogue of talking points and catchphrases the game will pull from, the back and forth conversations did feel more natural.
In many ways, the NHL team is stuck between a rock and a hard place with each yearly installment: while other sports franchises inch forward year after year, the hockey fan base has come to expect their issue dealt with promptly, all while taking significant steps forward in each new title. Those expectations have only been raised with the arrival of next-gen, and while NHL 15 won't be everything that fans hope for, it's improvements will take time to notice - and even longer to truly appreciate.
You can download the NHL 15 demo for both the Xbox One and PS4 from each platform's digital store now. We played the Xbox One version.
NHL 15 releases on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4 on September 9, 2014 in North America and September 12, 2014 in Europe.
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