Despite being viewed as some of the most formulaic and dependable game titles - or perhaps, because of it - annual sports simulations tend to be criticized as charging full-price for little more than a roster update. But to date, the NHL series has escaped those claims, offering both incremental improvements and overhauled mechanics on a yearly basis. But that's not the whole story.
The downside to annual sports titles means the need to ship a game, without fail, in whatever state it happens to be in when launch day arrives. The rumbling among fans began last year when EA Sports announced that NHL 14 wouldn't be coming to next-gen, but was soon silenced when the game offered the most well-rounded and refined experience to date. That step to next-gen has finally arrived with NHL 15, and one thing is clear: the annual release schedule has finally made its mark on EA's hockey simulation series.
We won't presume to state that it's only the need to release NHL 15 by its set date that has negatively impacted the release, since the added workload of building the game in EA's new Ignite physics engine can't be underestimated (and is also responsible for the game's improved visuals and reactivity). But it was because of EA Canada's past NHL titles that earned them the benefit of the doubt last year, with many fans trusting that when the team came to next-gen, they wanted the time to do it properly.
Those words have come back to haunt them, since the overwhelming lack of features in the next-gen NHL 15 makes it genuinely difficult to believe that this entry was released after last year's. While the game also has its strengths, the stark differences in overall experience will start cropping up immediately, once players set out to do more than play a hurried scrimmage (like the one new players are thrust into when the disc first spins). It's a good thing - and at this point, an expected one - that the gameplay itself may make the game worthwhile for those looking only for a dose of next-gen hockey.
In the end, the actual on-ice gameplay isn't the problem - but it isn't the real issue here, either. We've already explained at length that next-gen hardware has given the game a noticeable boost, and the small tweaks to puck, player, and goalie physics are appreciated. But it's hard to argue with those who claim that it's still fundamentally the same gameplay experience as previous entries. Prettier, sure; but the shift to next-gen clearly wasn't used to address the mechanical gripes to the same extent as arena-specific environments.
The problem and, sadly, the defining feature of NHL 15 is the culling of features once credited with raising NHL above other sports series. We won't list off the features and modes in detail (as plenty others already have), but it's safe to say even casual fans will find themselves scratching their heads.
With a new engine, and new platforms, it's expected (but not condoned) that some features may need to be dropped, or changed (the ability to practice with every player controlled by an online user, for instance). But why remove the ability to play as an NHL team's AHL affiliate? It's only one question, but encapsulates the heart of the matter: has the increased immersion of real NHL rinks ruled out the AHL affiliates, or is it the developers assuming players won't be bothered?
One answer seems like a problem that should have been predicted (and potentially solved) by a development team this experienced; the other, more worryingly, implies EA Sports may have misjudged its fanbase. EA has since come forward to explain that some, not all features will be added to the game in the coming months (further evidence that the team intended to include the missing features, but simply ran out of time).
But the fact that the studio's statement offered no real explanation, or an attempt to address the all-too-predictable reaction among loyal fans, further complicates the issue. Taking the stance that the game is unfinished, but still worth its value despite offering less than last year's package... well, that's sure to attract harsh criticism even without 'EA' on the box. Acting like they're not required to justify that stance just makes thing worse.
In the end, our lingering feeling about the game and its many changes is one of confusion. It's possible that fans got arguably more than their money's worth in recent years - compared to other EA Sports titles - but expecting a broad experience when investing year-to-year is reasonable. EA Sports putting this title out as a full-fledged entry in the series simply seems strange given how much its missing. But assuming that they won't have to explain is even stranger. And when all is said and done, our greatest cause of concern for the series' future.
There's no question that those fans of the series hoping to see the improved hardware of next-gen systems pay off will be satisfied. The visuals and new presentation make up the kind of step forward that was expected with the step from one console generation to the next; but far, far too much was sacrificed to make it possible - and still have it live up to the franchise's own standards.
Whatever the reason EA Sports has for releasing a game that is clearly lacking features that were not just accepted for the series, but utilized by the company's most devoted fans, the overall experience has suffered. NHL 15 still offers top-notch gameplay - really - along with a few extra modes to make online play and progressing a player's career possible.
Beyond that, players are best sticking to last year's edition (or NHL 15 on last-gen consoles, since it's essentially the same offering).
NHL 15 is available now on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, and PS4. We played it on Xbox One.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.