In case you had not heard, reviews for the recent release of "NHL 15," the latest edition in EA Sports' well-received hockey franchise, haven't gone well. The PS4 version of the game currently has a 60 on Metacritic, and it's being slammed by fans around the world for a mind-numbing lack of features at launch.
Wait, this is next-gen?
Most people probably didn't envision spending hundreds of dollars on a machine to play games with less breadth than my PS2 could muster. Even the most basic things, like skipping shifts in Be a Pro, Online Team Play and the ability to draft players in Be a GM, have been left out of the most technologically advanced hockey simulation in history.
In many ways, "NHL 15" has been a disaster. It's precisely what EA Sports said it wouldn't do entering a new generation of consoles, completely fumbling the transition with a marquee franchise. It took Madden years to regain its footing after the mess that was "Madden NFL 06," and now everyone's worried that NHL could be looking at a similar fate here.
This is where I want to interject, however, and say this: NHL 15 is a brutally rudimentary building block, but it has me extremely excited for the future. If gameplay itself is ultimately what drives a sports game to be "fun," then the folks at EA Canada have set the stage for a pretty spectacular experience down the road. The lack of features might suck now, but it'd be silly to assume they'll never arrive, and the core gameplay of the next-gen experience is a rousing success.
I've been playing "NHL 15" regularly since buying the game on Day 1, and it's the best hockey game, in terms of dudes skating on the ice and slapping around a puck, that I've ever played. It's really not close, once you start focusing on the new puck physics, improved skating and massively upgraded graphics.
Back in 2006, Madden's problems were rooted in gameplay as much as features. The defenses were a complete mess (they still are, in my humble opinion), Michael Vick was a charged up demigod and presentation was basically ignored. The newest version of NHL, even with all those stripped out features, does a lot of things right, from the gameplay to the NBC broadcast presentation.
It may not be the sole basis for a must-buy $60 title, but it's enough to make "NHL 15" a rather defensible product in my opinion. This might be a rebuilding year for the franchise, which is especially disappointing given the protracted development cycle, but my expectations for "NHL 16" are sky high.
EA will need to win back some goodwill from fans after what's happened this year, but I'm optimistic. The gameplay in "NHL 15" is seriously impressive, and by not screwing up such central parts of the game from the beginning, we'll likely see genuine progress in the franchise from year-to-year. It's hard to fathom how we even got to this point, but clearly EA decided it couldn't screw up on gameplay and presentation again while starting a new console cycle. It might be frustrating now, but you'll be able to get this game on a serious discount in a few weeks (thanks, terrible reviews!) and it'll be worth it in my opinion.
This was supposed to be a grand entrance on next-gen for NHL, and it wasn't. But it's probably easier to add features than overhaul gameplay, and that's reason for hope.