Sports video games often subtract, contract and consolidate some features from year to year, rankling a few diehards in the name of making the game easier to play and understand for more newcomers. But that's not what hockey fans are seeing in the latest edition of EA Sports' NHL series. When it comes to features gone missing from one edition to the next, NHL 15 is the mother of the disappeared.
On Thursday, Operation Sports, which is basically The Sporting News of this video game genre, published a by-now notorious list of features that had been in NHL 14, but are missing from the early-release version of NHL 15 that went out to EA Access subscribers on Xbox One on Thursday. Others have added their own lists. They're all lengthy and mind-blowing.
And yes, this is for the full version. The omissions are so severe that some have questioned whether the NHL 15 released to subscribers in the EA Access program's pre-release window is different from the full edition launching on Tuesday — i.e. stripped down for digital distribution. Well, I have a full copy of NHL 15 on PlayStation 4, and I can confirm everything that OS says isn't in the game isn't in the game.
This isn't a list of nice-to-have details or options that were in the series two or three editions ago that folks have asked to return. These are features, in some cases whole modes of play, that were in NHL 14 but are not present in NHL 15, as the series makes its debut on more advanced hardware.
The missing include bedrock options of all sports video games, like being able to edit real-life players from the main roster. You can't do that in NHL 15. I've checked. Also gone are basic conveniences seen last year as well as in its peers, like being able to simulate your time on the bench in the Be A Pro career mode. Instead, you must watch your teammates play in real time. Absent, without leave, are fundamental expectations of multiplayer, like playing your Ultimate Team against a friend. Your online options in that mode are a random ranked match only.
Hockey fans braced for bad news in mid-August when Sean Ramjagsingh, a producer on the game and the closest guy to being its public face, confirmed that the series' GM Connected mode would be scrapped and that the EA Sports Hockey League wouldn't make it into NHL 15, either. Online Team Play, the foundation of both of these modes, is going to be patched in later but there is no timetable for its delivery.
Ramjagsingh told OS that GM Connected was one of the game's least played modes — though it was around only two years. Still, it carried a huge online obligation, and Ramjagsingh said managing that among as many as 12 individual players in the same game was simply too tough to tackle if NHL 15 was going to hit its traditional early September release. That's disappointing, but plausible. No one — least of all Electronic Arts, after Battlefield 4 and SimCity — wants a game with broken online features at launch.
But that does not explain the absence of things as sundry as a full-team practice mode, which last year also included goalie practice, free skate, a skating drill and a shooting drill. In NHL 15, practice is just the shooting drill, player solo against a goalie, alone. Why? No one buys a sports video game for the practice mode, but taking it out definitely sends the messsage that you're getting less than what was delivered last year, and that something may be wrong with the game overall.
The same goes for the absence of basic offline amenities like the replay highlights saved after each period and segmented by type (shot, goal, hit). Replays are now just a single, dumb-feed reel apparently limited to the most recent 140 seconds of play in the current period. And I'm no hockey expert, but I can't imagine why NHL 15 doesn't even have the space to name three stars at the end of the game, like the series did before.
There's no explanation for why the Be a GM career mode no longer includes preseason games; why the semi-RPG Live the Life career was scrapped after one year, and why the plain-jane Be a Pro mode that it returns to has to eliminate playing in the minor leagues. The games in Be a GM's developmental league, the AHL, are likewise unplayable, where they were playable before. Why? Was EA Canada unable to render a new, generic arena and crowd for all of these teams to use? All of these minor leagues and their teams remain licensed to appear in the game, and were touted as a big value add when they were introduced in 2010. What value do they add out of the play-now mode only?
Licensing may have played a role in the end of things like Be A Legend (a career mode that used retired greats) and the Winter Classic (staged in facilities to which the NHL doesn't control the rights). But you can't even play the All-Star Game in either career mode in NHL 15. You can't even see who won it when it simulates in the background. It's like it doesn't even exist, an anomaly for a video game based on a North American team sport.
On and on and on it goes. Again, see the list for yourself. Hell, there may be more missing. NHL is not my strongest series, and the experts seeing it pre-release on EA Access have only six hours to see all they can in it. They can either waste time fooling around in the menus, discovering things like custom team AI, created plays and custom camera angle packages are gone, or they can play what they've paid money for. Which compared to last year, ain't much.
NHL 15 does add upgraded graphics, sophisticated puck and skating physics, and a full NBC broadcast presentation, including the well liked announcer Mike Emrick. But I thought everyone in sports video gaming was clear that what NHL 15 has done is The One Thing You Can't Do. EA Sports' former boss, who is currently the CEO of the whole company, said as much two years ago.
You can't come to a new console generation on looks alone, and release something that is this feature-incomplete compared to last year's edition. (I do not have a copy of NHL 15 on Xbox 360 or PS3. If its feature set, or lack thereof, matches the new generation release, there is literally no reason to buy it other than for the roster update.) The restructuring of NHL 15 and the absence of major legacy features is starkly apparent even to a casual observer like myself. I look at the condensed options and the stripped-down career modes and think of NBA Live 14, coming back after a four-year absence and trying to fixate on getting just a few areas functional, not a series that touts a lifetime 26 sports game-of-the-year awards on its cover.
You can't even play the all-star game.
So NHL 15 has a lot of explaining to do in the week it launches. It must be pointed out that media — including this publication — received advance copies of consumer code for this game on the condition that reviews not run until Tuesday at noon. That's an unusual restriction, considering the general public is playing the game on Xbox One right now and already tearing it to shreds. But I guess that won't count toward NHL 15's Metacritic score on launch day.
Even before these revelations, NHL 15 was going to release under a cloud because of the admission that online team play has to be patched in later, which creates the impression this is an unfinished product in addition to being an incomplete one. Not even Madden NFL 06, the poster child for how not to handle a console transition, showed this poorly right out of the gate.
And lest you forget, Madden NFL was a world-beater of a series coming into 2005. It had just come off its highest-rated offering ever (and likely forever), which won overall Game of the Year honors at the inaugural Spike Video Game Awards. And Madden 06, which didn't even include real-life announcers because of licensing intrigue, helped send that series into a wilderness of doubt and lack of direction, from which it has only recently emerged.
For the past seven or so years, the Big Four of sports video gaming — the best series, year in and year out — have been FIFA, MLB The Show, NBA 2K and NHL. The NHL series practically founded this club, with a pedigree of quality going back more than 20 years. It's now in danger of losing that membership. I'm not sure there's a plausible, forthright explanation for what's going on here, and even if there is, I'm not sure that could save it.
Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.