After sitting last year out, EA Canada is finally prepping NHL for its conversion to the new generation consoles. With aged commentary, decaying game modes, and gameplay that was pushing the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 to the max, the series was certainly ready for the jump. At the E3 booth, Kim and I finally got our hands on the game to check out the new features.

The most noticeable change is the presentation. Each matchup starts with an overhead shot of the arena and then cuts to the new commentary team, Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, who share some brief thoughts about the teams before cutting away to the game. The real arenas and crowds that feature 9,000 unique fans are also showcased before the puck drops. The player models also look quite different. Kim, what did you think of the game’s new look,?

Kim: I’ve been waiting for EA Canada to make things more realistic, so I liked that it felt as if you were watching an actual game on NBC. The commentary with Doc and Eddie, especially with their opening show analysis felt natural, and it definitely helped that they used live video and not animated recreations of them. I also liked that the arenas now look distinct and match what you’d see, like if you’re playing the Blackhawks at home, it’s clear it’s at the United Center. Before everything just looked the same no matter what team you played as. The fans also are so much more lively. Their overzealous reactions to certain plays are a nice touch. But for all the realism, I wasn’t so hot on the new player models. They don’t look as on par to the real life athletes and are kind of jarring to look at it. I also wish they had more reactions to the game at hand. How’d you feel about it?

Bertz: Yeah, the new player models have an uncanny valley feel to them, don’t they? The game is still in alpha, so they have time to tune the player emotions and get rid of some of the framerate stutters we saw in the cutscenes between the action. The EA booth was loud so it was hard to hear the new commentary, but I really liked the look of the arena. Hardcore fans are decked out in crazy gear like Stanley Cup hats, and you even see obnoxious fans of the opposing team taunting the home crowd. 

Let’s move onto the gameplay, which I thought felt quite different than last year. The skating gives you more control of the puck when rushing up the ice, but any bit of player contact can knock the puck loose. We saw a lot of scrambles, especially when players start piling up in front of the net. The immediate drawback to that is we saw several goalie interferences over the course of one game, some of which were called and others which weren’t. Pucks look like they’re going to deflect more naturally through crowds, and the hitting is very toned down compared to last year. But of all the changes, I think the most startling difference for me was playing defense. Staying glued to an attacker is much tougher, as is the poke check. I found myself backing up a lot to make sure skilled attackers like Kane couldn’t blow past me with one deke, which conversely opens up some longer range shooting opportunities. What were your early takeaways from the demo?

Kim: I agree about defense. It felt like if my character even made a slight turn in the wrong direction, he was immediately out of position. I played conservatively on defense as it, but in the game, if you even hesitate for a split second, the damage is already done. Players definitely can’t depend on just a checking game this time around. Checks work more for pushing players off the puck by the boards, but lining them up is extremely risky. One thing I noticed was that it wasn’t as easy to keep track of the puck. The puck really does slip and slide around the ice. The action isn’t as predictable and static as previous iterations. As for offense, some of the old tricks work. Shots from the point while the goalie is screened still fare well, as they should. Also, they changed up goal celebrations; this time around you can use the face buttons to activate them. We were told that they’re planning on custom ones for certain players and even team ones. I’d like to see more of those, because they were a nice touch. How’d you feel about scoring? We only played one match, so it was tough to figure out entirely what would work. But I didn’t feel like anything was a sure thing. To deke with the puck is a little different this time around, so I blew a bunch of breakaways. Think I’m going to have to practice that a bit. The puck also bounces off players in new ways, that could make for some interesting goals. We see that happen a lot in the NHL.

Bertz: I agree that it’s really difficult to analyze the scoring after playing one game, but the biggest thing I noticed in the offensive zone were the loose pucks and player’s reactions to them. It’s not a given that they’ll locate the puck whether they are facing it or not, and players at the blue line aren’t as quick to transition from skating backward to pinching at the blue line; it seems to take a moment for them to gather their momentum. 

Look for more information on NHL 15 gameplay and a discussion about the game modes as we move closer to its September 9 release date.