Feature

NHL 15 Wish List – Is This A Make Or Break Year?

by Matt Bertz on Apr 24, 2014 at 10:20 AM

The NHL has surged in popularity over the past few years, repeatedly generating improved television ratings, but that same fortune has not been bestowed upon EA's eponymous series. Since its high water marks in NHL 09 and 10, the series has started to slip in comparison to the wider sports genre.

While the core gameplay still maintains some of its magic thanks to the brilliant control interface, once popular modes like Be A Pro and Be A GM no longer stand up to the benchmarks set by other series like NBA, FIFA, and Madden. It's time to turn around the franchise.

Watching the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, several GI editors have had the itch to skate onto the virtual ice with our brand new Xbox Ones and PlayStation 4s. Unfortunately, just like during the last console generation transition, NHL was left on the sidelines for the first year. The next iteration should fix that.

Getting all of our proposed improvements into NHL 15 is unrealistic, but we'd love to see these deficiencies addressed in the coming years as the series gains a foothold on the new-gen consoles. Hockey's never been the most popular sport, but if EA smartly caters to the hardcore fans of old time hockey this series should rebound given the increased interest in the sport.

PRESENTATION

New Commentary
I grew up in an era when the talented duo of Bill Clement and Gary Thorne called most of the national games on ESPN. I still think they are one of the best commentary crews in the sport's history, but their work has grown stale in the NHL series. It's time for new blood or a wholesale remodeling of the current voiceover system.

The NHL series largely lacks the improvements made by other franchise like NBA 2K, which includes updating the talking points for skill players. Clement and Thorne still talk about the New Jersey Devils drafting Zach Parise even though he's now in his ninth season and signed a 13-year, $98 million deal with the Minnesota Wild in 2012. The commentators rarely have the awareness to discuss league happenings, injuries affecting the teams, potential trades, or any of the other common topics that fill the dead space between whistles. Building off the system created for FIFA would go a long way toward making the series feel fresh again.

The most natural target for new commentators is the NBC combo of Mike "Doc" Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, since Emrick is largely considered the best commentator in the sport. EA could also go back to the premier Hockey Night in Canada crew of Jim Hughson and Craig Simpson, who served as the announcers from 1997 - 2009. If they wanted to inject some hilarity and color to the proceedings, EA could look to the dark horse pairing of Ralph Strangis and Daryl Reaugh, the Dallas Stars commentary duo that is largely considered one of the best regional teams.

Invest In Player Likenesses
The NHL series player models have been generic for too many years now, especially once you get a few years into the franchise mode and all the young prospects look the same. EA Canada should make an investment in securing player likenesses for every roster member, not just the star players, and invest in a new player model generator for the draft classes.

Incorporate Real Arenas
The game also lacks the arena differentiation found in other EA titles like FIFA, NBA, and Madden. We would love to see new arena designs for all 30 teams that capture the differences between ice quality, board quality, lighting, etc. We'd also like to see EA put more of an effort into capturing the pageantry and intensity of playoff hockey.

Add Authentic Coaches
Many sports have incorporated head coaches into video games, but not the NHL. I would love to see the Q-stache patrolling behind the Blackhawks bench or Avs coach Patrick Roy aiming his stare of death toward a ref after a dicey call (or maybe at Bruce Boudreau).

Adding the coaches could be just the excuse EA needs to incorporate a wider differentiation of tactics into the game. This could help franchise mode games play out differently from game to game, and change your responsibilities when playing in the Live the Life mode depending on what team you're on.

GAMEPLAY

Fact Check The Physics
For the past couple years, EA has reworked its physics and collision engines, but it still needs a lot of work. Sticks need to stop clipping through legs, checking needs to be toned down to realistic levels, and we'd love to see an injury system that takes into account how a player was hit to determine the injury.

Puck physics could also use another development pass. Realistic rebounds off goalie pads, player bodies, and the boards would be a great place to start. I also wouldn't mind seeing the puck roll on its edge from time to time as well. Being forced to slow your movement to gain proper possession of the puck if you're not controlling an elite player would add another layer of strategy to receiving passes and getting off shots.

Keep Investing In Player A.I.
Designing A.I. logic for a fast-moving, organic sport like NHL can't be easy, which is why EA still has plenty of room for improvement. Both A.I. controlled teammates and opponents could use a hockey clinic for forechecking, cycling, power plays strategies, and better blue line puck management. They are equally inept at recognizing two-on-one opportunities on the rush, knowing when it's safe to make a line change, and jumping on loose pucks. This battle won't be won in a year, but a concerted effort to improve the A.I. is definitely needed.

Revamp Board Play
In the modern NHL, if your team isn't strong along the boards then you're probably on the outside looking in come playoff time. The EA games are more wide open affairs that don't reflect this reality. A revamped control system that captures the intensity of puck scrums would help, as would a new puck chip option for sending the puck along the boards to a teammate positionally aware enough to properly support the cycle. 

Fix The Fight Logic
EA Canada put a lot of effort into revamping the fight system last year, but it went overboard. Too many stars get into scrums (two Vincent Lecavalier throw-downs in one game?!), players were too often involuntarily roped into the fights, and the transition from a player laying down a big hit to standing around awkwardly waiting for another opponent to skate over and retaliate couldn't feel more abnormal. This isn't the Federal League, so why do these games play out like the Charlestown Chiefs are in town? A little more focus on the actual hockey instead of the sideshow antics would do the series some good.

Diversify Goalie Styles
In NHL 14 the goaltenders feel like they are die cast from the same animation template. You never get a sense that stand-up goalies play differently than butterfly or hybrid netminders. Introducing more noticeable differentiations in style would give shooters something to think about before firing the puck from game to game. Giving them a bit more intelligence would help, too.

Create A New Face-off System
EA's hockey games have used the same face-off system since NHL 11. This system has never captured the skill involved with winning the puck in the circle – I use the same move nearly every time when playing against the A.I. because I know it works most of the time as long as your player has a high face-off rating. EA needs to go back to the drawing board to make these minigames meaningful again, complete with getting players tossed out of the circle.

Find New Ratings Advisors
Of all the sports games I play each year, I continually find the NHL series to have the most questionable player ratings. It seems like nearly any warm body skating on an NHL sheet is rated 80 or higher, which hinders player differentiation. No person in their right mind would argue that Detroit Red Wings grinder Darren Helm is an above average talent, but he's rated an 84 in NHL 14. This is a man who has never scored more than 32 points in a season. Edmonton Oilers D-man Nick Shultz has the same rating, and he's the very definition of a stay at home defensemen who never contributes offensively. Two-time 50 goal scorer Dany Heatley may have torched goalies in his prime, but now he's continually a healthy scratch for the Wild. EA Canada seems to have not gotten that memo – its ratings gurus still rate him at 82.

Whoever is in charge of the ratings needs to pay more attention during the regular season, as well. The dynamic ratings updates came infrequently, rarely addressed the entirety of the league, and sometimes blew the concept altogether. Multiple times I saw ratings updates release that included injured players on the hot streak list. When Mikko Koivu goes down with a broken ankle in the beginning of January, he shouldn't be on the hot list released on January 25.

GAME MODES

Throw Away Be A GM Mode And Start Over
Over the past few years, the Be A GM mode has devolved into the worst franchise mode in contemporary sports games. It's time to scrap the entire experiment and begin anew.

EA has touted the ability for its sports studios to share technology while building new-generation games, and we hope that's the case here. We'd love to see NHL adopt the media-focused HUD featured in Madden, integrating Twitter chatter and league news alongside rumors and video highlights (our requested addition to the hub).

The studio also needs to remodel its player progression to drastically increase the development speed for high draft picks like Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon, make playing time matter for prospects (both in minors and the NHL), and introduce player regression on the end of player careers. Patrick Marleau should not have 90 speed when he's 38 years old.

Trade logic, free agency, and the draft should also be scrapped. Teams need to have a better understanding of their surpluses and deficiencies. Incorporating different GM personality profiles would help drive trade possibilities so the only available players aren't just over-the-hill ones and young prospects years away from contributing.

On the free agency front, no sports game has yet captured the excitement of courting players and luring them to your team. Giving players different personalities and making GMs court them for their services would go a long way to making this menu-heavy mode more impactful. I'd love a system that made me prioritize player visits, make convincing pitches, and vie with other teams.

Drafts could be improved with hand-built draft classes that feature diamonds in the rough, a retooled scouting system that better arms users with actionable intelligence, and allowing us to trade in the midst of a round instead of in between would get this game in the right direction.

And then there are the niggling legacy complaints. A.I. roster managers still do a horrible job of juggling lineups, placing forwards in defensive positions and giving career minor leaguers precedence in AHL lineups over high draft picks. The Conn Smythe trophy also needs to be winnable by other players than just goalies, too.

Bring Drama To Live The Life Mode
The Mode Formerly Known As Be A Pro is a lifeless husk compared to the stellar NBA 2K offering. That's the benchmark EA needs to chase. Giving players the ability to interact with coaches, general managers, and teammates would be a great start. What's the locker room atmosphere like around trade deadline? What kind of bond do you form with your linemates if you have good or bad chemistry? Giving users a glimpse into this side of the league would be thrilling.

Sports games miss a great opportunity to incorporate strategy into these types of modes. Not every team plays the same system. Differentiating between teams and giving players different responsibilities when forechecking, backchecking, working the power play, or killing off a penalty depending on the coach's philosophy would not only educate fans, but potentially create tension between coaches and players who aren't buying into the system.

ONLINE

Revamp Creation Tools
For too many years, users have had the same player and team creation options. It would be great to see EA breathe new life into this system by empowering users with more options. I would love to see the TeamBuilder style web interface lifted from the defunct NCAA Football, complete with custom goalie masks and uploadable logos.

Make Online GM Interface The Same As Offline
EA needs to get rid of that slow, simplistic, horrible interface it uses for its online franchise mode and give it feature parity with the offline mode. Anything less is a failure.

Double Down On eSports
The world of eSports keeps getting bigger, and EA Sports games are a natural showcase for player skill. Integrating game streaming broadcasts and proper international competitions with prize money seems like a natural evolution for the brand. I would love to watch an EASHL Stanley Cup playoff series where the best 16 teams vie for the virtual cup in best of seven series.

Create Player Profiles
We always loved the 2K Sports VIP profile system that tracked player tendencies and gave you a nice mini-scouting report before jumping into a head-to-head matchup. Giving users information about where opponents prefer to shoot from, their win-loss records, power play/penalty kill success rates, which teams they prefer to play with, and how many times they quit out of matches when down would be very helpful when vetting potential opponents before stepping on the ice.

Those are our suggestions on how EA Canada can get its hockey series back on track. What would you recommend it do to improve the franchise?