There was time when I bought an NHL video game every year. I am a hockey nut and I love the game so I need my fix of puck any way I can get it. I used to buy EA’s games every year, but around 2002, they began to turn into an arcade type hockey game and I made the switch to the 2k franchise. I stuck with them for five years until EA revamped their game and turned it back into a realistic hockey sim. But for the 2012, 2013 season, I did not buy any NHL game. The 2k franchise was dead and EA was, again, turning into a more arcade style of game. I prefer to play as realistic a game as possible and once again, EA was shying away from that in favour of ridiculous dekes, huge fights and a focus on fantasy teams.
And so I figured another year would come to pass where I did not buy an NHL game, but along came the next-gen consoles and I got myself an Xbox One and looked forward to what EA would do with the new tech. As trailers and developer videos came out, I got more and more excited. They were going for a realistic experience, finally! An overhaul to the broadcast team and presentation, ramped up graphics, taking advantage of the new tech, more natural deke moves, hits, physics and living arenas were all in store for the new game. I was so ready for the next-gen hockey game, that I played the demo, and despite some shortcomings, that I cracked up to it being a demo, bought the game. And I’m glad I got it on sale, because it really, again, falls short of what it could have been.
EA made a deal with NBC Sports to use their team for the game’s broadcast team and that is brilliant. The NHL series needed this change to happen about ten years ago, and finally the motion was carried out. Doc Emmerich, Eddie Olcyzk and Ray Ferraro make for a real, television-like presentation, even though it isn’t perfect due to saying the wrong thing at times, having “dead air” during games and a lack of proper emotion for the calls at times. But it is still miles better than what the previous commentary was like.
The graphics too, are quite well done as the ice gets carved up and snow builds up as the period progresses, and they even went as far as to show a “dry scrape” down the centre of the rink for shootouts. The player models look good, though still move awkwardly and there is a lot of clipping, where players bump through each other, the boards or the ice. The game does look next-gen but until EA can realize the power of the next-gen consoles, the true potential of the graphics stays hidden.
There are problems with the game, and to be clear, I do not expect a perfect game, but when you retail for $69.99 plus tax, I expect something near perfect. Some of the issues may be fixed through patches and updates, but things like settings not saving, bad goals due to players clipping, stats not showing during games in the Be A GM mode are quite annoying and should not be in a final release of the game. But my biggest issue, is what EA tried to advertise as their best next-gen experience: The Living Arenas.
EA spent time detailing the 30 arenas in the NHL, and I’m sure, the other rinks through the AHL league, and some generic ones for the rest of the teams featured in the game. But EA made the claim that the crowds would be into the game, jumping and celebrating and causing a raucous during the game, making the arena feel alive. Their mood would change based on the on-ice events. This happens, but in a minor way and I really can’t see any difference from previous games. A big cheer follows a goal or a fight, but they are quickly followed by deathly silence. I’ve been to numerous NHL games in several NHL arenas and though there are moments of hushed silence and tension, people are always yelling, talking, chanting or cheering. I expected this in the game, but was disappointed. The arenas do not feel alive. There are “crazy fans” painted up or with signs that are shown after a goal is scored, and there are “over 9000 individual fan models” in each arena, but you only feel that the arena is populated by emotionless people. The jump up after a goal is scored, and that looks great, but that emotion is short lived. There is no cheer or chant afterwards, even for goals in overtime, or late tying goals or even 6-0 routs, the crowd just isn’t there. Get Stamkos to score a hat-trick, and the only way you know is a nod to it by the commentators. No hats thrown on the ice, no alternative cut-scene of celebration. That I cannot excuse. Neither can I excuse the lack of team-specific chants, such as “Go Leafs Go” or “Let’s go Red Wings.” The FIFA franchise by EA has team specific chants, so it can obviously be done, and when EA promises living lively arenas, how they can leave out something like that baffles me.
Now, another issue with this “living arenas” is the arenas themselves. I’m sure all the graphic designers and coders spent weeks getting each arena to be accurate to its real life counterpart, but all this work is lost in the game due to darkness. Other than the ice surface and the first, let’s say, thirty rows of fans, the entire arena is cast in dark shadows that hide everything. I figure that EA did this so that they didn’t have to fully generate a perfect, 100% replica of the arena in game. Since the majority is hidden in the shadows, they didn’t need to actually make the fans there or proper parts of the arena because you’ll never see it. This is extremely disappointing as no NHL arena is this dark. Sure, the upper levels may be darker, but the game makes it out like the teams forgot to pay power bills. Only half the arena is lit, so half the fans sit in darkness and this makes the arena feel empty, sad, and depressing. These arenas are vibrant, lively, and exciting, or at least they are supposed to be. This needs to be fixed if EA really want the arenas to feel alive and full of emotion, because right now a funeral has more emotion than these NHL arenas.
Another qualm I have is with the celebrations for goals. There are custom celebrations you can initiate by pressing a button on the controller, after which the goal scorer will hug a random teammate on the ice. Hockey is a team game, and if you watch any game on TV and tell me that only two of the players on the ice during a goal come together for a celebration, I know you are lying. Every player on the ice gets together for a group hug, high-fives, head taps or fist-bumps. Yet, in the game, only two ever come together. In a developer diary, EA even said, “celebrate with your teammates on the ice,” but apparently they forgot about the other 3 players. While two hug, the other three stand awkwardly beside or ignore them altogether and just head to the bench. So much for the realistic game.
So once again, I play this game only thinking of what it could have been rather than what a great game it is. Hopefully EA is listening to the community and hopefully they can make changes so that maybe, just maybe, next year’s game will be better. But for now, I am left with a feeling as empty as the arenas. I enjoy playing the game, but all the problems are just a reminder that this game could have been more. Unfortunately, EA has no competition in the market for their NHL franchise, so they do not feel the pressure to make that perfect game. This ends my rant and hopefully someone out there agrees with me, and someone from EA listens.