Updated: Mar 2, 2019
Wait. Bear with me. Allow me to explain.
Firstly, I've been a fan of the franchise since the mid 90's. Growing up in Australia, our exposure to 'ice hockey' was limited to the Mighty Ducks movies and the annual instalments of EA's NHL video games. That was it. The sport didn't exist anywhere in the country back then, at least not that I was aware of. And I loved all of it. In 2008 I was lucky enough to acquire a Canadian better half and started seriously following the sport. Playing it (badly) soon followed while living for a brief stint in New York City. And as someone who has developed a feel and appreciation for the game over the last 8 years or so, I can categorically say, the new games are bug-riddled messes with shoddy AI that never should have cleared QA testing.
It's not a minor level of suckiness either. I've devoted more time than I care to admit to the franchise over the years, so I think I'm qualified to rant about this. There are all sorts of bugs that simply go unfixed, year to year. Let's start with the UI. My platform of reference is the Xbox One, but I can tell you that I've thrown controllers over how laggy and shit the menus are. I shouldn't have to press the A button sixteen times to move to the next screen. There's also a regularly occurring UI bug which causes a single keypess to register a dozen or so, shifting the cursor to the extremes of whichever menu you're selecting from. I've lost savegames this way. The only solution appears to be to leave the controller dormant for a minute or so, until it sorts itself out. It's 2016, register a fucking keypress properly already. One of the most frustrating UI bugs occurs in GM mode. When one of your defensemen is injured and you replace him, for some unknowable reason, he subs into your second forward line. Every. Fucking. Time. I've gotten used to it and simply accepted it as a part of my extended management responsibilities at this point. "OK, so Boychuk is injured, need to sub in Hickey, then go to second line center, replace Hickey, who's there now for some reason, with Ryan Strome, who should be there, then go back to defense and put Hickey back in". Let's put aside the fact that Ryan Strome is a second line center (yeah, the Islanders are a terrible team) and focus on the actual bug for a second. It's just laziness. I work in software development - this should be a simple fix! Hell, show me your source code, I'll fix it for you.
The bugs don't stop if you can navigate past the finicky menus. The AI, particularly on defense, is absolutely atrocious. I can skate my winger into the corner, draw both D-men, turn around and pass to my center in the slot and score with around an 80% success rate. When playing defense myself, I do everything right: collapse to the net, cut off the pass, and my defensive partner skates into the corner, for no apparent reason, leaving his man wide open. He shoots, he scores. I <b>know</b> you guys can do better on this front. Goalies are either useless or superhuman, with very little in between. Henrik Lundqvist had a sub-0.800 save percentage over 30+ games in one of my GM mode games. Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the greatest goalie alive. And I was simming 90% of the games. Garbage.
There's also no grey area between Pro and All-Star difficulty, or between hardcore and simulation mode. The former lets me run up the score and win 10-2, the latter turns your players into such slow, uncoordinated messes that it's not even remotely fun. Maybe I could tweak the options, but why bother? The only thing that keeps me coming back to the game is my love for the sport. Period. And I refuse to buy the yearly release, as they're genuinely unplayable for around 6 months until the new AI sorts itself out.
Honestly I believe it's down to laziness. EA is a global monolithic corporation, and they own the official hockey licenses for everything from major junior in Canada to the NHL, as well as all of the IIHF international competitions. That sort of monopoly is hard to compete with. Can't imagine that level of official sponsorship/licensing comes cheap. Your local passionate dev shop can't afford to compete with that. As an example, I recently tried Eastside Hockey Manager on Steam. While fun, I had to download fan-made, pseudo-official packages that attempted to patch in official players in order to feel any sort of authenticity. Kind of killed my buzz, despite there being a very solid management sim underneath the unofficial covers. Where is EA's incentive to actually improve their products, rather than re-releasing last year's garbage fire with updated rosters? People are going to buy their yearly update anyway, especially in the Canadian market, because we want authenticity. Unfortunately, at the moment that authenticity only extends to the rosters and licenses, at the expense of polished gameplay, or even functional UX. For that reason I'll be sticking to NHL 16 with all its warts and frustrating bugs, until EA can prove to me they actually care about improving their products and delivering an authentic, bug-free gameplay experience.
I challenge EA to make a liar of me.