NHL 14 review

EA Canada draws a minor penalty for lame fighting, but otherwise scores a goal with its latest pro hockey sim, NHL 14.
EA Canada draws a minor penalty for lame fighting, but otherwise scores a goal with its latest pro hockey sim, NHL 14.
EA Canada draws a minor penalty for lame fighting, but otherwise scores a goal with its latest pro hockey sim, NHL 14.

Highs

  • Collision physics dramatically improved
  • Returning modes don't disappoint
  • The same deep simulation fans have come to expect

Lows

  • New Live the Life mode feels half-baked
  • NHL 94 Mode bafflingly lacks online play support
  • Semi-frequent slowdowns impact your play

Another year, another hockey sim from EA Sports, right? Not quite, not this year. Yes, it’s September, and yes, that means EA Sports has NHL 14 ready to give fans of ice hockey their pro sports fantasy fix, but this latest effort from the team at EA Canada nods knowingly toward a wider audience. Perhaps it’s the 20 years between this release and NHL ’94, an all-time fan favorite in the realm of virtual hockey, but there’s a decidedly old-school flavor coloring all of the improvements made in last year’s entry.

Here’s the short version: if you miss the hard hits and high speed of EA Sports’ NHL games as they existed 20 years ago, then this one’s for you.

The hits keep coming

Functionally, NHL 14 plays much like its 2012 predecessor. Last year’s improved AI is still sharp enough to read and react to what’s happening on-ice, and the previously tweaked physics continue to convey the best feeling of real-life momentum that the series has known. As far as moving around on the ice and playing as part of a team – really, the core of virtual ice hockey – there’s little that’s different. And any fan should be perfectly all right with that.

If you miss the crowd-pleasing hard hits and high speed of EA Sports’ NHL games from 20 years ago, then this one’s for you.

The most obvious change is the way that hits are handled. Last year’s physics model produced some stunningly bone-jarring collisions on the ice, but EA Canada streamlines the way you mete out physical punishment in NHL 14. The right analog “Hit Stick” is still available (along with classic controls that are more in line with NHL ’94), but checking a player now is as simple as building up some momentum and skating directly into your target.

It’s satisfying, to say the least. Especially if you’re a fan of the big hit style of video game hockey that characterized earlier games. The Hit Stick might still feel more natural for those that have grown accustomed to it, but you’re not required to use it. The learning curve this time revolves around realizing that you’ve got to lay off the left stick before contact is made if you don’t want to strike whichever player you’re skating in to cover.

Also in the realm of contact play, both the presentation and the handling of fighting is completely re-worked. The camera now remains fixed in its standard zoomed-out view of the ice as two players scuffle. You’re able to dodge, grab, and throw punches using a combination of both analog sticks (for pushes/pulls and a variety of punches) and the right trigger (for dodging). That’s the idea, anyway.

Unfortunately, the act of inflicting punishment on some punk right winger is an unpleasant process of wrestling with controls that don’t appear to be doing what you’re telling them to. The two fighters flail, but any nuance to the gamey bits of their fisticuffs is lost in your struggles to make punch go now. What’s worse, fights now happen much more than they would in real hockey – probably thanks to the newly re-worked system – at the default game settings.

The biggest worry on ice isn’t fights, however; it’s slowdown. The game hiccups much more than it should (at least once per game), freezing for seconds at a time before continuing. This happens even in offline games. Conversely, flipping through menus feels much smoother than it usually does. That said, if we’re going to choose between the two, smooth gameplay would be prefer. Hopefully it’s an issue that can be addressed via patch.

Playing hockey your way

Exhibition hockey is all well and good, but a proper sim – even one like NHL 14, with hit physics that skew a little more toward arcade play – needs hook-y modes in order to snare serious fans. The marquee “improvement” this year is to the game’s “Be A Pro” mode, now redubbed “Live the Life.”

You start out by creating a player just as you always have before. You can choose to begin your career already established in the NHL, or you can start out in the Central Hockey League (CHL) and work your way into the pros. If you prefer, you can also start at the tail end of a CHL season, just as you’re about to be drafted onto your first NHL team.

NHL 14 is a backwards step from 2012’s confident leap forward for the series.

What really sets Live the Life apart is its emphasis on building your player’s personality in addition to his hockey skills. Throughout your career, you’ll sit down for various interviews and participate in off-ice events – all of it relayed to the player via on screen text – and make choices that influence what the fans think, what your teammates and team management think, even what your family thinks.

These impressions that other people have of you roll back into the gameplay as modifiers. So, for example, having a high rating with your family becomes a straight up stat boosting modifier whereas having a high rating with team management makes it less likely that you’ll be traded. The more your team loves you, the more likely you are to make Captain.

The interviews and public perception ratings amount to an extra layer, though an admittedly dry one as it’s served to the player. You’ll never see your in-game self walk into a room and step up to a podium to address reporters, for example. The feature feels stitched-in as a result; there are good ideas here, but it’s been done before in other games, and done better (see also: NBA 2K13).

The lone brand new mode in NHL 14 amounts to a backward glance at its 20-year-old predecessor. “NHL 94 Mode” is designed to capture the flavor of that classic game, but with newfangled technology like “True Performance Skating” and other buzzwords powering it.

NHL-14-screenshot-2

The result is… uneven. NHL 94 Mode is definitely going to be embraced by a certain audience. It defaults to the classic control scheme (though you can change that), it brings back old-school animations, music, and presentation (blue ice!), and it tweaks the tuner settings to more closely mirror the aggressively fast-paced style of play from NHL ’94. In other words: bone-rattling hits and lightning-fast skating dominate.

There’s something to be said for seeing all of this old-school flavor with a fancy, current-gen wrapper applied to it, but EA Canada bizarrely chose to turn NHL 94 Mode into an offline-only proposition. They’ll argue that it’s a decision meant to preserve the spirit of the 20-year old game, but NHL ’94 had no fighting either. That makes the jump to this mode, so why not online play?

Everything else is as expected. Be A GM returns for armchair team owners to mold and shape a squad of their choosing, and benefits from improved owner AI fielding and offering more sensible trades. Hockey Ultimate Team brings back the same hooktastic blend of card collecting and fantasy drafts. The proven bits and pieces of the NHL series return just as you’d expect them to.

Conclusion

NHL 14 is a backwards step from 2012’s confident step forward for the series. The improvements of the previous game remain, but a combination of technical hiccups and questionable design choices leave you with the impression that EA Canada might have been distracted while making this game. Perhaps because it’s all hands on for the inevitable next-gen iteration in 2014? Time will tell. NHL 14 isn’t an essential pickup, but as the latest version of an annual franchise, it’s one that the fans will no doubt come out for.

This game was reviewed on an Xbox 360 using a copy provided by EA Sports.

Highs

  • Collision physics dramatically improved
  • Returning modes don’t disappoint
  • The same deep simulation fans have come to expect

Lows

  • New Live the Life mode feels half-baked
  • NHL 94 Mode bafflingly lacks online play support
  • Semi-frequent slowdowns impact your play
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