For the last twenty years, gamers and hockey fans alike have been blessed with EA releasing a quality NHL title year after year – ignoring NHL 95 which completely removed fighting from the game. I wouldn’t say the annualized sports franchise is without faults, but it has been a constant title to look forward in the Fall. Without proper competition, as 2K Sports no longer releases the NHL 2Kseries and EA put the nail in the coffin for the NHL Hitz franchise, NHL hasn’t fallen prey to the same criticizing that hovers over Madden releases. With NHL 14, EA celebrates the classic NHL 94 in the highly addicting Anniversary mode, allowing fans to feel nostalgic from head to toe, complete with big hits, blue ice and star shaped player indicators.
Utilizing engines from other EA games, namely the Enforcer engine from Fight Night and the Impact engine from FIFA, helping produce a more realistic hockey experience. The Impact engine allows for better player detection, in hockey terms hits will look more authentic and bone crunching. Taking speed and angles into account, you will see more variation to the hits than ever before, without the passionate embraces that made FIFA entertaining to watch on YouTube.
Fights are no longer started with players mashing a single button repeatedly with hopes that the other player obliges. Lay a big hit on a star player or take a run at the goalie and expect each teams enforcer to come looking for you. In my case, trying to send Crosby through the glass every time he touches the puck led to many visits to the sin bin. Once two players drop their gloves and begin to dance, other players on the ice will pair off and jostle instead of disappearing off the ice. Gone are the disappointing first-person fights from NHL 10, as the camera swings around the fighters giving you the best view of the fisticuffs. Timing together your punches, dodges and blocks is the key to winning a fight, just don’t expect to skate away unscathed, unless you drop your opponent with a single blow. Fighters will wear their bruises, and black eyes for the remainder of the game. Size matters, and you may want to avoid being completely mismatched before squaring off unless you are sure the players bark is worse than his bite (Sean Avery).
Outside of the new engines, gameplay changes are barely noticeable, especially if you are familiar with the past couple games. Players won’t stop on a dime thanks to the gradually build up of momentum, but some of the rules surrounding hits and contact with players is still awkward. Referees swallow their whistle when it comes to late hits and interference and instigating will not earn you an extra minor penalty. AI fails to mimic actual hockey games, especially in the Live the Life mode where you are playing a single position. Offside will be a common sight as the AI will fail to pass or enter the zone without slowing down or completely stopping.
Visually, NHL 14 resembles last year’s offering, with all the players being represented in the game. Goalie masks aren’t exact replicates of what you see on TV due to artistic licenses, but Gary Thorne and Bill Clement reprise their roles in the broadcast booth. I couldn’t really pinpoint if any of the commentary has been is new, but I would assume most has been carried over from NHL 13. The included soundtrack consists of mostly alternative rock tracks, but still doesn’t include all of the goal songs from across the league. More effort should be put into trying to acquire the license to use actual goal songs used, than trying to feature filler music. All of the arenas include actual goal horns, so why not take the next step and feature current goal songs?
Feeding off the nostalgia for mid ’90s gamers the developers have modified the game by adding elements from NHL 94 into an Anniversary Mode. Controls are simplified, the ice is blue, 8-bit music reverberates throughout the arena and scoring is in the double digits. I found it more of a novelty than anything, a quick way to get in some hockey when I didn’t have enough time for a complete match. When I initially read the announcement for the mode, I assumed they would have included the NHL 94 engine in its entirety, but update the rosters to those from current teams. Instead, we are given a half classic, half modern mash-up that could have been much more.
If you have dreamed of being an NHL player when you were a little kid, queue image of me breaking a window with my patented slap shot, Live the Life allows you to experience every aspect of super stardom. As a team’s hottest rising star, you must answer both pre-game and post-game questions with each answer having a consequence on how not only your team and management perceives you, but your fans and family. Endorsement signings are based on your likeability on and off the ice, with fans having a major impact on signing the big deals.
NHL 14 is a solid title, but will be instantly familiar feeling to anyone that has played NHL in the past two years. The inclusion of the updated fight system and the player detection is a step in the right direction, but the game is still handicapped by the limited AI that will feel cheap in higher difficulties and dumb at other times. EA appears to be taking the one step approach with the series, but once again the game is limited to consoles only.
Should you play the game?
YES. If you don’t currently own last year’s offering or if you must play with the latest rosters, NHL 14 is a solid title worthy of your time. Just don’t expect for a revolution to the gameplay.
Note: The NHL 14 review was written based on the digital PS3 version game.