NHL 14 Review: More hits, more fights, more retro
Hockey is an aggressive game. I mean, any sport that not only allows but encourages fights to break out is going to be rough. EA Canada has embraced this toughness with NHL 14, and the result is a hard-hitting game that builds upon the successes of last year's title.
Last year, NHL 13 introduced new skating mechanics and physics. Building off of the same core technology of FIFA's Player Impact engine, NHL 14 delivers Collision Physics. Admittedly, I'm just a casual hockey fan. I don't fully understand all of the intricacies and strategies, but I do appreciate a big hit. Thanks to the new Collision Physics, it's easier than ever to pull them off in NHL 14. Simply skating into the player will result in a hit that takes a number of variables into account -- speed, angle, weight, strength, checking ability, and things of that nature.
Of course, at the root of this new checking system is momentum; you can't expect to bring down a player by simply rubbing up against them. You need to go all in and sometimes the result is a complete whiff (at least, if you're terrible like I am).
What I do find odd about the new system (though not necessarily bad) is that the attempt to create bigger hits and more realistic physics actually results in a less realistic simulation experience. Hockey is aggressive, but there seems to be a real emphasis on checking. It can seem a little arcade-like at times. Then again, maybe that's just the chaotic way in which I play hockey games.
The aggression of NHL 14 spans far beyond checking. The game has a particularly weird focus on fighting. You don't normally see such a thing offered in sports games, but, sadly, it has become a part of the hockey culture. At random moments throughout the game (mostly after big hits or anything that can irritate the AI), players will throw down gloves and duke it out. Fights are fluid in presentation, with the camera remaining zoomed out in third-person view, but mechanics are a little stiff as you awkwardly throw punches and attempt to dodge incoming uppercuts. Fights in real life hockey games are fun; in the game, not nearly as entertaining.
Physics aside, the gameplay is incredibly smooth. Skating feels natural and responsive with over 1,000 new animations. Pulling off incredible intuitive combination dekes is easier than ever with One-Touch Dekes. It can sometimes seem a little too easy to take advantage of a lackluster AI, but it makes for some entertaining highlights. As with any sports game though, you are free to adjust the settings to your liking.
What makes NHL 14's gameplay particular attractive is that it caters to your playstyle. Even before you begin playing, EA offers a number of Game styles, ranging from a faster paced "High Impact" style to a realistic "Simulation" to an even more realistic "Hardcore Simulation." Control over your player(s) can be as simple or in-depth as you want, with the ability to choose between three Controller styles: NHL 94 (an old school feel with very simplistic button mapping), Skill Stick (for a more immersive, realistic experience), or Hybrid Controls (a mix of the two). Regardless of your Controller style, NHL 14 has seen a number of actual gameplay improvements including goal scoring balancing, smarter goalies, defensive AI, skating and, of course, physics and hitting. There's nothing really innovative with the gameplay, but it does feel more polished.
NHL 14 features a number of gameplay modes to keep you busy. I was actually overwhelmed by how much there is to do in the game. The most significant change is definitely "Live the Life," formerly "Be a Pro Career Mode." EA borrows heavily from NBA 2K's own career mode, allowing you to create a superstar and live every aspect of his life. By "every aspect," I mean you can participate in interviews with prospective teams and media, handle endorsement deals, and keep those around you happy. It a nice idea that your relationship with fans, teammates, and coaches depend on more than just your on-ice ability, but presentation is lackluster and it feels a bit dry.
While "Live the Life" has seen the most change, the biggest addition to this year's game is easily the NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. No rules, no mercy. Simplified controls, big goals, bigger hits, and sped-up gameplay, NHL 94 Anniversary Mode a nice homage to one of the most iconic entries in the NHL franchise. By no means does it outshine the original, but it's a nice tribute given the 20-year anniversary. My biggest gripe is that it can only be played offline, somewhat odd given the terrific multiplayer experience NHL '94 offered.
Online modes EASHL and Hockey Ultimate Team also make a return, and while they offer mostly the same type of gameplay as in the past, one drastic revision -- the adoption of FIFA's online seasons format -- changes the overall experience. Winning will see you move up to tougher divisions where you'll face stiffer competition, while losing will see your team bumped down.
NHL 14 doesn't take the most innovative steps in the series. There really isn't a whole lot of change from last year's version. Just to be clear, that's not a bad thing. It feels much more polished; simply put, it's a solid game that you'll enjoy playing. As we near the arrival of next-gen consoles, I'm anxious to see where EA Canada takes the franchise, but for now NHL 14 offers the best experience for hockey fans.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]