It’s hard to be a hockey fan in this day and age. Casual fans have been alienated by confusing and contradictory rhetoric coming from both sides of the lockout debacle that has diminished the popularity of the sport in this country. However, don’t be fooled, you’d be hard pressed to find more loyal fans in any sport anywhere. Which is interesting when you take NHL 14 for what it is: an entry clearly geared more towards a casual audience with bigger hits, more goals, and more fights. One could argue that is the reason most people follow the sport in the first place, but for a true fan the nuances are key. While the NHL series has arguably been the most technically sound and true to the sport in the sports video game genre, this year, for better or worse, EA has decided to take a step back and make the game accessible to a wider audience. Will that upset hardcore fans? Time will tell.
Let’s start with what is most important: the experience on the ice. When you first put in the disc you will prompted to choose which style you prefer: High Impact, Simulation, or Hardcore Simulation. While the latter options obviously lend themselves to a more realistic experience, High Impact deserves some explanation. Designed to make every play essentially highlight worthy, you’ll see bigger hits, harder shots, and more goals. Essentially, this is an “Arcade” mode designed to appeal to casual hockey fans that love the inherent violence of the sport.
If you’re new to the NHL series, it’s vital to know that this series went to Total Stick Control several years ago. Using the analog sticks to control your hockey stick gives you arguably the most control of any sports game out there. It does take some getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it everything feels fluid and natural. One-touch dekes and slick spin moves leave your opponents looking silly, while quick wrist shots and powerful slap shots feel fantastic, especially when they light the scoring lamp.
Speaking of which, goals seem easier to come by in this year’s version. It’s not that the goalies don’t make great saves, but playing with quality players and having a bit of space (especially high in the slot) ends up with the puck in the back of the net more often than not. Still, the satisfaction of a well-worked goal rivals any other sports game out there. You’ll probably have to mess with sliders to get the difficulty right. It is either too easy or too hard depending on which mode or setting you choose.
Checks are far more ferocious this year thanks to an improved physics collision engine. Now, rather than trying to time your hits with an extra press, you can just skate into your opponents. This may sound oversimplified, and to a certain extent it is, but you still need to take the correct line to make the hit. However, once you’ve got the hang of it, mid-ice collisions and board checks are bone-rattling, and improved variety in animations make them look all the more realistic. Blindsiding someone who isn’t paying attention will make you wince and smile at the same time… unless it happens to you. Unfortunately, poke checking, the more subtle option on defense, still leaves a lot to be desired.
Arguably the biggest inclusion is the revamped fighting mechanic. Fighting reminds me a bit of the Fight Night franchise, which is a good thing. In fact, the new Enforcer Engine clearly takes its cues from the fantastic boxing series. You use the right stick to throw punches and dodge, as well as clinching. Brawling is as fun as you’d expect, but the revamped engine allows for a bit more strategy. If you just start swinging wildly, chances are you’ll get decked, just like in real life. Unfortunately, restraint is something they forgot to program in. If players in the real NHL fought like they do in the game (or as frequently) there would be no one left on the ice!
The traditional Be a Pro is greatly improved, now renamed Live the Life. As has become the norm, you create your own player to develop over the course of a career. Depending on how you choose to play you can either control the whole team or just play your own shifts (simulating to the next time you are on the ice). Should you choose the latter option, the ally AI is reasonably proficient to picking out passes and defending. However, the on-ice experience isn’t much different than any other mode.
What really makes Live the Life engaging is what your pro does off the ice. You’ll give interviews and garner endorsement deals all the while your performance on the ice improves your relationship with the fans, your fellow teammates, your coaches, and even your family. Sure, some of the responses to interview questions are a little cliche (and more than a little obvious what the outcome would be should you chose a certain option), but it adds to the overall experience, giving an RPG quality to the proceedings.
I dabbled briefly in the GM modes, but unfortunately it isn’t particularly engaging either online or off. It’s pretty sparse compared to other sports titles, neither remarkably refined nor interesting. Taking it online really requires others to be as involved as you are. I think that this mode will only really be interesting to hardcore hockey fans that will really make the most of it. The inclusion of NHL 94 Anniversary Mode was an inspired and welcome bonus. Sadly, I’m old enough to remember this classic. Still, it brought back some fun memories and is a blast to play with friends.
There are other online options to consider. Apart from the return of Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), which is pretty standard these days, there is also the EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL). This lets you take a created player online to play with others in a full league format. Provided you have like-minded friends who are willing to devote as much time as you are to playing out a full schedule, the EASHL is easily one of the more robust options out there. Unfortunately, you can’t take your offline pro online, which is annoying as you have to essentially do everything twice.
In the end, NHL 14 serves both casual hockey fans and the hardcore crowd. However, getting the experience to your liking will take effort on your part, something no one enjoys. While the GM modes disappointed me, the new Live the Life was engaging and fun. I love the gradual inclusion of RPG elements beyond simply garnering experience to spend on stats. As with most sports titles, if you have a group of friends to play with online who are as committed as you are, then the EASHL rivals the best in the business. If you’re a true hockey fan I’m sure you’re already playing NHL 14, but if you’ve never played this series or are simply looking for something new to try, then this is worth a look.
Reviewed By: Simon Waldron
Publisher: Electronic Arts
This review is based on a retail copy of NHL 14 for the PlayStation 3 provided by Electronic Arts.