The puck has dropped on the new NHL season and as sure as day follows night, that means that EA have been at work on their yearly update to the NHL game franchise. This year, the build-up to the game’s release seemed to focus more on who was going to be the athlete on the cover (it ended up being the Devils goalie Martin Brodeur) and less on what was going to be included in order to get you to actually get you to buy the game. That generally indicates an upcoming transition year when it comes to EA Sports titles, and with the next-generation systems landing next month, that’s definitely the case.
From the get-go, you feel as if you’re in a familiar place. The game interface and match presentation is practically identical to NHL 13, and you’ll be looking for minor changes rather than celebrating big ones this time around. As is the standard, Hockey Ultimate Team has been given a bit of a once-over, although there are still some massively confusing sections and glaringly obvious omissions. Once you’ve opened a couple of packs of player cards, things can get incredibly unwieldy. You can’t even view a list of all the players that you “own” so that you can quickly decide who to trade or sell. Instead, you need to either add players to your lineup and trade them from there, or go into the fragmented “Collection” screen and find the player by drilling down through the league and team lists. Of course, once you’re there, you can only view the players you own from that team, so you can’t compare players. Online Seasons has been given a bit of extra depth in the form of promotion and relegation, but given how NHL 14’s new physicality has players playing the game online though, it won’t bother you all that much as you won’t spend a great deal of time here.
On that note, one of the bigger tweaks comes in the way that collisions are handled. Using the same technology that’s been added to the FIFA series and refined over the last couple of years, players no longer take part in set-piece collisions. Actual physics come into play, and canned animations are (mostly) a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the way this is set up in NHL 14 means that if a slightly stronger player collides with a slightly weaker player, the weaker player goes careening across the ice as if he’s been shot. If a “weak” 240lb player hits a “strong” 190lb player at full speed, the weaker player will fall to the ice while the strong player skates away, barely registering the collision.
It generally isn’t that much of a problem in the game’s single player modes as things balance out, but online, you’ll generally find that players have decided to stop worrying about those bothersome poke checks and playing with any kind of skill. Instead, they tend to aim for check after check after check, with the hope of maybe scoring a goal and holding on by check, check, checking you out of the offensive zone afterwards. They don’t seem to defend powerplays by clearing the puck out of the zone, and in order to get any sort of offence going, your tactics will simply need to consist of avoiding them as they charge you over and over again. Needless to say, NHL 14 is not a particularly fun game to play online if you actually enjoy the sport of hockey, although it runs smoothly enough if you do decide to partake.
Offline though, the game provides the sort of experience that you’d hope for. The franchise mode is deeper than ever, although – and this is becoming a theme now – there aren’t a great many changes to help you with managing your team. The “Be A Pro” mode (now called “Live The Life”) has been expanded to include off-ice events. These events take the form of media interviews before and/or after selected matchups, with your answers to the questions affecting how the fans, the club management, your family, and your teammates view you. We couldn’t see how any of these ratings actually affected things, but they’re there. If you decide to start out in the minors, you’ll also be asked a few “pre-draft” questions by clubs that are interested in picking you up. Again, we’re not sure how “If you could have one super power, what would it be?” is relevant to…well…anything, but there you are. Given that once you’re drafted, you can still score 14 points across 6 preseason games and get relegated to the minors for “more seasoning” for an entire year – just like in NHL 13 – a few multiple-choice questions don’t really count for much. In fact, despite the mode getting a name change, the inclusions of these questions seem to be the only difference between this year’s be A Pro mode and last year’s. That’s just not good enough.
On the ice in offline play, NHL 14 is still generally as great as it always was. The “Enforcer” Engine – taken out of the Fight Night series apparently, although there’s not much resemblance – means that when the gloves are dropped, there’s a real skill to winning a fight. And fighting is a big part of proceedings now. Take a shot after the whistle has blown, or inadvertently press the Y button after almost any play, and you’ll be going hand-to-hand. You generally have the choice as to whether or not to drop the gloves, but there seems to be a LOT of opportunities to do so. In one regulation-length game, we noted thirty occasions where we could have seen it all kick off against the CPU. This means that after each play, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on between rivals, and this is unfortunately unskippable if they’re at boiling point and you’re one step away from throwing hands. We have a “Drop Gloves” button, so why not have a “Don’t fight” button that skips us back to the action without the delay?
Outside goals also seem a lot easier to come by this year. Bangers from the high slot seem to have a much greater tendency to tickle the twine, whereas wristers never seem to quite get the job done as often as they used to. Some new goaltender animations mean that there are some truly breathtaking saves to be seen at times – especially when the tender needs to twist around to sweep the puck away – but games turn into 9-goal thrillers in NHL 14 much more often than they did in NHL 13. Our very first period of play on the top level of difficulty ended at 2-2 and involved a fight and a game misconduct penalty for our sniper. That wasn’t indicated anywhere on screen or in presentation – we just noticed he wasn’t part of the first line anymore and had to go into the menu system to check. We were looking around for new features for most of that opening 20, rather than concentration on playing solid hockey, so the amount of even-sided goal action was surprising.
The final much-mooted addition to the package is NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. Stripping controls back to the level they were at in the Megadrive/Genesis edition of NHL 94, and tweaking the game parameters so they’re at a similar level, the mode is a great inclusion for multiplayer. Unfortunately (again), it’s only half-baked. The customary blue-tinted ice and a bit of 16-bit music when you’re choosing your team is about as far as it goes in terms of throwing back the presentation, and you can’t do anything other than play single matches. Give us the ability to play a multiplayer NHL 94-style league season, and we’ll talk.
NHL 14 is a very, very iterative update to a stellar franchise. While this review sounds somewhat negative, it has to be said that the game as a whole still represents relatively good value to fans of hockey. It’s the only show in town for console players, and that’s not a bad thing given that there’s plenty of playing time to be had. It’s just that when your big bullet-points for a yearly update are “collisions are a bit better” and “fighting is a bit better” when there were some relatively large issues with the older version of the game – mainly off-the-ice – then you haven’t done enough as a developer. New players will love it, but players who love playing the single-player modes could probably skip this year without feeling too deprived.