Last year, a lockout kept the National Hockey League’s elite talents from taking the ice for a full season, and instead forced them to make do with a shortened, forty-eight game schedule. This year will thankfully be different, as October 1st will mark the beginning of the League’s return to an eighty-two game schedule. As a result of things being restored to normal, fans, number crunchers and talking heads will be able to take players’ stats at whole value again, as last year’s half campaign was apparently too short of an amount of time to properly gauge some teams’ new acquisitions, promoted personnel and coaches. For Leaf fans like myself, this means finding out how well newly-signed former first-round draft pick, Nazem Kadri, will handle a full term.
As expected, the dawn of another nine months of NHL action has been paired with a brand new iteration of EA Canada’s licensed video game franchise. Simply and aptly titled NHL 14, it is emblazoned with surefire Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur on its cover, and promises the best interactive take on the ice-based sport thus far. The good news is that the final product delivers on that lofty decree, by providing stellar gameplay and a high amount of realism. However, despite its welcomed additions, necessary tweaks, major changes and updated roster, the title is kept from greatness by occasional glitches and a feeling of deja-vu.
Although the lockout made us worry that there maybe wouldn’t be any hockey last year, that didn’t stop EA Sports and its British Columbia-based development team from putting out a fantastic hockey game in NHL 13. In fact, the team outdid itself, by incorporating a brand new True Skating mechanic, which made things a heck of a lot more realistic. This year, that system remains intact, and the fact sheet has changed to reflect the new mechanics that have made their way into the digitized fray: one-touch dekes, momentum-based hitting and a brand new fighting system.
All three of the above-mentioned additions leave positive marks on NHL 14 and its gameplay, but in varying degrees. The one-touch dekes, themselves, are neat to pull off and watch in action, but they’re the type of thing that only the diehards will bother to spend hours mastering. Going further, the momentum-based hitting was a great idea, because it eliminates a problem that previous titles had, where players would simply bump into each other with little consequence. Now, a skater travelling with a decent amount of speed will end up crashing into an opposing player that is in his way – that is, as long as the user doesn’t let go of the left joystick. That makes a lot of sense, because it’s what happens in real-life.
Out of the three, the brand new fighting system adds the most to the sixty-dollar package. It does so by completely rewriting the way that fights occur during games, and by allowing the opposition to instigate for the first time. Now, your rivals won’t just stand there and take brutal hits; they’ll try to make you pay for them instead, or their teammates will do so for them.
Instead of taking players out of the game by switching to a completely different camera perspective, NHL 14′s fights start almost immediately, and utilize a normal, third person viewpoint. It’s a much more sensible and realistic design, which makes use of the left and right joysticks for pushing, pulling and varying types of punches, while letting one press a button and hold back to dodge incoming fists. As a result, there are some similarities to Fight Night, the boxing series from which the tech was borrowed, but that’s a good thing. That’s especially true given that skilled bruisers can learn how to grab and wrestle their foes onto the ice for a decisive victory.
With all things considered, this sim’s core gameplay feels tighter and more robust than it did before, though things aren’t leaps and bounds better than how they were in NHL 13. In fact, despite its new mechanics, NHL 14 induced a notable amount of deja-vu. It didn’t come as a surprise, though, because last year’s iteration marked a drastic change in the way that players moved around the ice, while this one’s development process resulted in more tweaks and changes than major overhauls. Sure, the fighting is a lot better, but it’s fighting and not skating. There’s a big difference, as one is vital to the sport, while the other is something that occurs only when tempers get out of control.
Nevertheless, I still believe that NHL 14 is a fantastic title, and that it’s the best the series has put out thus far. It plays better than its predecessor, and includes upgrades and overhauls that allow for a better and more lifelike version of hockey. On top of that, it presents an incredible wealth of gameplay modes and content, with a lot of the options having been given positive tweaks and changes. The most notable of those is Be a Pro mode, which is now called Live the Life.
Although it still includes everything that Be a Pro was and presented, Live the Life is a more RPG-like take on the idea. Through it, armchair athletes must be conscious of their fan, management, teammate and family likeability, all of which are showcased via separate meters that fluctuate throughout each season. The idea is that you’re to try to become the most well rounded and likeable player you can be, and that’s done through a combination of things. First, there’s your on-ice performance, which is, expectedly, a major factor. How well you do in games influences the types of newly introduced interview questions you’ll receive before or after certain games. Unsurprisingly, the answers that you provide (through multiple choice parameters) can help you further your popularity, or let you negatively affect your career if you so wish. Be warned, though, that being a conceited and/or arrogant arse can lead to being run out of town, and can also affect your attributes.
With its added focus on personality, Live the Life betters the Be a Pro experience by making one think, and also forces one to atone for taking overly lengthy shifts. For a first crack at moving forward, it’s an appreciated and positive attempt, though it isn’t perfect. Some of the writing is far from stellar, certain answers are ludicrous and unrealistic, and questions tend to repeat. Those are small concerns, though, when you consider that the positives include endorsement opportunities, attribute increases and added realism.
Joining Live the Life if another new mode, NHL 94 Anniversary, which celebrates the classic’s twentieth birthday by recreating its memorable gameplay. Within its design, hits are bigger, penalties are nonexistent and most things are handled with the controller’s face buttons. It’s a neat idea, and a nice diversion, which friends and dorm-mates will appreciate most. I honestly don’t foresee myself playing it a ton, but I’m glad that it’s there, because I fondly remember my childhood addictions to NHL 94 and NHL 96 on Super Nintendo. What great games those were.
Of course, the modes detailed above are just the tip of the large iceberg that EA Canada’s latest release is. There truly is something for everyone, thanks to a bevy of different modes, which cater to solo players, friends who love to play together on the same console and those who prefer to take things online. That noted list includes fan favourites such as EA Sports’ Hockey League, GM Connected Online, NHL Moments Live, Online Team Play and card-based Hockey Ultimate Team. Needless to say, there’s enough here to keep you busy for the next year or more.
When it came time to talk about last year’s presentation, I complained that the game suffered from some unfortunate glitches and repetitive commentary. This year, there are new glitches that mar the experience, while the same play-by-play problem remains. NHL 14 does look and sound quite great, regardless of these complaints, but it’s definitely lacking a bit of polish yet again. There’s a glitch that causes the normally black screen behind the intermission pause menu to end up being different colours, such as blue and purple, and there’s also a recurring camera glitch that continually reared its ugly head during my hours of Live the Life gameplay. It would make the camera flash to a different shot — usually of the players’ bench, it seemed — during gameplay, but only for a split second.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement return to do the play-by-play this year, but it’s tough to get excited about their commentary anymore. Their work is fine, does the job and includes some interesting insights, but it’s become rather dull. Honestly, I wish EA would change it up and go with another team for next year’s outing, though I understand that it’d be a costly venture to do so. There’s just so much repetition, and quite a few of the lines that are used in NHL 14 are old hat, having been repeated ad nauseam in previous entries. Plus, what they talk about doesn’t always correlate to the on-ice action, or the showcased teams’ previous performances. Of course, creating the perfect commentary track for a sports game is surely an almost impossible feat, given how many variables are in play.
As a sum of its many, hockey-focused parts, NHL 14 is yet another triumph from EA Canada, and should certainly compete for more Sports Game of the Year awards come December. It’s a definite improvement over its predecessors, but is still predominantly reminiscent of those that came before it, and is marred by a slight lack of polish. Nevertheless, it’s a great title, and an easy recommendation to those who are in the market for another hockey game. You can’t go wrong with this one.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version, which we were provided with.