NHL 14 Review
When people ask me what my favorite time of the year is, I happily offer up the entire Fall season. A magical time when good TV shows are back on the air, pumpkin spiced lattes are in full force, and the NHL gets things underway. Subsequently we also get to enjoy EA's shiny new companion to the season that hockey fans everywhere are looking forward to. As always the new features list for an EA game on a yearly release cycle is long and ambitious, so read on as I dive into the details and offer up some impressions on how NHL 14 stacks up.
Let's get the features on the back of the box out of the way. EA touts an upgrade to the collision physics engine, which I think is more or less noticeable depending on which play style you select. As you might expect, a lot more of the big hit physics will be at play in the High Impact and Simulation modes, while some of the finer collision details between a players limbs and equipment shining through in Hardcore Simulation style. True Performance Skating makes a second appearance in the series, with the same focus on ensuring that the feel of player movement is true to life and that individual attributes have a more dramatic impact on matchups throughout the game. For both of these items I honestly can't tell if the improvements come from a true subsystem upgrade, or if last year's engine has simply moved more of the configuration sliders around to match fan feedback. Either way the changes are a welcome improvement to what was already a fairly solid feature set.
Moving further down the list, we see that there are new one-touch dekes available for offensive play. EA has actually introduced two of these buttons, one using the left bumper + skating direction to perform a deke of some various flavor for getting around the defense, the other using the left trigger + skating direction to perform a spin move. One-touch dekes probably won't excite a seasoned veteran of the series who already knows how to use the skill stick to perform these maneuvers, but for newcomers (and the lazy, like me) I imagine this will be a popular addition. I also really like how the spin move doesn't handicap a player as they're coming out of the motion, and being able to pass, shoot, or chain another deke after it has already made for some enjoyable highlight reels.
The box also lists the new Enforcer Engine and the NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. Enforcer Engine brings an impressive amount of realism and consequences to your actions on the ice. Shooting the puck after play is dead, delivering big hits to a star player, or pretty much anything you would expect to get an invite to throw the gloves down in a real game carries over into NHL 14. EA has dabbled with the Fight Night engine before, but this year's implementation feels like a completely different (and highly revamped) component. Fights can now start without players locked into the normal jersey hold, giving you an opportunity to gain the upper hand before the first punch is ever thrown. There are now a mixture of upper and lower punches to be thrown, as well as a whole new focus on strategic jersey pulls and pushes to get your opponent off balance before you deliver a devastating blow. It's so involved that it makes me wish there was a practice mode just for fighting. What's almost as impressive as the new enforcer and fighting features is the inclusion of the NHL 94 Anniversary mode. For anyone who is a long time fan of the series this mode needs no introduction. For those who are a bit lost on the concept, just know that it was a simpler time with no skill sticks and maybe five buttons total. Without a doubt this will be the de facto party game setting for the franchise. The only thing that could have set the nostalgia meter any higher is if EA somehow included the original 16-bit version of the game.
Be A Pro gets a significant upgrade in the form of the new Live The Life mode. In order to excel in this mode players must master their performance both on and off the ice. While on-ice tracking received a marginal update, the off-ice interactions with media now affect your likeability across a handful of circles like your teammates, coaches, family, and fans. What makes these likeability meters interesting is that they directly affect not only your chances of playing more ice time and better contracts, but also individual attributes for your pro while on the ice. I'm somewhat disappointed that the interviews are strictly text based, but the mix of possible responses is at least entertaining and there's no clear cut answer for each round that will win everyone over all at once. Of course if you prefer the 50-thousand foot view that is Be A GM and GM Connected modes, you'll be happy to know that EA has made a number of improvements in these areas as well. Popular requests like smarter menus with improved load times and even more management capabilities available from your mobile device have been added into the mix with a smattering of AI improvements.
Before I close and leave you with the impressive score that NHL 14 has earned, I do have a couple of gripes to get out of the way. The first is an ongoing menu system issue that has been noticeable over the past few years. Moving through the selections of a current screen isn't bad, but literally anything that requires connecting to an EA server for more information or authentication to move forward takes an absurd amount of time. Lastly is an AI issue I encountered in my 2nd game of the Be A Pro mode. While waiting for my shift to start, the center who I was supposed to swap out for skated to the bench and then got stuck in a holding pattern where he was unable to hop over the boards and just kept skating back and forth. Since I was unable to press any buttons to move things along, I had to wait until the next stoppage of play (where I was relegated to the bench again to wait for another shift). It's some of these smaller issues that persist and sometimes leave me scratching my head, but when you consider the impressive amounts of improvements delivered in such a short release cycle it's really difficult to dock serious points from the game.
Final Rating: 96%. NHL 14 delivers a solid lineup of improvements and much appreciated tweaks to the franchise. It's not without some lingering issues, but luckily most of those are contained to the off-ice portions of the game and are trumped by impressive amounts of polish.