EA Canada evolve their beloved hockey series in a more ‘impactful’ direction.
As much as we enjoy a good bout of video game hockey now and then we rarely watch the popular sport on TV. As revelations go that might appear like an odd one to place at the beginning of a NHL 14 review, but it’s an important distinction to make and believe me we aren’t alone. There are millions of gamers around the world who despite not enjoying real hockey, relish an opportunity to sling a ‘biscuit’ between a goaltender’s legs, perform that perfect deke or hit a winger so hard that his helmet flies off into the stands and for them the NHL series has always been a refuge to exercise their fleeting fascination with North America’s favourite winter sport.
EA’s NHL series has harboured and cultivated that casual audience more so than any other officially licensed sports series. While the likes of FIFA and Madden have gotten obtuse to the point of alienating all but the most hardcore of fans, NHL has managed to stay attractive to both established veteran and newbie alike.
Unsurprisingly that core ‘All things to all fans’ mentality hasn’t changed for NHL 14, yet EA Canada has still evolved this series core gameplay in some really interesting and impactful ways. The star attraction this year is undoubtedly the Player Impact Engine which brings new life to checking on the ice. It used to be the case that a button needed to be pressed in order initiate one skater hitting another, but now momentum is simulated regardless what stance a player is in. This change means that skaters no longer bounce off of each other, instead every hit looks natural and feels unique with arms and legs rarely clipping into the scenery. The new system isn’t perfect, but it’s a massive and immediately noticeable step-up from last year’s physics engine.
There’s also the option to choose between ‘Simulation’ and ‘High Impact’ mode before match. The earlier option offers more of the traditional NHL gameplay you’d expect with slow build-up play and sensible checking, whereas the latter gives the action a high-octane dose of Saturday morning cartoon show carnage with players skating into on another with reckless abandon, picking fights at every opportunity, breaking glass with wayward shots and making their way from one end of the rink to the other in a handful of seconds. Switching to ‘High Impact’ mode will remind older fans of Midway’s NHL Hitz series, but NHL 14′s brand of arcade hockey is even more enjoyable than that classic franchise. The ability to tailor the on-ice experience has only recently been part of EA’s NHL series, but in ’14 the number of options have increased noticeably. Player’s can select a quick no holds barred brand of hockey for one match while the next they can select a more sedate and intelligent sim-like style flavour of play by merely tweaking a few sliders in the match options menu.
This emulation of the more violent side of hockey also extends to AI and the fight engine. Now when players drop their gloves the view doesn’t switch to a first person perspective instead the camera stays in broadcast view, with combatants able to cast out punches with the right stick and move their guy with their left. This should be a small part of the overall experience but skaters, especially in ‘High Impact’ mode, seem ever ready to have a ruck dropping their gloves whenever a puck is shot post-whistle or after a particularly nasty hit. The old tactic of slashing an opponent’s arm with a player’s stick to get him to drop his gloves has completely vanished, but honestly it isn’t needed any more. On the default setting fights occur almost too frequently, but if you delve into the match options you can tweak their consistency.
The only other major on-ice improvement is goaltender AI which is no longer as easily fooled by quick one-timers as it was in previous years. Again this is a small improvement, but one that has changed the way NHL is played online with players now just as likely to deke inside and shoot face on rather than shifting to outside lines for an easy pass and shoot opportunity. A slight drawback though is that goaltenders now seem much less likely to stop shots aimed at the top left or right hand corners of the net for some reason. It may just be our own experience, but we swear over 60% of the goals we scored came from aiming into the roof of the net which when compared with the real world is way too high.
Off the ice, NHL still offers a mind-boggling amount of game modes to choose from including Be a GM, Live the Life, Hockey Ultimate Team, Be a Legend, EA Sports Hockey League, Winter Classic and a special scenario mode dubbed NHL Moments Live. The card-based Hockey Ultimate Team is still as addictive as previous years with players spending pucks to buy bronze, silver and gold packs to boost their online card deck, and Be a GM still offers the best opportunity to take your favourite team to Stanley Cup glory whether you choose to play matches yourself or simulate them.
Of all the modes the Be a Pro mode, now known as Live The Life, has had the biggest overhaul with players able to interact with their team mates and answer questions from the press in largely superfluous dialogue opportunities between matches. This is all in aid of filling up new metres which determine a player’s likeability, marketability, and whether they get booed or cheered by fans or not come game day. This is a great idea in principle but unfortunately the dialogue choices on offer are really dull and the questions aren’t varied enough to accurately create the feeling of media scrutiny that professional sports stars actually receive.
The NHL Moments Live game mode has also been noticeably expanded with lots of new scenarios supplemented with pictures and detailed synopsis ripped from the current NHL season. These bite-sized challenges are a nice touch, not only as they yield a surprisingly generous amount of pucks for completion but they also usually only take place over a couple of periods and encourage players to try different teams rather than stick to their favourite.
The only mode we haven’t mentioned is NHL 14‘s homage to what many still consider to the best hockey game of all time, NHL ’94. The 20-year Anniversary mode changes the colour of the ice from white to blue, quickens up the pace of play and changes some HUD elements, but other than that it’s a rather poor tribute to the game which made EA’s NHL series so beloved in the first place. Sure it’s a nice bonus to a package which is already bursting at the seams, but why didn’t EA just chuck in NHL ’94 in all its retro glory instead. Fans would have really appreciated that, but instead they get a lacklustre Anniversary mode which is just a waste of everybody’s time.
Disappointing nostalgia aside, NHL 14 is a massive step up from last year’s game with more of that addictive, all-inclusive hockey formula fans love. Even if you have a passing interest in this series and the sport that it so adoringly emulates, this year’s NHL is undoubtedly worth your time.
The world’s best hockey experience just got a whole lot better!
Tags: NHL 14
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