The NHL Franchise might be my favorite in all of gaming, which makes sense because hockey is my favorite sport in the world. I get giddy with excitement every September as teams prepare for training camps and the start of a new season. September is also my birthday, and the release of the next edition in the NHL series; it’s safe to say September is a great month for me.
NHL 14 is a FUN game; let’s get that out of the way first. It has its issues, especially online, but the core new gameplay mechanics, improved hitting, skating, and physics, and amazing fighting engine all make NHL 14 one of the most exciting hockey games ever created.
The game for me really separates into two distinct areas: online and offline, so I’ll break the game modes down individually based on what area they fall under. Presentation-wise the game looks fantastic. The players look, for the most part, like their real-life counterparts. The gear and jerseys are authentic; you can see snow on the players as they skate around, spraying ice into each other with every hard curve of the skates. Every year the game looks better and better, and NHL 14 pushes the graphical envelope once again. Teams have arenas that look as close to the real deal without having to purchase the insane rights for the actual likenesses. All around, it’s a fantastic looking game. The in-game soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired however, as many of the songs just feel like they were picked at random; none really FEEL like music that should be in a hockey game. The commentators are another huge issue for me, and the community as a whole. They have had the same duo in game since NHL 08, with many of the same identical lines of dialogue. It’s frustrating that the development team at EA Vancouver have gone so many years without an update, or even letting the fans know when we can expect a change in atmosphere.
Gameplay is where NHL 14 has received the biggest overhaul, and the area that needed the most improvement from NHL 13. Skating is still mapped to the left thumbstick (LS), and puck handling the right thumbstick (RS). This revolutionary system changed how hockey games are played, and have given players near-total control of your hands and feet since it was introduced back in NHL 07. Skating feels much more loose and fluid than it did in ‘13, which is a HUGE positive plus for me, as True Performance Skating was one of my biggest concerns in the previous year’s installment. In NHL 13, skating was difficult and slow, stiff and rigid, and overall frustrating. I’m happy to say that those issues are all but a memory in ’14; players move with a crisp stride and can make adjustments on the fly much easier, allowing for much more freedom and control with the puck.
Speaking of control, dekes have received an interesting addition in the form of “One Touch Dekes”. The classical method of movement is still there: holding down the left bumper (LB) and pressing the right thumbstick (RS) in any direction moves your player in variety of ways around opponents. One Touch Dekes allow for quick movements by tapping the LB while skating to move out of harm’s way, or to get a quick step on a defender. Originally I felt that these new dekes were a bit gimmicky, but after spending time and getting to use them, I’ve changed my mind. They work really well, especially when playing online against other human players.
One of my favorite new features in NHL 14 is the brand new hitting physics system called “NHL collision physics”. This new engine, borrowed heavily from the fantastic FIFA series, allows for bone crushing hits, realistic limb reaction, and rag doll physics. It has never felt so satisfying to catch a player coming across the blue line just as he receives a pass, line him up, and take him off his feet with a massive hit. Helmets and sticks go flying, and you watch as he lays there in a different world, unable to figure out what just happened to him. That’s the kind of stuff that fans love about hockey and the NHL, and if it’s in the game, it’s IN THE GAME! But watch out; if you lay a big hit on a star player, you’d better be ready to drop the gloves!
Which leads us to the all new, awesome “enforcer engine”! This 3rd person fighting engine reminds me a lot of the Fight Night series (another great EA franchise), and works beautifully in the NHL world. Throw a dirty hit on Sidney Crosby, and the A.I will drop the gloves and try and take your head off. Take a slap shot after the whistle at the other team’s goalie? You can bet your pucks they are going to take exception to that and come after you! Never has the tough-guy enforcer role been as authentic to the sport as it is inNHL 14, and it’s a total blast. Previously, fighting was done from a 1st person perspective, and was essentially just a button mash fest to see who could knock the other guy out first. Now, however, the fighting is much more strategic and methodical. You can dodge, pull, and weave to avoid punches, throw heavy haymakers or uppercuts, wear them down, or hit them with an unexpected flash knockout. It really is fun, even more so when playing online with friends, where you can engage in line brawls and goalie fights, which is a feature that fans have been asking for since NHL 08.
Game modes again need to be separated by online and offline, so let’s take a look at the offline components of the game:
The most impressive offline mode is, without a doubt, “Live the Life” mode. This fresh take on being a pro lets you create your own player, pick a position, and start your career from the CHL (Canadian Hockey League), all the way to the big leagues in an attempt to not only get your name on the Stanley Cup, but to break the record books and get into the hall of fame. This year, NHL 14 adds in a fantastic new touch of personality, with new pre- and post-game interviews, events during the season, and new multiple choice questions that have a big effect on your overall player ability that you access when you hit milestones. I was really impressed with the depth of the questions. For instance, during my very first NHL game after being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, I was asked how I felt. The answers ranged from cocky, to nervous, to praising your family and friends for helping you get to where you are now. Each answer gives you a positive or negative rating on four approval scales: fans, teammates, management, and family. Having high points in these scales can give your player boosts, while lows can take away from key areas such as speed or puck handling. Later on down the season, I had emerged as one of the league’s best young players and was asked if I was worried about facing our rival team, The Florida Panthers, and their hot goalie Scott Clemenson. I was pretty blown away that the questions got that direct, and really can’t wait to see just how far the series takes this mode.
The other fun addition is the NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. This marks 20 years since the release of the iconic hockey game that defined virtual ice hockey. The nostalgia is in full effect here, blue tinted ice, classical button controls, over the top hits and fights, and no rules. Having your friends over to play some games is even more fun than on the original; it’s a shame that they didn’t allow this game mode to be played online.
Other classic offline game modes are there in full effect as well, from the winter classic, shootouts, and custom tournaments, to the offline franchise mode “GM Connected”. There are plenty of ways to enjoy NHL 14 if you choose to play alone, but for me, Online is where NHL 14 really shines!
The NHL series is my Call of Duty, I study it, practice it, sit up at night and watch youtube videos of the top players in the world to try and pick up tips or builds for my online Be a Pro player. I spend probably about 85% of my time every year playing the annual release online with my friends. It adds a whole new element to the game when you’re playing against real live competitors who know the game as well as you do. This year the game features a few changes that, while minor, have a big effect on the online aspect of the game.
GM Connected, which was first introduced in NHL 13, is the online franchise mode where you can pick a team and play an entire NHL season that mirrors the real schedule of your favorite NHL team. You can create a league with your friends or join an already running league and play with strangers, trading and battling your way to the playoffs and a Stanley Cup win. This year the interface moves much quicker, which was a huge problem in NHL 13. The mode can be a ton of fun if you get a good group of players in your league, or it can be a huge hassle. The different online modes all have something in common, and that is the gameplay. Offline, you don’t have to worry much about cheaters and glitches, but online it has become a staple of the NHL series for years. Every installment has its share of glitch goals, player exploits, and “loops”, which allow players who know how to make the game loop at the faceoff circle after a goal or a fight until it resets and no winner or loser is awarded, which comes in quite handy when down by a goal with a minute left. These issues have been in the game’s online portion since it jumped into the ‘next gen’ in 2007, and either the developers are unable or unwilling to fix these issues, as they still plague the game today.
Hockey Ultimate Team is another great online mode which I spend quite a bit of time with. This trading card style mode has become a staple of most EA Sports titles, and can be both fun and frustrating. After creating a custom team you are given a starter pack of cards to get you onto the ice. You can participate in tournaments or just play other players and earn “pucks”, which is the NHL series version of in-game currency. You can use these pucks to buy more packs and expand your collection of cards to use in-game. Higher level packs with the best cards require more pucks, which now in NHL 14 you can earn in any game mode. This helps a bit, but I find the mode to be more of a money grab than it should be. You can play 15-20 games and earn enough to buy a single pack of cards and get nothing, or you can spend more real money and buy packs for $1, which seems like a no-brainer, but also makes me a little bitter since I’ve already spent $60 on the game. In years past I also found that packs bought with real money gave much better results than packs bought with in-game pucks, but I have no real evidence to back up that claim.
The final game mode is EASHL, or EA Sports Hockey League. I spend probably 90% of my time online playing this mode. Introduced back in NHL 09, this mode allows you and your friends to form a team, or “club”, and play other teams from around the world in various skill divisions. You use your online be a pro player (in my case, my Left Winger), and can play 6 vs 6 with human players controlling every player on the ice. It can be tons of fun as well as extremely frustrating, as many of the issues I mentioned earlier really show up here in the most competitive area of the online game. One thing that bothers me about NHL 14 is its lack of team customization. You can build a team from the ground up, from name to logo to jersey and colors, but EA has given players the same options for years now. It’s not at all uncommon now to run into multiple teams a night with the same jerseys, and really seems like something EA should have been addressing to keep the mode interesting and fresh. One big change for EASHL this year is the change in how “seasons” play out. In previous years, a season lasted a month. If your team played well they would qualify for one of three tiers, Amateur, Pro, or Elite. Those tiers are gone, and have been replaced with different divisions. If you are a low team in division 2, you won’t match up with the better teams in the world, and will get your butt handed to you, which is awesome for newcomers and veterans alike!
You can have some amazing moments playing online with your friends, but also some really terrible ones if you match up against guys who like to cheat. The great new fighting engine will be all but useless in the coming months if EA doesn’t find a fix for the “loop” that teams know how to do. There will be glitch goals and exploits as there are every year; it just comes down to if you can figure out a way to stop them and still win games. One awesome moment I had playing EASHL happened just the other night, playing with my club of friends. I had the puck and was racing down the left wing and decided to be a little fancy; as I crossed into the offensive zone over the blue line, the opposing team’s defender came across and laid a MASSIVE hit on me that I wasn’t expecting at all. My player’s helmet came off as I collapsed into a motionless heap on the ice. As I tried to come to my feet, my teammates had decided that hit crossed the line, and they jumped in to defend me. My 6’9” centerman started a fight with the guy who put me to the ice, and before I knew it, an entire line brawl had broken out that even included the goalies. This is a super cool new feature for NHL 14, and is quite an exciting thing to watch.
Having multiple battles going on at the same time, throwing huge hits and scoring pretty goals is what the NHL series is all about, it’s not without its issues, and hopefully they are worked on in the coming months. For now, NHL 14 is one of the best hockey game ever made, and that’s a fact!
The Review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of NHL 14. The game is also available on the Xbox 360.