Of every single franchise in the EA Sports catalog, NHL is probably the one that’s been most consistent- Madden, for example, has seen its ups and downs (more downs than ups, recently); same with FIFA, which may be experiencing dizzying highs now, but was pretty subpar back in the PlayStation 2 era. But NHL? NHL has been consistently great, year in and year out. It almost slides silently by the background, almost unnoticed, except for the fact that its met with a great reception, both critically and commercially, every year now.
Given all of that, it’s probably hard to imagine a reason for the developers to continue to innovate- it’s almost like a monopoly in Economics. When your product is getting a great reception regardless of any attempts to improve it on your part, or the complete lack thereof, why bother?
Happily, NHL 14 doesn’t fall prey to that mindset. Well, not entirely. It’s still fundamentally NHL, of course, and like EA Sports games sans FIFA, the improvements are incremental, at best. But it’s still fun to play, and the new improvements feel like they add a whole lot more to the game than they actually do.
The core game, of course, plays like last year’s installment. NHL 13 introduced a new skating engine called the Skill Stick, which added more realism to the in game skating by essentially attaching real word physics to your in game skating. It was a more, subtle, under the hood kind of change, but it did dramatically alter how the game is played in the long run, as it got less arcadey and more nuanced. That same skating engine is back this year, pretty much almost entirely untouched. For that same reason, the controls remain largely familiar too.
"Previous games had you manually initiating a check by using the right analog stick when you were in a player's vicinity. In NHL 14, however, it's largely automated, relying on the collision engine to determine 'checks.' This was a change I largely disliked, simply because so many times, something would register as a check even when I had not intended for it too."
What has changed, at least in terms of the core gameplay, as opposed to the addition or removal of game modes, is how those physics are now also attached to fights. Hockey, like almost any American sport, has a lot of fighting and a lot of violence. NHL 14, trying to be an accurate representation of the sport, has naturally got to include all that fighting (and let’s face it, playing a hockey game without the fights? Boring as hell).
For this year’s iteration, a large portion of the gameplay changes were focused on this all important aspect of the sport. New collision physics ensured that fighting would feel more real and tangible, alongside any accidental (or deliberate) collisions with other players you might have outside of fights and in the course of the game.
With that came a change in how checking is handled as well. Previous games had you manually initiating a check by using the right analog stick when you were in a player’s vicinity. In NHL 14, however, it’s largely automated, relying on the collision engine to determine ‘checks.’ This was a change I largely disliked, simply because so many times, something would register as a check even when I had not intended for it too. I understand the drive for realism, but it does take away from the feeling of control in the video game, and that can be to the game’s detriment a lot of times.
The actual fighting has seen a change too- for example, it has done away with the abrupt switch to first person that previous games entailed. Instead, the new ‘Enforcer Engine’ gives you a full repertoire of moves to choose from in a third person mode. Because of the aforementioned realistic collision physics, fighting feels that much more satisfying now, as there is some real world weight to it. The fighting engine in NHL 14 is actually good enough to be used as a base for a future fighting game. EA, you listening to me? Send me the check in the mail.
"The new 'Enforcer Engine' gives you a full repertoire of moves to choose from in a third person mode. Because of the aforementioned realistic collision physics, fighting feels that much more satisfying now, as there is some real world weight to it."
On the whole, it’s changes like these, changes that attempt to move the game more towards realism, that mark this entry of the series. There are other such changes too, of course. For example, you don’t have to ‘accept a fighting request’ like a Facebook Friend Request anymore, a fight can just break out any time based on your behavior. Changes that make the game seem more dynamic, and more unpredictable, even as they do attempt to ground it.
On the game modes front, things remain largely the same, bit with two exceptions- the first of these, Be The Pro mode, is now Live The Life, and it’s a more in depth simulation of a hockey player’s life that attempts to simulate other aspects of his career- brand endorsements, interviews, press conferences, and the like- via what are generally a series of questions that affect your relationships with other players (in an almost Bioware-esque schizophrenic scale). It’s a really fun diversion, though, and while it’s not as intricate or nuanced as dedicated sports simulators, it’s a fun mode that will hopefully be fleshed out in future installments.
The second exception is the NHL 94 mode, which is a celebration of the first NHL game on its twentieth anniversary. It’s almost odd, because NHL 94 is actually a better celebration of its franchise than Madden got this year with Madden 25. Essentially, this mode is the full fledged NHL 94 game, remastered and reworked for the Xbox 360 and its controller, and it plays just great.
"Ultimately, NHL 14 is a well made sports game that checks all the boxes. It's realistic, it has enough changes to make it stand out from last year's entry, it has a good, full featured online mode, it adds new modes, and it reworks old ones."
As a matter of fact, for anyone who wishes their games to be more arcadey, it actually plays better than the core game itself. It’s great fun, and should actually turn out to be a popular mode at parties.
Ultimately, NHL 14 is a well made sports game that checks all the boxes. It’s realistic, it has enough changes to make it stand out from last year’s entry, it has a good, full featured online mode, it adds new modes, and it reworks old ones.
People who aren’t fans of sports games or hockey games are unlikely to be swayed by this game (unless they play NHL 94 mode, which might actually just win them over), but for everyone else concerned, it’s a fun game to play.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
New collision and fighting system feels great, NHL 94 mode is awesome, Live the Life is a fun diversion, the Skill Skate system remains as cool as ever
Live the Life could be more fleshed out, automatic checking takes away from the game
NHL 14 is a well made game that checks all the boxes and is a whole lot of fun.
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