NHL 14 is the only annual EA Sports franchise that is not appearing on both current and next-gen systems, a move which could either bring out the best of the franchise or lead to its demise as it faces a release period fight (you’ll get that reference soon) with other major sports franchises, nearly all of which are making debuts in the next-generation system’s freshman year.
Is NHL 14 just a stop-gap roster update before NHL 15 (presumably) releases on the next-gen consoles in fall 2014 or is it a triumphant one last “hoo-rah” from EA Vancouver for the current-gen? Let’s strap on our skates, hit the ice, drop the puck and find out.
As soon as NHL 14 loads up for the first time, you get to choose the type of play style and control method that suits the experience you’re hoping to get from your time with it. So whether you’re looking for an arcade-style, big hitting frolic or a dive into the more hardcore simulation side of Ice Hockey, they are catering to all possible crowds. The same can be said for the optional control schemes, with EA ranging from a NHL 94 control method of one stick/two buttons to the “Skill Stick” that utilises both sticks and all buttons to give the user precise control on the ice. Many of the controls are still the same as the previous year, with the addition of one-stick deking being a welcome addition. The ability to make complicated and effective (but risky due to the chance of losing possession) moves during attacking play to fake out the opposition with just a press of a button combined with a flick of the right stick, can make even a rookie to the NHL franchise feel like Sidney Crosby.
Last year, NHL 13 brought with it True Performance Skating; mechanics that have been tweaked and adjusted in NHL 14 to coincide with the inclusion of a new physics engine for collisions, aptly called NHL Collision Physics, and the new Enforcer Engine that brings 3rd person perspective, reactionary fights and jostling mechanics to the best fighting experience outside of Fight Night or UFC. The mixture of skating momentum and the all-new Collision Detection, which makes delivering a game-changing hit simpler than ever, provides you with a smorgasbord of opportunities for high-impact hits, checks and smackdowns that would be right at home in a WWE match. Admittedly at times, this can feel a bit unauthentic for the NHL depending on how often you look for that big hit. Obviously you do pay the price if you do, forcing players out of position and leaving yourself exposed to the computer AI that will jump at the chance to make you pay for your mistake. The Enforcer Engine has changed fighting within the NHL franchise for the better. The players on the ice that aren’t involved mull around and watch the action unfold while the referee circles around waiting for a victor. They have managed to produce fighting mechanics that are enjoyable, in depth but are controlled with fairly simplistic controls of leans, dodges, punches and grabs all mapped onto just one trigger and the two sticks. The fighting is so enjoyable that for the first few games I found myself looking for fights rather more than is probably suitable for an NHL game, but once I had got that blood thirst out of my system, the times when players threw their gloves to the ice were at more suitable times, such as a big or dirty hit on a key player with skaters often coming across the ice to protect their teammate and show you who’s boss. The on-ice action is still as free flowing as ever and the small adjustments made to the skating mechanics are certainly noticeable, especially in situations such as lining yourself up for a shot as you can make that little adjustment to get you the small space you need to fire it in to the corner of the net. I’m not going to lie though, the computer AI seems as if it still needs some work. Players often erratically miss simple passes or skate away from the puck, whether this can or will be fixed in a patch or with a new tuner setup or sliders, we’ll have to wait and see.
The game modes on offer in NHL 14 are almost identical to last year’s iteration with only one new small mode and one change to an existing mode. The new mode (well I say new but it’s actually a remake of a 20-year old game) is NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. It celebrates the 20th anniversary of the game that changed the shape of the future of the NHL franchise for years to come. It brings with it the blue ice, organ music, signature vertical camera angle, star shaped player icons and simplistic (no rules? Hell yeah!) gameplay that made it a hit. Mix that with the crisp modern visuals, cut scenes, fighting (which was removed from NHL 94), current rosters and gameplay mechanics of NHL 14 and it should be a hit, right? Not so much. The mode is enjoyable and it does bring a hint of nostalgia and enjoyment but that fades after a game or two. Give me the ability to play the Be-A-GM Mode in the anniversary mode and I’d be all over that. Get a few buddies over to play NHL 14 and as a group you’ll probably spend a lot of time in this mode, but outside of social situations, I can’t see it being used more than the odd game here and there. If anything, I probably would have spent more time in a direct port of the 16-bit original NHL 94.