Capturing the subtleties of a freewheeling sport like hockey isn’t easy for game developers. Writing AI routines that know how to accompany a player-controlled skater during a breakout, provide ample forechecking support, maintain sound defensive positioning, and stickhandle through a sea of sticks and skates on the ice takes a lot of time and energy. As we come to the close of a console era, EA Canada left these issues for another day and instead took a high-percentage shot at the masses by making goals easier to come by, turning up the frequency of impactful checks, and revamping the fighting engine to make it fun again. On these points, NHL 14 succeeds – maybe to a fault.
Two of the three game styles introduced in NHL 14 cater to wide-open hockey. On both the casual and simulation settings, goals flow steadily, highlight reel checks abound, and everyone is spoiling for a fight to show off the much-improved fisticuffs. Even on the hardcore simulation setting, which is the online default, these arcade qualities shine through. The defense more aggressively prevents you from waltzing into the high slot – but when you get there, a well-placed wrister in the high corner frequently beats the goaltenders, which may be exploited online.
Every stop in play kicks off a potential scuffle between opposing teams, and players are too eager to drop the gloves whenever an important teammate gets upended. The result is an experience that feels more akin to Slap Shot than HBO’s 24/7; if you responded to every fight request the penalty box would be more populated than the team benches. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends on your expectations. NHL ’94 is considered a classic sports game, and it didn’t skimp on these arcade qualities. Fans looking for a more realistic representation, however, need to spend time tweaking sliders to get a more accurate experience.
Not all of NHL 14’s gameplay changes skew toward the masses; a few smaller refinements are worth lauding. The poke checking is toned down compared to NHL 13, stick lifts are once again an effective defensive tactic, and skating feels more reactive than it did last year. I also like the more unpredictable puck physics. Gaining possession of a bouncing puck on the boards is slightly harder this year, which gives forecheckers a better chance at succeeding with the dump-and-chase strategy so pervasive in the NHL right now.
With a new collective bargaining agreement and lowered salary cap, NHL general managers had to acclimate themselves to a different style of management this year. I wish we could say the same about NHL 14’s Be A GM mode, which is as old and outdated as the Blackberry you manage your club from. EA Canada made some slight tweaks, like allowing you to retain salaries in trades and surfacing more news in the message center, but even with these amendments it remains the least compelling franchise mode in sports games. Prospects take too long to develop, older players don’t regress, free agency pools are too frequently devoid of blockbuster talent, and you still can’t resign players during the season. Connected GM is largely hamstrung by the same issues, plus it has slow menus that suffer from a spartan design.
EA Canada spent more time revamping its Live the Life mode – the rebranding of Be A Pro. This year’s version adds off-ice events like endorsements, media Q&As, pre-draft interviews, and likeability meters, but each feel half-baked in comparison to the superior My Player mode found in NBA 2K. Instead of showing your player during a press conference, you simply answer questions in a menu. A generic “hockey analyst” comments on your performances in the message center. Given that the on-ice experience is largely unchanged, these new menus do little to make this a destination mode.
EA’s other major selling point is the NHL ’94 anniversary mode, which celebrates the classic game by bringing back the original controls, blue ice, and organ music. Just one thing is missing: the classic rosters that would make this feel like a true throwback mode. As is, I’d rather spend my time elsewhere.
The best experiences NHL 14 has to offer are online, with the EASHL and ultimate team modes. Neither has undergone drastic revisions, but the online seasons format migrates over from FIFA this year, so teams can move quickly from division to division and participate in monthly tournaments.
With its leaky goaltenders, heavy hitters, and eager fighters, NHL 14 may become the most popular hockey game of the generation for casual fans. However, the hardcore contingency looking for a deeper simulation experience may hang up their skates thanks to the arcade-leaning gameplay and dull game modes in desperate need of sharpening.