The problem with EA's yearly sports releases is that they are expected to reinvent the wheel year after year while still keeping all of the game elements that people loved from the year before. If they don’t make a game that is significantly different from the previous year’s release, then fans look at the new game as a ripoff. If they change the game too much, then fans may look at the previous year’s game as superior. NHL 14 tries to achieve this equilibrium by changing just about everything in the game that doesn’t have to do with hockey. While the core gameplay is still the same, there are plenty of new modes and strange improvements to things that make it feel like the design team really wanted to make a new and different product without stepping on anyone’s toes.
When we say that the core gameplay is still the same, we mean it. Barely anything has changed from the previous year’s release, good or bad. The speed is the same, the controls are the same, and the horrible teammate and opponent A.I. is still out in force, missing easy passes and taking wild shots on goals that have no chance of hitting. The game still feels incredibly “loose” with passes ping ponging all over the ice, and players diving at pucks from absurd distances. It’s still not quite the simulation hardcore hockey aficionados would like, though it’s quite fun for the casual fan who catches a Devils game here or there.
One way that the core gameplay has been “enhanced” so to speak is the introduction of a new collision engine. Dubbed “Collision Physics,” this new engine adds complexity to the way that collisions are handled. While you would normally just head toward a person you want to knock down and hammer away on the check button, the Collision Physics engine requires you to take many more variables into consideration. Speed, weight, and position all factor into whether or not you can knock an opposing player into the boards. Simply skating into another player could result in wildly different outcomes. If your momentum is low, you’ll just rub against them. If it’s high, you might shoulder check them off their feet!
Of course, if you hit a player hard enough he might start a fight with you, and we all know that this is what hockey is really about. On the whole, fighting has been simplified, and the game is better off for it. You don’t have to “accept” fights, nor does the camera change angles during fights in any dramatic way. The game does its best to integrate fights into the normal gameplay, which is something that we haven’t seen in a hockey game for a while.
As for fighting itself, the controls seem to have been modeled off of EA’s Fight Night series, or other series of Boxing and MMA games that utilize a dual analog stick control scheme. While the moves you can do are limited to a few simple strikes and dodges, the stick based control scheme certainly makes the whole affair feel more natural. For that matter, it also makes it feel more frantic, like a burst of violence that erupts out of inflamed egos, rather than a mini-game that takes place every so often during a game of hockey. Unfortunately, the rate at which fights occur has also been increased, and this can bog down games at times.
Most of the game modes in NHL 14 are identical to the game modes in NHL 13 with a few exceptions. The new Live the Life mode is a redone single-player campaign mode that allows you to jump into the skates of a pro hockey player, both on and off the ice. Aside from having to prove yourself in games, Live the Life allows you to experience things like social events, press conferences, product deals, and more. You’ll have to juggle more than just your own performance in this mode, as your actions affect team morale, fan popularity, and even the security of your job.
Unfortunately, most of these off the ice experiences are mostly menu driven. There isn’t a whole lot of glitz or glamor here to show off the consequences of your actions. You just choose options from a prompt and watch numbers go up and down. It feels more like a quiz, or like a pencil and paper RPG character creation system, than an actual pro sports career.
Another new mode in NHL 14 is the NHL 94 mode, although “new” in this context is kind of a misnomer. It does what it says on the tin, scaling back the game to a classic arcade style hockey experience. The physics of the game are seriously dumbed down, the camera is stuck in an overhead view, the color of the ice is a wonky off blue, the controls are limited to only a few face buttons, and there are even stars underneath the player you are controlling. They didn’t go far enough to actually program in old school sprite graphics, instead choosing to use the normal polygonal graphics of the main game mode, but it still feels pretty retro. This is a fantastic throwback to the early days of the franchise, when sports games were far more arcadey and impossible feats of physics were commonplace on the ice. The only downside is that this mode only supports exhibition play. You can’t play NHL 94 online or in franchise mode. Unfortunately, this dooms the mode to be a cool distraction, rather than one of the game's big selling points.
It’s kind of hard to consider whether or not NHL 14 is worth picking up. It is certainly “better” than NHL 13, in whatever ways it has changed. The problem is, it hasn’t changed much at all. The game feels all too familiar to its predecessors and paying full price for it does feel a bit outlandish. If you played the games side-by-side you’d notice few differences until fights started at which point you’d probably wish you were playing NHL 14. All in all, the biggest draw of this game is the NHL 94 mode which, while cool, certainly isn’t worth buying the whole game for. If you missed NHL 13 then by all means pick up NHL 14. However, if you have been keeping up with the series until now, NHL 14 just doesn’t offer much in the way of new experiences.
This review is based off a retail copy of NHL 14 for the PS3.