All right sports fans! That wonderful season’s upon us again, so chuck on your vintage throwback jersey, slam down a 6-pack and head down to your local pond to play some 4 on 4! What’s that? You’re here in Australia and your agility on your skates rivals Chris Redfield circa Resident Evil 1? Well, we’ve got two options: One involves a couple of barrels of KY Jelly and a tennis court, and the other a couch and EA Canada’s latest iteration of their NHL franchise.
If you’re still reading this then you picked the latter (which means I’m also never going to get rid of that KY) and are all like “What’s new this year? Roster updates?” …well, yes. But there’s more too …honestly! At its core, NHL 14 plays rather similarly to last year’s instalment. The AI is still incredibly competent at reading and reacting to your plays, puck control and stick handling is responsive and the skating physics have been refined to give the most realistic feeling of momentum and weight I’ve felt so far.
“Now that’s nice and all but what about the hits?” I hear you say. Well, holy hell EA has turned the physical game up to 11, paused for a second, invented 12 and then cranked it up to 13! The new collision engine produces some of the most bone shattering, organ putrefying checks you’ll see short of booting up NHL Blitz! The good thing is though, they don’t seem unnatural, requiring you to still have good positioning and momentum and can easily be avoided by a perfectly timed deke.
Another major overhaul is the attempt to emulate the aggressiveness of the game, with scuffles erupting after whistle blows and the inclusion of the new Enforcer Engine. Enforcers now play a more pivotal role, dispensing their own brand of knuckle-laden justice on players who level team’s star athletes or generally play dirty, which works really well… for the most part.
When the gloves flew off for the first time, I was surprised by the lack of the first person view from the previous years, which has now been replaced with a standard third person view of the two combatants. Jersey pulls, blocks, counters and throwing barrages of flailed punches is still performed by timing analogue stick movements, which is good in theory.
Only problem is the new fighting system has teething issues, which is a shame, considering it’s a major part of the game. Sometimes the punches lack impact, sometimes they have too much (my 6ft4 bruiser was levelled by a single punch from a 5ft10 playmaker!) and sometimes they just stand there gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. The fights also break out far too often (crazy concept right?), over the most minor of offenses which can really hinder the flow of the game (especially when you’re on a breakaway!)
On a game mode front all the usual suspects we’ve come to expect have returned. Quick game for those wanting to jump straight in, GM mode for those who enjoy methodical bureaucracy simulars (it can be surprisingly addictive), a re-skinned NHL ’94 mode and, easily the most fun mode, ‘Live the Life’.
In this mode you can create the successful, hockey playing version of you your mother always wanted! The same customisation aspects are there from the previous year, along with the ability to start off as a superstar in the NHL or work your way all the way up from the CHL. The biggest difference this year is the ability to craft your player’s personality, which is done through pre and post-game interviews. Your responses will affect the affinity you have with your team, your fans and the management, which in turn directly affect things on the ice such as being passed to or the stadium erupting into cheers when you touch the puck.
It’s a nice inclusion but it feels half-baked as the interviews are conducted through static screens of text and, call me narcissistic, but I want to see my player’s toothless grin as I tell the press a witty antidote about tea cup pigs. (That’s seriously a response, I kid you not!)
Talking of half-baked, EA sports totes a brand new feature (as a prominent bullet point on the back of the case, so you know it’s a super big deal) that you can now play as a woman in the NHL! Before you excitedly try to make your own Julie ‘The Cat’ Gaffney (because let’s face it, Goldberg did nothing for the Mighty Ducks!), I’m going to save you the disappointment… this option is kinda insulting. You have three (yes, a whole THREE!) preset faces you can select, with no ability to customise them. Wanted green eyes? Tough, now you’re a piggy-tailed blonde with bright blue peepers! Adding insult to injury is that the commentators still refer to you as a man (which says a lot for Bill Clements’ eye sight!) I know! The target demographic is men! I know! But if you’re going to include it, put some actual effort in, hell, include the CWHL! (Maybe make it a DLC option… I’m watching you EA!)
All in all, NHL 14 is an incredibly solid hockey game. The physics are great, the stick handling superb, the feeling of an arena of 75,000 exploding in ecstasy when you separate a guy from his teeth, nailed. If you haven’t picked up an NHL title in a few years and have just got the craving after seeing Kurt Russell’s amazing hair in Miracle, then I say go nuts. Already own last years? There’s not really enough here to justify throwing down the green again, pull a Marty Brodeur and make the save.