NHL 14 Review
There’s nothing glaringly wrong with EA’s suite of sports games this year. In fact, for the most part, they’re as solid as ever. It’s just that it seems as if the developers are sort of limping into the new generation, and they’re having difficulty keeping the annual releases fresh. NHL 14 is the perfect example of a game that likely won’t disappoint hockey fans due to its decent on-ice simulation and gameplay mechanics. It may, however, be seen as a ho-hum production by those fans who expected something more; i.e., a significant upgrade from last year’s iteration.
The graphics aren’t that much different, although there are more animations and a bit more detail in the character models and gameplay effects. There are more camera views than ever before, too, so hockey followers will appreciate this dynamic visual presentation. NHL 14 looks more like hockey on television than any series installment before it, and that’s a definite bonus. But some of those animations still come across as forced and awkward, and the laggy, uninspired online menus tend to detract from the overall production. There are some definite enhancements when comparing to last year’s title, but those updates are relatively minor.
On the audio front, things are a touch better, as I like the soundtrack selections and the gameplay effects are crisp and authentic. However, as was the case with this year’s Madden, I’m not impressed with the commentary, although it is a little better than the inaccurate, repetitive color men in EA’s football effort. The good news is that with hockey, it’s more a nonstop sport, so you’re more focused on the action throughout. And when you’re focused, you appreciate the solid effects and the commentary sort of blends into the background. All in all, the technical presentation of NHL 14 isn’t a big step up, but at least it maintains some appeal.
In terms of gameplay, this title has something else in common with Madden NFL 25: Both have lingering drawbacks that have yet to be fixed by the designers. I can’t tell if they’re waiting for better hardware or they’re simply being lazy. Either that, or they don’t identify such issues as flaws. On the plus side, such shortcomings are – much like the upgrades – indeed minor, so they shouldn’t greatly impact your enjoyment. Besides, there are a few new mechanics that you might really embrace, and the return of the True Performance Skating engine makes the game feel physically accurate. The pace of each game feels just about right, although some may find the skating speed to be too slow.
Above all else, though, EA never skimps on the depth, detail and player involvement. That part is always great, as hardcore NHL fans should be able to do whatever they wish. The most attractive feature is undoubtedly Live the Life (formerly entitled Be a Pro), which chronicles a promising hockey career. You manage every aspect of your player’s advancement and this goes well beyond the on-screen performance; you must also attend social events and press conferences, and you have to nail down some advertising deals, too. It’s a robust, engaging mode that makes you feel like a true professional athlete, even if some of the elements are somewhat tedious.
They’ve also upgraded the collision physics, as players respond more accurately to big-time hits, and you have even more control over your high-speed assault. Slamming an opposing skater into the boards has never been more satisfying and if you do it enough, you might get involved in a scuffle. Obviously, fighting has always been a part of hockey, and EA isn’t shying away from that fact. No longer do you have to go to certain lengths to initiate a fight; tick off someone with enough annoying hits, and they’ll come after you. The designers even implemented the Fight Night engine to deal with the fighting, so it’s game on when fisticuffs break out.
You fight in a third-person view, as they’ve eliminated the somewhat awkward first-person view. The new system works pretty darn well and sometimes, I found myself instigating melees just to prove myself in the fighting department. The only problem is that if you play a certain way, these fights happen a little too often and as such, this takes away from the pace and simulated feel of the game. If you try not to get involved in hand-to-hand combat, you actually start to appreciate the ins and outs of hockey a little more. EA does a decent job of embracing each aspect of the challenging sport when on the ice, even if it isn’t flawlessly depicted.
The control is just about right but as I said above, the skating speed does seem a little on the slow side. Passing demands accuracy and timing, and it can be difficult to beat the goalie if you’re not familiar with the shooting mechanic. The best part about NHL 14 is that from a simulation standpoint, it forces you to learn the basics and if you don’t, you’ll never be successful. Once you’ve got the movement down, you can start experimenting with trickier passes, and executing trademark maneuvers like the one-timer starts to become second-nature. Accuracy and strategy are indeed critical, and that’s important for any sports title that attempts to be authentic.
The only problem is that I still don’t feel fully immersed, primarily because when one steps back and views the production as a whole, one feels underwhelmed. Sure, the mechanics are fine, the depth is definitely there, there are plenty of rewarding modes, and the attention to detail is evident. But the AI isn’t anything special, and you’ll notice that your teammates aren’t always reacting the way they should. When the puck is nowhere near them, they tend to just float around, as if they’re out for a leisurely Sunday skate. Only when they get more involved with the play does their intelligence start to kick in. The result is an uneven presentation of the sport and I found it oddly distracting.
The AI just feels outdated, that’s all. It’s not incompetent; it’s just something we’ve seen many times before. This is a common trend in all the EA Sports games recently, and I’m really hoping we see some innovation and an extra dose of dynamic realism in future installments. In regards to the online play, it’s extra fun because all game modes are available, and up to 12 players can partake. The EA Sports Hockey League is jam packed with stuff to do and this time around, you can assume GM duties at the same time as controlling your created character. The only real issue is lag, which seems strangely persistent when trying to cycle through menu screens.
NHL 14 is about what you’d expect. It doesn’t innovate on a grand scale and one gets the feeling that EA Sports is just biding their time, waiting to unleash a new sports evolution when the next-gen consoles arrive. The control is good (even if some will say the skating is too slow), the depth is definitely here in spades, the physics are better, and the online play can be extremely entertaining. I also love the re-imagining of NHL 94, which is called the Anniversary Edition. One of my favorites! The AI is rough around the edges and the animations aren’t quite right but overall, this year’s NHL offering is worth a hardcore hockey fan’s time.
The Good: More player animations. Decent soundtrack and great effects. Better on-ice physics and more realistic collisions. Fighting is almost too fun. Enjoyable multiplayer.
The Bad: Visually, not overly impressive. Skating can feel a little slow. Team AI needs a definite upgrade. Laggy menus when online.
The Ugly: “The AI can really let you down at crucial moments.”
9/23/2013 Ben Dutka