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NHL 14 Review

4
  • X360

The specter of NHL '94 looms large over EA's latest hockey game, which ultimately works both to its benefit and detriment.

EA's NHL '94 is still widely considered to be the best hockey game of all time. That game came out 20 years ago, mind you, and was also only EA's third attempt at even making a hockey game. In that time, the NHL franchise has seen numerous massive leaps in technology, mechanics, and overall depth, and yet people still cling to NHL '94 the way football fans pine for the days of NFL 2K, and wrestling fans continue to chase the dragon of WWF No Mercy. Why? Put simply, NHL '94 is still one of the most purely entertaining sports games ever made. Its crazy fast, yet realistic (for its time) gameplay was one of those sweet spots sports game developers only rarely hit on, and often can't nowadays, given that sports games have to pace themselves much more like the real life sport.

Upgrades to the checking system highlight another solid, if not spectacular sequel in the NHL franchise.

20 years later, NHL 14 tries to hit that same sweet spot, albeit while still trying to offer up a game of "realistic" simulation hockey. This year's NHL game builds upon the physics upgrades introduced last year to turn the game into a much more hard-hitting affair, one where following through with checks will often lay players flat on the ice, and where a fight always appears moments from erupting. These changes serve to turn NHL 14 into something a bit less realistically paced than last year's game, not to mention something far more aggressively violent than we've seen in a licensed hockey game since NHL Hitz was still something that existed. Whether or not that's up your alley will of course depend on how true-to-life you like your sports simulations.

First, let's talk about all that checking. I quite dug NHL 13's introduction of new player physics, and the changes made to collision detection and checking here are mostly good ones. Instead of only using a dedicated checking button/stick, players can now check opponents simply by running into them. Line up a player, charge straight into him, and chances are that you'll knock them to their knees or flat on their backs if you build up enough of a head of steam. Of course, momentum is key in this. You can't just rub up against opponents and expect them to fall down, and if you don't line up your hits just right, you'll whiff hard and probably go crashing into the boards yourself.

Mostly, this works out just fine. Sure, checks are more frequent than in real life (playing on the "hardcore sim" mode with a higher difficulty level balances more in favor of reality, if that's what you want), but the hitting has a good feel to it, especially in a quickly paced game against non-AI players. If there's any problem with the system, it's that it now tends to result in a few too many unintended penalties. AI opponents have a tendency to turn into the boards any time you try to hit them while near the sides of the rink. This results in a lot of boarding penalties and other such accidents when you're just trying to check a guy from the side.

Whenever this happens, it's a good bet that the game's new fighting system will engage as a result. Fighting is one of those weird quirks of hockey games that hardly anyone has ever done well. NHL 14 doesn't buck that trend exactly, but it does offer a minor improvement. Now, when players drop the gloves, the camera remains zoomed out in the third-person view, and the two players brawling mostly spend their time grappling with one another, awkwardly throwing fists and attempting to dodge uppercuts more closely to the way enforcers in the NHL do. That's not to say that the fighting system is a great deal of fun--it definitely isn't--but at least visually speaking, it looks more like a hockey fight than most of the other things EA has tried this generation.

Unfortunately, one of the results of the game's new-found interest in fighting is an overabundance of defenders angling to start shit with you. Any time a player skates too close to the goalie on a frozen puck, bumps too closely to an agitated opponent, or really does anything other than skate in the opposite direction of the offensive zone after a play, you'll end up in an entanglement with an opposing player. Granted, most of these just involve guys grappling and jawing at one another, and it's rare that you see more than one or two fights in a game on the default settings. Still, there's a weird hypersensitivity here that's far more prevalent than in the real game. Sure, you'll sometimes see real life defenders get annoyed that an offensive player is jabbing at the puck after the whistle, and move in to engage. But here it happens constantly, with frequent overreaction to perceived slights that amount to basically nothing.

Celebrating NHL '94's 20th anniversary is a novel idea, but the mode included in NHL 14 doesn't quite hit the same level of excitement.

Beyond these changes, little else has shifted on the ice from last year's game, though that's mostly a good thing. Offense largely feels balanced, though your AI teammates still tend to have a real hard time figuring out how to set up plays in the offensive zone. Defense is better, in that the poke-check isn't quite as overpowered as it's been in previous years (though is still highly effective). And goalies generally seem capable of stopping most types of shots, with perhaps the sole exception of high-angle wristshots, which tended in my experience to go in far more often than any other shot type.

Of course, gameplay wasn't really NHL 13's problem anyway. It was the feature set, the slate of modes surrounding the gameplay that failed to impress. NHL 14 fixes some of the issues from last year, but also leaves more than a few of them dangling.

The most significant change to any one mode this year is in the Be-a-Player area. Previously a fun, but mostly dry representation of what it's like to be a player in the NHL, the mode has been rebranded as "Live the Life," while skewing closer to the types of scenarios and concepts used in NBA 2K's own career mode. Now when you create a superstar, you'll have to participate in interviews with prospective teams and the media, handle endorsement deals, and try to fabricate some manner of personality to go along with your on-ice avatar. It's a nice idea, but it doesn't work particularly well, due in no small part to the mode's utter lack of any uniqueness. It's like EA plucked the skeletal structure of NBA 2K's player mode, grafted it onto its existing feature set, and just hoped everyone would be excited by it. Unfortunately, it's all so blandly presented that none of it really registers, and holdover problems--like the mode's constant punishment of you simming games instead of playing them--remain prevalent. It's still fun to create your own player and take them through a career, but the changes made do little to add anything of substance to the equation.

Other problems from last year's game are at least marginally addressed, if not entirely improved. Offline, the Be-a-GM mode is definitely better, thanks to improved trade logic and more useful indicators of what trading teams are looking for in return. Online, the GM mode is a bit easier to use this time around, but still has more than its share of arcane menus that seemingly lead you around in circles. Load times are still kind of a pain as well, though they aren't as overbearing as last year's mode, and online lag is still occasionally an issue, regardless of what mode you're playing in. Hockey Ultimate Team remains as enjoyable as ever, once again offering up numerous single-player and online play modes as you build up a squad through card collecting and trading.

Players in NHL 14 aren't afraid to drop the gloves for a brawl. If anything, they're perhaps a bit too eager by default.

Lastly, there is the NHL '94 mode. Given the 20-year anniversary, perhaps it's not surprising that EA would want to celebrate. Unfortunately, the way it chooses to celebrate is by crafting a marginally entertaining retread of NHL '94 using the current game engine and rosters. I'm not saying this mode isn't any fun at all--in fact, the simplifying of the controls back to '94 standards, and the quickened pace of the game combine into something that can periodically be quite entertaining. The issue is that it doesn't really feel all that much like NHL '94, so much as a sped-up, greatly simplified of the game you would be playing otherwise. More baffling is that the mode can only be played offline. No one will argue that NHL '94 wasn't a terrific multiplayer game back before things like online play existed, but not even having that option here is just weird, since it's not really that fun of a mode when played by one's self.

All of this considered, NHL 14 is most certainly a better game than last year's, but whether it's enough to convince you to go for another purchase will likely depend on how badly you want improvements to the series' more physical game elements. In terms of visuals, commentary, and feature set, little of NHL 14 changes notably from what was on offer last year, leaving only the hitting and fighting systems as the marquee upgrades. NHL 13 had a pretty massive chasm between the quality of its gameplay and its feature set, and that chasm hasn't really been filled in much at all this year. If you missed out on NHL 13, NHL 14 comes recommended largely without caveat. If you did pick up 13, consider how badly you want to see improved hitting and an abundance of fighting before deciding if you need to drop another $60.

Alex Navarro on Google+
55 Comments
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Edited by Atwa

H O C K E Y!

Edited by LiquidPenguins

Can you set the goal on fire y/n the stock price of EA depends on it

Posted by rasko_the_brave

I love me some Hockey.

Posted by zyba27

nhl hitz is the only true hockey experience

Posted by Patman99

Being a person who has played a lot of NHL 09, 10, 11, 12, and 13 consistently online (mostly the mode where every position on the ice is fielded by another real player), I have to say that fighting is by far the worst aspect of the game. It looks terrible, controls terrible, and worst of all it slows down the game, forcing two players to have 'fun' while the remaining 8 sit and watch passively.

It's like doing a fatality in mortal combat: Interesting the first time, but is kinda a dick move because it slows you down from getting on to another game. In the NHL series is that people mostly try and start fights either at the end of the game when they know they have lost (which doesn't happen in real hockey) or when they are bored and about the quit the match.

Maybe worst of all was that in NHL 13 you could get one asshole who initiates a fight with another person and just sits there blocking the whole time. While the one player can slowly chip away at the blocking players health, it is still an exercise in patience for the other 8 players who are bored out of their skulls.

Posted by csl316

How many mutants are in this league of hockey?

Edited by MrGtD

I'll wait until NHL 15, the first one made for the new consoles from the ground up. That one'll be awesome.

Posted by Rejizzle

I'm always sad when I get into a fight and can't jersey the other guy. You haven't been able to do that since NHL '99 or so.

Posted by Whiteycar

I hope the next generation EA decides to take a step back and rather than just iterating and not really going any where they go to a 2 year cycle with in between years as roster updates.

It's almost getting to the level of movie tie in games. Quit taking your base for granted.

Edited by Benmo316

Alex, are the loading times you said aren't as overbearing the load times when you start a game or when simulating to your next game? What killed my liking of GM mode is simulating multiple weeks and having it take several minutes (I don't know if that's just a PS3 issue).

Posted by devilzrule27

NHL13 played fucking terrible. 14 seems to have fixed the skating but it's no NHL12. Also the NHL series has some of the worst fit an finish in any sports game. Rosters, contracts, and the schedule are all inaccurate. The default rosters don't reflect any free agents and the day one download has a bunch of free agents on the wrong team.

Edited by matti00

@csl316: just one, he plays for Boston.

Posted by StoffInator

We need a QuickLook of this.

Posted by devilzrule27

@matti00 said:

@csl316: just one, he plays for Boston.

Chara and Lucic both qualify.

Posted by JSwan13

Go Blackhawks!!!!!!

Posted by jSlack

Awesome! Bought this, can't wait to play. If anyone wants to play EASHL (Previously Elite champion) or VS add me: JoeSlack

Staff
Posted by ThatRoss

First year ever I didn't buy on release day. I played the demo, but it's largely the same game. I do like the skating improvements, but I hate the constant fighting (does EA realize the NHL is slowly moving away from fighting, IMO?). You can't skip any of the fighting cutscenes...so slow! Not surprised, EA always goes overboard on any new feature. Remember when they made helmets pop off? Sure enough, every hit resulted in a helmet coming off...lol.

Anyway, I'll wait for a sale, or a PSN gift card. Not paying $60 for this minuscule update. Also waiting for next-gen, although I'm sure expectations will be too high, and EA will fail. #circleoflife

Back to NHL Hitz on my PS2...now that's fun!

Posted by billyok

Kaner!

Posted by devilzrule27

@thatross said:

First year ever I didn't buy on release day. I played the demo, but it's largely the same game. I do like the skating improvements, but I hate the constant fighting (does EA realize the NHL is slowly moving away from fighting, IMO?). You can't skip any of the fighting cutscenes...so slow! Not surprised, EA always goes overboard on any new feature. Remember when they made helmets pop off? Sure enough, every hit resulted in a helmet coming off...lol.

Anyway, I'll wait for a sale, or a PSN gift card. Not paying $60 for this minuscule update. Also waiting for next-gen, although I'm sure expectations will be too high, and EA will fail. #circleoflife

Back to NHL Hitz on my PS2...now that's fun!

The worst was broken sticks because it actually ruined gameplay. Damn stick would snap on nearly every slap shot.

Posted by devilzrule27

@thatross said:

First year ever I didn't buy on release day. I played the demo, but it's largely the same game. I do like the skating improvements, but I hate the constant fighting (does EA realize the NHL is slowly moving away from fighting, IMO?). You can't skip any of the fighting cutscenes...so slow! Not surprised, EA always goes overboard on any new feature. Remember when they made helmets pop off? Sure enough, every hit resulted in a helmet coming off...lol.

Anyway, I'll wait for a sale, or a PSN gift card. Not paying $60 for this minuscule update. Also waiting for next-gen, although I'm sure expectations will be too high, and EA will fail. #circleoflife

Back to NHL Hitz on my PS2...now that's fun!

The worst was broken sticks because it actually ruined gameplay. Damn stick would snap on nearly every slap shot.

Posted by hi_im_rob

I'm a big hockey fan but just haven't been compelled to pick up an NHL game since '11.

Posted by beepmachine

@alex Good review! I think you missed a word in this sentence: "The issue is that it doesn't really feel all that much like NHL '94, so much as a sped-up, greatly simplified _____ of the game you would be playing otherwise."

Also I just wanted to point out that "opponents have a tendency to turn into the boards any time you try to hit them while near the sides of the rink." and " frequent overreaction to perceived slights that amount to basically nothing." are EXACTLY like the real NHL. Any whistle around the net results in a scrum and if you poke the puck after whistle expect an out and out riot to ensue.

Posted by fisk0

I haven't played an NHL game since NHL 98. Really liked it then, and I bought NHL 12 a couple of years ago, but haven't opened the wrapping yet. Too bad the '94 mode isn't what it could've been, a pretty neat idea to throw that in there.

Posted by CorporalGregg

I'm a huge Leafs fan and NHL 14 has been very accurate so far. I get outshot constantly, rarely have the puck unless I win the faceoff, but inevitably give it away in the neutral zone on a sloppy pass. I get a few chances through the game and usually score on one or two of those chances, but without fail will give up late goals and lose the game. Along the way I'll have twice as many hits as shots and two or three fights. Usually one game is enough to make me shut off the xbox and want to die. This is 100% just like being a Leafs fan so they really nailed that.

Posted by Pinefresh

I'm always excited for the new NHL game but this the first year in a while I didn't buy it right on release day. Maybe I'm just looking forward to GTA too much but nothing in the demo really jumped out at me and I'm feeling pretty good about waiting for a Boxing Day sale.

Edited by noizy

Hey, I was glancing at this review and the score of 4 out of 5 and some strange thought came over me that I thought I'd share. I don't play many sports game, played a bit of FIFA, so I'm not speaking out of much experience with sports game. Sports games to me seems incredibly iterative (and I don't say that disparagingly). Every year there are some minor refinements. So the thought that came to my mind was "is a 4 out of 5 score a foregone conclusion?". I had a quick look on the site, and I have the pleasure to report that NHL 13, NHL 12, NHL 11, NHL 10 have review score of 4 out of 5 as well (ok, 11 and 10 are user scores). I'm in agreement with the Giant Bomb's rating scheme, that ranking out of 10, or out of 100 is very much meaningless granularity. But perhaps for games that are annualized and iterative, a ranking out of a 100 might actually make some sense. Of course, you're always better off reading the damn reviews. Had to share this thought with you fine people.

Posted by big_jon

Could have sworn I just saw this change from a 5 star to a 4 star. Odd....

Posted by ThatRoss

@devilzrule27: lol yeah the breaking sticks for sure...at least '13 had a slider for that, and I find sticks do break a lot in real hockey...but I've never seen a dudes helmet pop off, not since Scott Stevens retired. ;)

Posted by bkbroiler
@big_jon said:

Could have sworn I just saw this change from a 5 star to a 4 star. Odd....

Collusion!

Posted by devilzrule27

@thatross said:

@devilzrule27: lol yeah the breaking sticks for sure...at least '13 had a slider for that, and I find sticks do break a lot in real hockey...but I've never seen a dudes helmet pop off, not since Scott Stevens retired. ;)

Yeah the only helmets that I ever see come off are goalie masks.

And sticks do break a lot but that first year they introduced it, can't remember if it was 11 or 12, it was every damn slap shot. They eventually patched it.

That's the running theme with the NHL series, outside of the skill stick, every time they introduce a new gameplay feature the next year it has to get toned down, reworked, or removed because it ends up ruining the game.

Edited by Vrikk

Love me some hackies. It's the only annual game series I get... and yes, I know it's probably a waste of time.

Posted by Dewar

I'm curious about how the online EASHL works this year. That's pretty much the only reason I buy sports games anymore, and last year it was laggy as all get out and barely playable.

Posted by beatnik11

I absolutely loved NHL 94 and I understand peoples reverence for that game, but at the same time I also recognize that its a nostalgic love that I have for 94 and with all the mostly positive changes that have happened over 20 years I dont think I could ever go back and play it. I also loved Blades of Steel but I doubt anyone is clamoring for that to be re-born.

As for NHL games in general I was never a must buy every year sort like Madden bros and usually wait every 2-3 years when the iterations become substantial enough to warrant a new version. I am a little split though, I have that bug to play some good ole hockey but I also kinda want to wait another year to see what they do for a next gen version

Posted by Corwag

@zyba27 said:

nhl hitz is the only true hockey experience

I think you mean NHL Open Ice

Posted by LegendaryChopChop

@corwag said:

@zyba27 said:

nhl hitz is the only true hockey experience

I think you mean NHL Open Ice

It's all about NHL 3-ON-3 ARCADE.

Posted by Phished0ne

@rejizzle: it doesnt happen in real hockey that much anymore since its a major to not tie down your fight strap.

Online
Posted by AKTANE

Hi Alex, great review! I noticed a typo:

"The issue is that it doesn't really feel all that much like NHL '94, so much as a sped-up, greatly simplified version of the game you would be playing otherwise."

Keep up the reviews man, I actually read them.

-Ak

Edited by UberExplodey

Can I change the price of french fries?

Edited by KingdanglerBK

I think this needs a NHL 94 playing on Unprofessional Fridays with 4 players or 6 with the PS3!

Posted by skooks

I missed out on 12 and 13 so I'll definitely be picking this up on Friday. Should get me nice and riled up for the season. BRUINS.

Posted by iragequit

NHL 14 fixes some of the issues from last year, but also leaves more than a few of them dangling.

Excellent

Posted by RonneyFan05

Great review sir. right on point. Or should i say shot from the point.

Posted by Sketchy

@mrgtd: lol no way will it be remade entirely from the ground up. Honestly, you'll be lucky if ANY aspect of the game is made entirely new from the ground up.

Edited by MetalMoog
Edited by Gekigangar

One of the many reasons why I just don't come to Giant Bomb anymore. The NHL series record for first week sales is 484,000 copies. Tales of Xilia sells over 500,000 preorders and we get a review of this redundant bullshit and no Tales review.

Posted by KickahaOta

One of the many reasons why I just don't come to Giant Bomb anymore.

Wait... your disembodied consciousness is posting this?

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