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.
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.
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.
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.