NHL 14 Review (Xbox 360)
The biggest challenge facing NHL 14 is co-existing in the same release window as several other big sports franchises which will be debuting on the new console hardware. The team at EA Vancouver told me that they felt this allowed them to focus on gameplay balance while watching how other dev teams discover the idiosyncrasies of the new hardware. As I've written before, there are also business realities to why this is the case for the NHL franchise, but either way, this current-gen version of NHL is the only way to experience a dedicated hockey product this season.
The good news is that this approach has paid off in terms of NHL 14's gameplay, as it's arguably the most satisfying and playable version of the game in several years. While the new modes offered do feel a bit thin, the gameplay has benefited greatly from some added physicality, better skating, improved goal variety and a whole host of tweaks and changes.
The biggest change to last year's game was the True Performance Skating, and this year it's quite apparent that the feel of the skating has been altered again, allowing for better vision and positioning when lining up one-timers and operating on the half boards as well as quicker first steps and pivots. It allows the game to have a slightly quicker pace at points, but it prevents the action from becoming a speed-burst fest with players flying down the wing at every chance.
The main deterrent for this type of flat-out speed is the improved physicality, both in terms of hitting and fighting. The hits in general have a lot more velocity and ragdoll effect to them now, as the devs have stated how there are many points of contact for the hit that dictates how the receiver of the hit and the deliverer of the hit will react. This ends up creating more spectacular hit scenarios with players properly finishing checks and following through. More importantly, it also creates puck battles along the boards that have bumping and jostling and smaller hits. This was something I really noticed when playing online, but it's there offline too if the settings are high enough.
It's nice to have some reasonable control on the hitting as well, since the improved skating and defensive strafing (which positively benefits the CPU as well) provides a better chance to line up and deliver a hit. Then again, these hits can be countered by using the one-touch dekes, which basically allow someone to just hit the left bumper and point the left stick towards one of the quadrants. These dekes end up being go moves or cutback moves, and it serves as a proper foil to some of the larger hits.
The true star of the show for the physical side of the game is fighting, and even though some users end up not really caring much about the fighting, I think EA has implemented the new fight style in a smart and fun way that adds to the gameplay experience. Fights develop more organically now, as they don't take place in a separate first-person experience. You can still pester people and try and initiate a fight with the Y (or triangle) button, but often fights will develop after a large hit has been delivered – what EA calls “crossing the line.”
User-controlled scenarios mean that a fight will have to be agreed to, but an antagonized CPU will decide if a certain situation warrants a response (score of the game, the other player's fighting skill, etc). This certainly leads to a few too many fights and some odd mismatches on the lower settings, but if you turn the settings up to “hardcore simulation” and “superstar” difficulty, the fights seem to happen at about the right frequency.
Even if they do happen a little more than they should, I love the spirit of what EA is going for, and it's fun to see players jump in and drop the gloves all on the fly. Other players jostle and pair off during the fight, and multiple fights can actually break out on the same play (line brawls!). There is a huge variance in terms of how the scraps can unfold, with some fights ending in a couple of punches and others resulting in the combatants wrestling each other to the ice. Instigator penalties are never called, which is a bit odd, as EA says they felt it's a hard penalty to assess correctly.
Other changes to the gameplay are also a positive improvement on the overall game flow, with the puck chop now able to be queued up for a fully directional chop and the poke check being reigned in to a certain extent (it's still a bit of a bother online, though). The defensive strafing allows both human and CPU players to better shadow attackers who are trying to get to the slot, and there are less annoying scenarios where your player is facing the wrong way for a one-timer or pass. Goalies seem to have been tweaked, and they don't get to every one-timer or stop every point shot.
In fact, one of the revelations this year is the nice variety in goals that can be scored. Wrap-around goals and one-timers will still work with some regularity, but deflections, shots from the point, screen shots and rebounds all have more emphasis in terms of goal scoring. When you add in the new physicality and improved skating and balance, the gameplay does seem a lot more dynamic, with the scrappy play along the boards actually being rewarded with chances and goals.
While some of these changes have helped the AI in terms of play in the slot and along the boards, they are still too passive when it comes to the neutral zone and blue line. Hit totals against the CPU are usually a mismatch, and your computer-controlled teammates still have the habit of not cutting to the net or providing puck support along the boards. I had one particularly galling moment where I was on a 5-on-3, as my CPU forward refused to get in position for a tap-in one-timer – a familiar issue from previous years. The CPU definitely benefits from the gameplay changes, especially the defensive strafing and hitting, but their habits of previous years remain a bit of an issue here, and it will bother those wanting a more sim experience. I also found the type of penalties called to be nicely varied, but interference calls might still be a bit on the light side.
As a note, I'd highly recommend that any sim-style players set their difficulty to "superstar" and their game style to “hardcore simulation,” as that setting greatly affects the speed of shots, the amount of hits, frequency of fights and the overall feel of the game. Setting the difficulty any lower or changing the game style still provides for some fun times, but the only way to make the game challenging, especially if you're a sim player, is to go with hardcore simulation. I'm glad EA included this setting, and I've had many fun matches against the CPU with it enabled, even though I can win most of the time.
With the gameplay being so good, it's a bummer that the presentation once again feels quite similar to previous years. There's definitely been a bit of tidying to the menu screens, and fights are shown in the replay packages, but everything feels like old hat now. The cinematics, interstitials and cutscenes of previous games are all more or less the same here, and other than the slight tweaks for new modes (detailed below), there's not much new to really take in. I'm sympathetic to the team at EA Vancouver, as they don't have the manpower to make substantial annual changes like other sports franchises, but when some aspects are over five years old, it's hard not get a bit fed up with what you're seeing. Again, this isn't to say that anything is aggressively bad, but it's just painfully familiar.
The same really goes for the audio, as the commentary duo of Clement and Throne once again fill your eardrums with their well-worn banter. There's been the usual minor tweaks to their library of quips and player names, but let's just say it'll be nice to have a new duo for the next-gen product. I've always thought they serve as one of the better game commentary teams, but their time has long since passed. I actually enjoy the EA Trax this year, as there's a good mix of hockey rock from the Dropkick Murphys, Wolfmother, Soundgarden and others.
Live the Life
The big new change to the Be-A-Pro mode this year is called “Live the Life,” and the idea is that it is meant to add some personality into the usually listless career offering. The idea is very interesting in concept, as you can engage in off-ice events, gab with the media, piss off management and coaches, and develop a relationship with the fans. The problem is that all of these interactions, events and moments just sift down into four meters (fans, management, teammates, family), and those only have minor consequences on the gameplay. If you don't party with teammates, for example, they might not pass you the puck. A low family likeability might mean a penalty to your player's stats. A good relationship with the fans might translate into camera flashes and cheers.
None of this is presented or executed as well as something like NBA 2K13's MyCareer mode, and it really feels quite embryonic at this stage. I believe there's a cool idea in what EA is doing, but the implementation so far really only serves as the initial steps in what should be a much larger idea. None of the rewards or punishments felt all that substantial, and the questions are all kind of silly and random. It would be nice to see more focus on my actual player during gameplay, and the off-ice events, endorsements and team dynamics would benefit from a better visual treatment and more variety. I applaud EA for trying something more open-ended than something like Fight Night Champion, but I think more focus is actually what's needed for this mode to succeed.
NHL 94 Anniversary Mode
As I said in my reviewer impressions, I've actually come around a good deal on the gameplay of the NHL 94 anniversary mode. If you go in looking for something akin to NBA Jam or NFL Blitz (or even 3 on 3 NHL Arcade), you'll find a fairly amusing game of no rules hockey. There's lots of speed, giant hits and massive slapshots, and all of this can certainly create some fun couch co-op situations. I can't say that the CPU is very challenging for this mode (and you can't change any settings to make them harder), but playing against others has a certain charm. There have even been some unintended consequences, as the sped-up gameplay almost manages to recreate the basic deke moves found in original NHL 94, since you're actually faster than the goalie. It's kind of fun to have loose puck dekes and fights in the mode, too.
That said, I still have a gripe with lack of presentation and inspiration for the mode. It's nice that there's a bit of retro audio and blue ice, ala the original game, but why are the normal announcers even calling the game? Why aren't there retro menus and artwork being used for the cinematics and transitions? I thought even a cool filter or pixel art style would've been neat to see, as well as more of the original sound effects. Most of all, why can't this mode be played online? Since 3 on 3 NHL Arcade didn't support more than two unique online players, why couldn't this mode do it? There's no good reason for it not to be included.
While the new offerings for NHL 14 leave something to be desired, it's nice to see that the other modes have all benefited from some well-considered changes and tweaks. HUT and EASHL both now use the “seasons” feature that's been popular in the FIFA franchise. The ability to go through promotion and relegation in EASHL and HUT allows for more granularity since there are more divisions and cups, and this is a welcome change for players who just don't have the time to rattle off 10 or 20 games in a night. I'm really glad to see OTP matches using a better position selecting method than before, and that should eliminate some drops in that mode. Just the same, the slight change to buying vouchers from the hockey shop, as opposed to specific boosts, is a small but important change.
GM Connected has also been improved quite a bit, with menus that now actually work, more or less, and some additional scheduling and messaging options for league commissioners. It's still a bit of a bother to get to the hub screen (as it has to load a bunch of data when it does), but browsing the trading block, free agents, rosters and player cards is a lot quicker, making the mode much more viable than last year. The ability for a commissioner to see an entire period schedule is also helpful, and it avoids constant messaging for updates on if people have finished their games or not. It has to be said, though: where is a fantasy draft option?
The Be-A-GM mode has received a few small changes to the interface and functionality, with trade difficulty now being selectable and draft picks also being valued appropriately (future first-rounders being worth what they should be). The edit lines section also looks a bit better, since an empty position is now highlighted more clearly, and you can jump right to any gaps in your line-up to make changes quicker. You can also allow an assistant coach to switch up the goalie rotation now, which is great to see.
The improvements to NHL 14's gameplay are substantial enough that it's easy to recommend the game to fans of the series. While this game is never going to be a full-on simulation experience like some may want, it plays incredibly well this year thanks to physicality that actually feels organic to the flow of the game and some other welcome changes to goalies, skating, defense, and even the CPU behaviour (which still isn't perfect). It's unfortunate that the Live the Life mode feels a bit half-hearted, but at least GM Connected, EASHL and HUT all have been enhanced in meaningful ways.
Learning Curve: With simplified controls, slightly tidier menus and more of an emphasis on speed, physicality and accessibility, NHL 14 won't take as long for some users to find their footing.
Control Scheme: With the NHL 94 mode having simplified controls and the main game receiving several changes that make hitting, deking and skating simpler, this is probably the most accessible NHL game in a while.
Visuals: Some slight tweaks to the menus and the solid presentation of the new fighting system don't hide the fact that the visuals in this game (cinematics, player models) haven't been changed up in some time. Again, nothing aggressively bad, but the visual treatment is just played out.
Audio: The usual minimal upgrades to Clement and Throne's commentary are present, but the pair is getting bothersome now. The EA Trax this year are actually a good fit for the game.
Value: The NHL series has never been lacking in value, and NHL 14 is no different. With “seasons” mode for HUT and EASHL, proper GM Connected menus and Live the Life (even though it's not great), there's lots to do.
Score: 8.5 (Great)
Scoring Note: Readers may realize that I gave last year's game an 8.5 as well. I thought quite hard about what grade this game deserved, and even though I believe the text is the ultimate summation of how I feel, I decided that the gameplay positives outweighed the feature negatives, so the game got a similar score to last year on that basis.