Pass the biscuit, it’s feeding time.
When it comes to hockey games, the abundance of titles are… well… lacking. At the moment, EA reigns as the best simulation producer of the contact sport played on ice. Much like their football counterpart, Madden, NHL can conjure up virtually any game idea and say take it or leave. They hold the keys to the car and no one else can drive it. Not to down the development of the popular gridiron series, but Madden fumbles the ball on too many occasions. As for the NHL franchise, improvements are continually made on a larger scale, despite the lack of external forces.
This also comes in the form of give and take. Past editions have shown groundbreaking results and have been able to grab attention with strong performances such as NHL 12. It had just about everything you could want: big hits, fluid skating, smooth graphics, the works. The following year, ’13 played poorly through and through. There incorporated plenty of past successful features, but it lost its shine, the biggest disappointment coming with the inconsistent collisions.
But if the best game is made and everything is perfect, keeping it the same from year to year would create boredom. That’s when the give and take happens. Adding or subtracting good and bad elements helps break the monotony. It gives EA a way to “fix” the complaints, in order to pick up sales for the next copy. NHL 14 has certainly repaired itself to glory. There are no next-gen copies this year, though. So there's already a reason to buy next year’s model.
The experience on ice has made this year’s model a joy to play. Skating ability has stepped its game up, having tuned its fine physics mechanics. Subtleties in direction changes at different speeds are made clear. If skating at full speed down the ice, a player sharply turning can catch an edge, shred ice, and won’t have the same precision and fluidity in his movement, as a skater slowing into a turn would. To assist quick direction changes, the pivot action on offense and defense proves highly beneficial; in the defensive sense, a bit more advantageous.
Last year, offensive attackers had a slight advantage, as speeding past defensemen to the outside had a competitive edge. Now using LT/L2, switching from a forward motion, to side strafe, into a back pedal skate can be the tool needed to break up an oncoming rush. This ability has been around the last couple of years but has shown efficient growth. The same button can be used on offense to position your body for boxing out opponents and opening for oncoming passes. While skating with the puck, you can use the button to rotate in any direction and set up for a possible alternate-angled shot.
Though skating feels more realistic, AI is as dumb as ever. Computer teammates will put themselves in spots on the ice that will have you wondering if they are plotting against you. Passes can be wild at best, goal keep and defenders are horrible if not done manually, and team strategies are scattered and unfocused.
But when all else fails… start a fight. With the new enforcer engine, fights are a bit more realistic. No more first-person tug and jerk animations. Now in third person, impromptu boxing matches flow right along with the action. Squaring up with an opponent can and will happen at any moment. Starting them is all too simple: lay hat to a dive forward and here comes some protective enforcer. Or start one yourself by engaging an annoying tough guy, or the closest person for that matter, for a round of fisticuffs by using the Y/triangle button. Spars seem longer too and with the new mechanics this is all fine and good.
Interactions between fists haven’t been the only upgrade to the violence—the new collision system has taken a turn for the better as well. ’12 did a solid job of illustrating big hits. ’13 took that step back. But with ’14, the hit stick has returned, and you can light someone up with a well-timed check using the right analog. In addition, using analog isn’t the only way to dish out those checks; simply skate into someone with the right momentum and watch guys go down. To achieve authenticity, size, weight, height, angle of impact, and speed of skaters are taken into account. A smaller wingman being bullied by a larger defenseman is going to have a greater impact than two evenly sized wings crossing path.
You can then take these newly learned skills into a handful of game modes. Familiar features include Ultimate Team, Be A Pro, Training Mode, etc, while fresh-faced modes include Live the Life and Anniversary mode. Live the Life is very reminiscent of Career mode in Madden, in that you start off as a created rookie and enter (or don’t enter) the draft and work your way to becoming a legend. It’s mostly Be a Pro but with added twists. NHL ’14 marks the twentieth year for the title, so Anniversary mode brings back the timeworn flavor of yesteryear—old school at its best, simple and to the point. Though NHL '14 already feels and plays like an arcade game, Anniversary further reiterates the classic style.
From top to bottom, NHL ’14 has improved a great deal on last year's installment and still is one of the most exciting sports game to play. With heavy online presentations, staying connected with your friends and top rivalries will continue to be a staple. I can’t say NHL ’14 is a perfect game, but its beauty is well-polished and fans of the sport can lean on EA’s version with a gleam of puppy love.