With each yearly edition, sports-game developers must fill a tall order–creating an experience that, at its core, sticks to the tried-and-true principles of a franchise, while adding enough new features to warrant the annual price of admission. Unlike other genres, sports games are uniquely judged on the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” principle, meaning that a great game might receive less acclaim simply because its predecessor was really good. This is the case for NHL 14.
The latest entry in the long-standing EA NHL series hits hard and delivers a deeper experience than ever before. With its all new “Enforcer Engine,” NHL 14 ramps up everyone’s favorite part of hockey, while the expanded Be a Pro mode (now known as “Live The Life”) adds a brand new level of immersion to a (now) classic element of the game. Beyond those additions, though, and a few tweaks and updates, NHL 14 doesn’t stray too much from last year’s game. This is a good thing, as NHL 13 was perhaps the best sports title in 2012, but it raises the question, “Is this year’s release worth $60 if I already own last year’s?”
As you might have guessed, the answer lies in what kind of fan and gamer you are.
The first thing that needs to be said about NHL 14 is that it looks better than any previous hockey game. For that matter it feels better, too. Both of these can be accredited to EA’s new Collision Physics, which make hits more realistic than ever. Skaters now know the best hits to throw in a given situation, and the results can be devastating. Moreover, players can deck their opponents simply by running into them, finally ridding the world of those awkward, unrealistic “bouncy collision” moments of yore. The impact of hits (as well as movement speed, shot power, and other sliders) are now universally changeable by selecting one of three “hospitality” settings–High Impact, Simulation, and Hardcore Simulation. This serves as an easy way to customize the game to your play-style and mood, which, to me, widens the game’s overall appeal.
Even in the waning days of the current generation, EA has surprised me with its ability to push the technology to its limits, and NHL 14 is a testament to that. Tweaks to last year’s True Performance Skating have improved overall player control and visual realism, while small additions like visible player damage and a slight bump in player likeness go a long way to selling the experience. My only complaint here is that NHL 14 changed almost nothing in terms of in-game commentary. At this point, the once-original phrases of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement have grown stale after years of reuse, to an occasional point of distraction.
Outside of the on-ice match ups, the biggest new feature in NHL 14 is “Live the Life” mode. We’ve seen similar expansions in recent years, most notably in 2K’s NBA series. The EA version here isn’t quite as robust, but post-game interviews, off-ice scenarios, and “likeability” management add a bit of depth to an old mode. Back in the rink, expanded pre-game and situation tasks give players more chances to please their coaches and make their way up the depth chart as they achieve professional milestones.
While Live the Life got the biggest facelift, a couple of other game modes received minor nips and tucks. Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT), the trading-card-based mode in which players build teams from scratch, now includes an online-season feature, allowing players to work their way through 10 divisions, with team promotion and relegation available at the end of each season. As you work your way up the divisional latter, you’ll earn trophies, HUT pucks (for buying trading card booster packs), and–of course–bragging rights.
One feature that EA seems particularly proud of (if its advertising is any indication), is NHL 94 mode. This takes the classic blue-ice aesthetic and no-rules, simplified gameplay of the classic title and brings it into the 21st century, with updated graphics and players. It’s got a quirky sort of nostalgia to it, but, quite frankly, it doesn’t do a whole lot for me. The limited controls and throwback graphical elements (the classic star icons beneath active players, for instance) may work in a party setting, but beyond that, if you’re any kind of serious player, you probably won’t get much mileage out of this mode.
So back to that question I asked at the beginning of all of this: Is NHL 14 worth it? It’s obvious that EA’s done more than just update the rosters and include the Dallas Stars’ new logo, and–for the observant gamer–there is just enough new material to warrant the price tag. Beyond that, the game performs better than its predecessors, taking care of a lot of the odd glitches–both visual and game-changing–that would occasionally pop up.
On the other hand, if you’re not a huge hockey fan–simply loving the high-paced, hard-hitting action of the sport–you might be better off with last year’s game (which I’m sure you can find for a nickel, at this point, if you don’t already have it). This year’s edition is pretty, it’s expansive, and it simply works better than past iterations, but as most gamers are about to spend some serious bucks on new games and consoles, it’s not for everyone.
NHL 14 was published and developed by EA Sports. A Playstation 3 copy was provided for review purposes.