Given their yearly release cycle, some sports simulations come under constant attack for dragging their feet, or growing stagnant from a lack of competition; but that’s one problem the NHL series has rarely encountered.
With their latest release, NHL 14, has the team at EA Sports Vancouver refined their core gameplay, while adding enough new features to compensate for the fact that they won’t be releasing on next-gen platforms?
After NHL 13 brought the most polished and comprehensive hockey simulation to date (read our review), we were at a loss as to how the team would go about addressing the most nagging issues, while still making enough of a step forward with NHL 14 to make the purchase worthwhile. Luckily, the studio clearly heard the criticisms, and went about addressing nearly every issue cited.
Although the added skating animations were hard to discern on anything but a broad level (read our in-depth preview for more details), the added realism in the final product is hard to miss. The visuals may be on par with those of NHL 13, but the animations are smoother. Our issues with NHL 13 however, weren’t focused on the game’s lack of realism.
Developers often face attacks for creating a sports simulation that is too shallow – not offering the kind of depth and nuanced controls that shape the actual game – but NHL has more often suffered from the opposite problem; simply put, the gameplay was extensively layered, but the AI-controlled opponents always seemed better at putting those elements into action.
For NHL 14, most of the changes and streamlining, either directly or indirectly, help to address those issues. The execution of an offensive deke – previously requiring the use of a shoulder button and both analog sticks – has been reduced to a single button press (with the analog stick’s direction determining the type of deke), without making the change feel restricting. The biggest change to the gameplay occurs not with the puck, but what happens when two different players see their paths crossing.
Introducing a new physics collision system fine-tuned by their brethren over at FIFA, the developers have eliminated the discrepancy between simulated bodychecks and those taking place in the real world. The team had claimed that the new animations and collision detection would remove the immersion-breaking bumps and robotic hits that plagued previous installments, and in practice, the body contact has never appeared more realistic.
That may seem like a minor tweak, but the confidence in knowing that a well-guided hit will always – always – send the AI player to the ice alleviates a surprising amount of the frustration that usually accompanies a computer-delivered defeat. The AI is still not quite as close to a well-matched opponent as diehard fans continue to hope for, but the developers have helped level the playing field.
When devastating hits are delivered with the newfound confidence NHL 14 allows, yet another layer of realism rears its ugly (or glorious, depending on your own stance) head: the new and improved fighting engine, casting aside the first-person punching mini-game.
Now, players still have the ability to goad their opponents into a boxing match – but if a late or crushing hit is delivered on a star player, you can rest assured that someone on the victim’s team will take exception. And when that happens, the player will have no choice but to drop the gloves. Some fine-tuning is required to keep every solid hit from inciting a fight (although some might claim even that is an accurate depiction of the current game), but our hats are off to the developers for what is, without a doubt, the one change that is sure to warm the hearts (and palms) of hardcore fans.
With the camera remaining locked to the action as the players pair off and the central fight rages, and fans pounding the glass to cheer on their fighter, the presentation is an inspired one. From a technical standpoint, the fighting is just as improved. The tutorial video may seem more at home in Fight Night than NHL, but since the added depth wasn’t necessary, it’s just one more tweak that proves the developers haven’t lost their desire to win the approval of the sport’s most dedicated, not the masses.
That’s a message made clear throughout the game, despite it sitting out the jump to next-gen. Limited in what the developers could offer fans that was ‘better’ – hindered as much by the console’s limits as their high standards to date – the decision was made to simply give their fan base more. And if you’re discussing additions to the core experience that amount to little more than fan service, the Anniversary Mode is a prime example.
With the return of blue ice, stars, and all-organ musical accompaniment, the Anniversary Mode scratches the nostalgic itch for those who prefer arcade hockey to a pure simulation. That shouldn’t be a sign that EA Sports has lessened their dedication to the game’s online component. For the first time, GM Connected lets players not only compile teams to compete in online leagues, but grant each player the same same level of control previously seen in the game’s Be a GM Mode.
For players who prefer a solo experience, NHL 14‘s new ‘Live the Life’ mode is the game’s crowning jewel. By either creating a skater or stepping into the skates of a real-life athlete, players can now experience what it truly feels like to be a professional athlete in today’s game. Whether beginning from a CHL team or trying to break into the NHL, players must now contend with on-ice performance, while managing their approval ratings among fans, their teammates, and even their own families.
That means pre-game and post-game interviews, additional in-game tasks from the coaching staff, and community events. Besides adding some humor to the proceedings, the extra attention provides legitimate insight into the day-to-day of a professional athlete – a true first for the series. The in-game simming from shift to shift has been streamlined, but is still one of the more irritating (and at this point, it seems, necessary) loading loops.
We would have been hard-pressed to identify significant shortcomings of last year’s game, and by addressing persistent issues in some clever ways, and genuinely offering something for every hockey fan, EA Sports Vancouver has made their last title on current consoles their best one to date.
We’re already looking forward to what the team will do with next-gen hardware, but for the next year, NHL 14 will keep hockey fans entertained (possibly for longer than usual) to say the least.
NHL 14 launches September 10, 2013 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. We played both versions for review.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.