When people claim that sports games are “always the same,” I usually just shake my head. The tweaks to the physics engine, the changes to how fantasy teams operate, and a lot more nuances go into yearly iterations of sports games, and fans usually take notice of every detail, comparing and contrasting last year’s entry at every turn.
But this time around, I’d argue not enough was changed to make NHL 14 a compelling purchase, even if it’s still a pretty solid franchise.
First things first, a decent amount of smaller mechanics have been improved from NHL 13. The GM mode is now a superior experience, given the fact that the CPU is now a lot more advanced than it once was, leading to far better trades and a general sense of realism. Defense as a whole is also improved, as are goalies in general, which now block a few more shots than they otherwise wouldn’t have in the past.
Offensive similarly feels the same if not better, which is great news considering NHL 13 had a fairly solid system to begin with. Shots still feel fluid, skating control is really tight, and the overall visuals are advanced enough to convey pretty much everything you’d want out of a modern day hockey game. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are still commentating the action, and they remain relatively solid.
The new checking system is a highlight, which changes the system to simply bumping your opponent rather than pressing a dedicated button. Due to the physics changes, momentum is a factor, and you can actually feel yourself revving up for different kinds of checks, which is a nice touch. Inline with the more physical changes to checking, fighting is also a major mechanic in NHL 14, much to my delight. Fights not only happen more often now, but they’re also a part of the core game, as they take place nonchalantly in-game in the third person view. As always, if you hate the idea of a more arcadey experience, you can just dial back the settings to your liking.
In terms of new modes, Live the Life has replaced the Be a Pro mode, and I have to say it’s not nearly as compelling. It’s a very shallow quest involving your rise to fame as a star, and since most of the action is done through text screens, there’s no real heart to it. To be blunt, you answer some questions, and immediately a bar begins to rise or fall which affects your relationship with your team. In short, it’s like eating a bunch of chickens in Fable and becoming prime-evil — it’s ridiculous. Unlike 2K’s impressive star modes that involve real life news commentary and flashy cutscenes, there’s not a whole lot of the same effort put forth here, leaving me to skip out on Be a Pro outside of the time I spent testing it.
The other major addition is the classic NHL 94 mode that replicates a retro experience. But like Be a Pro, EA didn’t go all out on it and it unfortunately falls flat. Instead of getting a true retro minigame with old school sounds and sights, it’s more like a Frankenstein’s monster of old and new, resulting in a rather jarring game. Online play also isn’t supported in the NHL 94 mode, which is a shame.
At the end of the day, NHL 14 is still a good hockey game, but I’m not sure if it really evolves the franchise in any major way. The two big additions really had a chance to make this the best NHL game in years, and ended up falling flat. But provided you aren’t wowed with extras and tend to just play exhibition games over and over, NHL 14 is still a safe bet.
This review is based on a physical copy of the 360 game NHL 14.