It was 20 years ago that NHL '94 revolutionized hockey gaming. I was just 4 years old at the time, and enjoyed hours of scoring cheap goals by spinning in circles down the ice. To celebrate the franchise's 20th birthday, EA has packed NHL '14 to the brim with gameplay modes and features galore but, sadly, most of these extra features aren't worth getting excited about.
NHL '14 has all of the franchise's usual staples including, but not limited to, one-on-one matches, player career mode, GM mode, and what the developers call the 'Hockey Ultimate Team' card-collecting mode. You can, of course, still go online to play against friends or random opponents as well. The most notable addition, however, is the NHL '94 classic mode, which we will get to in a minute.
The controls are almost identical to the last several releases of the game, but with the addition of a one-button deke move. This ability, while useful if mastered, is inconsistent and almost too finicky to attempt on a regular basis. Almost every aspect of the game can still be controlled, down to every stride, stickmove, or shot. For the most part, if you've played NHL '11, you will be able to quickly pick up the game without much in the way of a learning curve.
While NHL 14's graphics are good, they can be compared almost directly with NHL '13 and few differences can be noted. Player detail is well done, and character animation is smooth, but it's a shame that EA put no additional effort into the visuals for this outing. As for the sound design, EA again have done little to improve upon prior entries. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement are back in the broadcasting booth with the same old lines dating back to NHL '11 and the soundtrack borders on insufferable, with an odd mix of alternative rock.
EA have added some new features, but they don't amount to much in the grand scheme of things. The biggest change is to the Be a Pro mode, where you play as a rising star in the league. While the concept remains intact, EA have changed it into a role-playing like mode called Live the Life, which feels like a poorly executed version of the NBA 2K series' mode where you can gain endorsements, acquire fame in the media, and rise to stardom. The mode is, simply put, boring. Most interactions play out through text screens with yes or no questions to determine the outcomes of said events, and the results of these bland interactions are then translated into scores divided into 4 audiences (fans, family, teammates, and management). The scores received then effect on and off-ice events, so if you, for example, treat the media with disdain then the team may end up hating you, causing a trade to be made. The entire process is too forced and manufactured, the end result feeling more like a Sims character creation simulation than that of a hockey star.
The other headline addition is the aforementioned NHL '94 mode. This "retro" option enables you to play a watered down version of the arcade style hockey that we all enjoyed on our SNES and Genesis consoles. Unfortunately the end result is a weaker rendition of the modern game that's also a less than stellar retro re-visit; NHL '94 mode is an awkward hybrid. Outside of the old-fashioned blue stars and some older sound effects, there's nothing nostalgically retro about the NHL '94 mode. EA would have been better off if they had just included a port of the actual NHL '94 game.
On-ice gameplay changes are also very limited in NHL '14. This is the second release to take advantage of EA's newest physics engine, but it does not equate to a better experience. Speed and movements tend to be handled fairly decently, especially in regards to stopping or making a sharp turn, and opposing defensemen will get much more aggressive in front of the net, but it is also not uncommon to see the net become lodged off when the forwards crash towards the crease.
The biggest change to the engine comes in the form of collision detection. This ability has been modified to make the game more physical. In the past, hits were handled with a press of a button. You can now lay out an opponent simply by skating into them with some speed. While this is a nice addition, EA Sports may have gone too far with this feature, as matches often tend to feel arcadey due to the high level of hits. However, it should be noted that it is nowhere near as exaggerated as the NHL Hitz series from long ago. NHL '14 also seems far too inconsistent in calling penalties in respect to hits. I have gone entire games with no penalties called while practically murdering the other team, only to spend all of the next game in the box for the exact same actions. Late hit penalties appear to be non-existent as well, as I would frequently nail players to the boards who no longer had the puck.
Now, you cannot have a hockey game without fighting. This feature has been quite substantially altered so that fights now take place in third-person mode and are made to look more natural, instead of looking like a theatric production. In NHL '13 fighting was not commonplace, but in NHL ' 14, they take place far too frequently. For example, if you lay down a big hit on an opposing forward, you can almost guarantee the other team's enforcer will initiate a fight. These all too frequent fights, along with the game's staged bruiser-on-bruiser fights, makes for an experience that quickly becomes tedious. EA will hopefully find a better balance in the next entry.
Yet, despite the changes to the game's formula outlined above, NHL '14 does too little to differentiate itself from NHL '13. The action is fast and exciting, but also highly inconsistent. The game's AI has not been improved upon, and may actually be some of the worst the series has offered in years, with computer controlled players skating erratically and being behind the play more often than not. The goalie's AI is capable of blocking insane dekes and shots from the point, but will allow soft slappers from the blueline time and time again. Here is my tip to win: shoot a slapshot from the blueline into the upper left or right corners. The goalies never seem to block these shots. The AI is halfway decent when it comes to defense, but expect nothing from them when it comes to offense or goaltending.
Despite the strength of criticism I've levelled against it in this review, NHL '14 is not a bad game, but it is most definitely an unpolished one. There is very little that sets NHL '14 apart from any of the other games in the series since NHL '11, and even less that does so in a positive way.
This review is based on a retail copy of NHL ' 14 for the PS3, provided by the publisher.