Sports games are a staple of every season, with installments that celebrate the new rosters and updated stats of all our favorite players. For most it's a guaranteed buy because of a pretty simple formula; if you like sports and enjoyed last year's title, you'll probably buy this year's title as well. But if you're otherwise new to the world of hockey video gaming and are looking for a multiplayer title that will consume an inordinate amount of your time, then NHL 14 may be the not-so-obvious choice for you this year.
One of the best features in NHL 14 would be its accessibility, a major barrier for anyone who isn't used to the complexity of a sports title. Right from the start, the game asks whether or not you would like to choose between three different control sets. These range from a simple shoot/pass/move button layout that's incredibly easy to manage, to a far more complex multi-button option that includes both analog sticks for movement and direction. Additionally players can select the difficulty of the AI, which is a given, but provides an extra cushion for players having difficulty navigating the controls.
While using the arcade controls immediately provides for some fun quick matches amongst friends, the real change behind this year's iteration is in the pro setup, which takes a considerable amount of time to adjust to but allows for much more complex and realistic gameplay. Using the right analog stick, players are able to control not only the force of a slapshot, but the direction and corner of the net as well. Further developing this control is a new deking (fake out) system, which allows players swap what side they're making a shot from with a few simple button options.
When on defense (or not holding the puck) the right stick then becomes assigned to directional checking, while other buttons normally reserved for passing or deking are replaced with more aggressive blocks, poke checks, or puck chopping; all different means of stealing back the puck. Pressing an opponent against the rink is entirely controlled with one button, which then gives the player an opportunity to knock away their control quickly.
Fights have been entirely revamped for NHL 14, which is pretty important considering that fighting is as much a part of hockey culture as ice and sticks. A fight can pop up during the course of the game with enough hits as tension runs high, and once the gloves are off players are taken into a sort of mini game. Using controls stripped from Fight Night players throw punches, pull a player to throw them off balance or dodge an incoming swing using the analog sticks. Successful hits will drain away a player's "˜health', displayed by their energy, and the first one down loses.
If you're using the pro controls and new to the franchise then overall NHL 14 will take some time getting used to, but the result is incredibly rewarding. The attention to detail is impressive and everything from passes to shots, checks and saves are a fluid and natural affair; their reliance on the analog is almost entirely responsible for this.
Gameplay is broken down into four primary game modes, two of which are meant for a fun quick game. Winter Classic returns, this time including the 2012 team match up, and NHL 94 Anniversary Edition gives the full retro arcade feel of a simpler time in hockey gaming. Both are easy to get into and quick to start, meant more for some multiplayer fun than single player action.
Live the Life mode gives players the opportunity to enter the NHL under a custom character and play through an entire season, improving their stats and earning more playtime with decisions made on and off the ice. Decisions on how to handle marketing, team coordination, and responses to press questions will all shape the development on a player; an overall expansion on the Be a Pro mode from previous game. Conversely the Online Season gives player the tournament feel against other players, putting their skills to the test in regular matches.
Though the graphics behind NHL 14 look quite nice things can fall apart when the game becomes a little ambitious in its close up shots. Players will often times hilariously ragdoll when checked, which is fine, but in a gloves-off fight the same physics just blast away the realism. Another minor complaint would be the grappling, which never quite has players holding onto the opponent. Where the controls are smooth the visual aspects of the event tend to tear away at the realism.
An accomplishment to offset the occasional visual oddity would be the sound, which is incredibly crisp in delivering the play-by-play as it happens in real time. Announcements, player stats and other audio cues don't miss a beat which really helps suck the player into the action. The main theme doesn't quite have the same appeal though.
If you've never cared to invest in a sports game before NHL 14 won't be the title to convince you, most likely because you're just not a sports fan. If you've ever enjoyed the sport before and have stayed away because you're just not that into gaming, this is the title to pick up. EA Sports has done an incredible job in making the game both incredibly accessible to newbies and rewarding for those who are veterans to the franchise, it just doesn't reach the same heights as the past few iterations.
|Easy to learn, fun to master controls|
|Fighting is more rewarding/fun|
|Overall improvement for the franchise, but only just|
|Fighting looks awkward visually|
|Default controls will take some time to master|
|Awful main menu soundtrack|