Thursday, September 26, 2013

NHL 14 Review

The latest installment of EA's fast-paced hockey series brings balance to both hardcore and casual gamers alike

By JJ Miller

Hockey has always toed the line of popularity in North America, attempting to balance hardcore ice junkies with the casual fans who want to see hitting, hits, more hits and fighting.

NHL 14 does its best to draw in both types of fans, offering deep simulation with a mix of the rough stuff.

The biggest example comes in the collision physics, developed along the same lines of that which powers the popular FIFA series. EA made sure that the hits are big and painful, but also accurate. Large players deliver bone crushing hits -- when timed and lined up just right -- while the little pests knock opposing players off balance and jar the puck loose.

Out of the box, the heavy hits and amount of fighting are above average for your normal NHL game, something sure to pull in casual fans. But for those who crave the accurate jousts, the hardcore simulation setting is a must and the sliders may need adjustment.

Speaking of fighting, NHL 14 delivers the impressive enforcer engine. Powered by EA Sports Fight Night technology, the new enforcer engine does away with the third-person button-mashing brawls and introduces a slightly zoomed dance between the two combatants. Fights can either happen off the draw, by instigating during or after the play, or your could be forced into a confrontation after delivering a big hit to a star player.

In a nice touch, players not involved stay live during the fight, so you'll see teammates pairing off and jousting with the other team or just gliding around the brawl.

Fights begin either already grappled or in a standing premeditated style. Players must time their punches and grabs or risk leaving themselves exposed for the big blow.

This nice upgrade adds another element to the game, but of course you are likely to see more fighting in an average game now.

On the ice, the AI is still shaky at times and it can be frustrating. Teammates often have little mustard on their pass and shot attempts and take odd routes in bringing the puck into the zone. Defenders also seem to struggle when the puck is carried across the middle, leaving goaltenders high and dry.

Garbage goals, though, seem to come in fewer bunches.

Another odd quirk, aside from the fact that the season modes do not include the names of the new divisions, is the fact that the computer-controlled players often times turn their back to the play along the boards when they have the puck, resulting in a lot of boarding penalties for aggressive players.

In another attempt to balance the hardcore and causal fan, EA put in one-touch dekes. While past gamers were able to pull off dazzling moves by rotating analog sticks with brain-wracking combos, the less talented can now use the bumper button and left stick to pull off dekes, if the player has the skill level.

True performance skating sees some upgrades in its second year in the NHL franchise. New animations are packaged and the game continues to nail down the aspects of balance, lateral skating and acceleration for an authentic feel.

GM modes return as does the Be a Pro career mode, but now under the title "Live the Life." This puts players into the role of either an existing or created player and has them control on and off-the-ice aspects of being a professional hockey player.

Players are given the choice of starting in junior leagues, at the draft or in the AHL/NHL like previous games, but NHL 14 introduces a relationship meter with fans, teammates, management and family. Positive ratings in these categories have a good influence on attributes, on-ice behavior and the cash/money, while a lower rating has negative effects, so Sean Avery wannabe's can beware.

Influences come in the form of media interviews, either pregame, postgame or when a roster move happens, as well as endorsement deals and off-ice interactions with teammates and families.

While the mode is certainly appealing, it does need work. Interviews and events offer four choices and some are just so ridiculous that no one in their right mind would make that choice. Expanded options would certainly keep these events fresh as they can become repetitive as well.

HUT and EASHL online seasons are also an option and offer a sort of Euro soccer style tier. Win and move onto tougher divisions; lose and get bumped down to lesser opponents.

The cherry on top of this game is the NHL 94 Anniversary mode.

EA celebrates its most popular and cult-followed edition of the game with a throwback mode of the game that puts the current physics and rosters onto the famous blue ice of the '94 game. Retro stars under the players, music and other options give a nod to the past and offers a more arcade style of play.

It's a one-trick pony for sure, but it is certainly a mode that will see tons of older gamers sit down and enjoy for hours with friends, though the mode is offline only.

NHL 14 may feature New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur on the cover, but his year's edition is all about the hits and physical play of the game. It is by no means a must-own, but is certainly worthy of a pick up if it has been a few years since you last played the franchise.

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