STAFF REVIEW of NHL 14 (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013.
by Scott Fowler

NHL 14 Box art I remember it like it was yesterday. Couple of guys, a few adult beverages, a smallish 19” television on top of a combination of mini-fridge and microwave, and my Sega Genesis. Dorm Hockey tournaments were dorky, to be sure, but also a ton of fun late night at Arizona State University, playing the cutting edge NHL ’94 by EA Sports. Fast-forward 20 years, and we have its successor, NHL 14, available today (September 10th, 2013), by EA Sports ($59.99). Does it hold on to those original roots or chart a new course? Read on to find out…

I think it’s important to cover some history of this franchise to accurately shine a light on this year’s edition. First off, let me explain how big of a game NHL ’94 was. We played it all the time. In Arizona. Not necessarily the hockey hotbed of the world, though it was certainly hot. It was the hockey game that brought non-hockey fans to the sport, most of which in the form of newly initiated Chicago Blackhawks fans. Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick and Eddie Belfour were all but unstoppable in that game. It was so popular, it was even referenced, and accurately I might add, in Jon Favreau’s LA Area nightlife classic movie “Swingers”, starring a young Vince Vaughan:

Mike: The Kings suck in this game you should play another team.
Sue: I took the Kings to the cup.
Trent: Yea, against the computer with the offsides off.
Sue: They are a finesse team.
Trent: LA is a ****ing ***ch team. OOOOHHHHHHH!
[Trent bodychecks one of Sue’s players]
Sue: ******!

Even Trent knew to use the Blackhawks in that version. Ok, enough random backstory on the old game.

Why is all of this important or relevant, you may ask? Well, EA decided to take a trip down memory lane with this years offering. Included with NHL 14 is an anniversary mode, allowing players to jump right in and play a version quite similar to that epic franchise masterpiece. Sure the rosters are different, the penalties non-existent, and the controls/features are dumbed down, but it sure does ring nostalgic, and is tons of fun for longtime players of the franchise.

It also allows you to show your kids what old gaming consoles could do. Or couldn’t. Needless to say the nostalgia was lost on my 13 year old who thought it looked awful, and he was probably right.

NHL 14 takes the game back to it’s roots in lots of ways beyond including the actual ’94 game. The Checking physics have been retooled. You can't tee up a hulking defender with a finesse player and expect a devastating blast. Big-boy hits are more bone crushing, and the accompanying animations tweaked just enough to make the impact look more accurate.

Also new is the revamped Enforcer Engine. EA has completely revisited fighting in this year’s edition, and the controls, though simple, make for a lot better animated fights and control within them. Sometimes simpler really is better, and to me, fighting is significantly improved. Actually, let me clarify. The act of fighting, controlling fists and clutching and ducking, is significantly better than previous editions.

The reason I carve it out this way, though, is that it seems that there is way too much fighting in this game. Everything requires “an answer” from an enforcer. My playing habits, because it’s a video game, make me do things that would never happen in a real game. I shoot after whistles, I mess around with defenders in front of the net after the play is stopped, and I do little things to kill the time in loading screens. Any of the shooting or post-whistle-pay causes fights, as enforcers come flying in to stand up for their goalies or protect teammates. It’s fun for a game or two, but really gets to be a delay, and I found myself really tweaking the out-of-the-box tuning to make it more enjoyable or tolerable. Don’t get me wrong, it's really fun, but it’s just so different than previous versions that it becomes almost overwhelming in the frequency of the fights.

Here’s where I think, though, that this process is somewhat smart with regards to marketing. I think these aspects of the new game have the potential to bring back the casual hockey gamer, but might ruffle the feathers of the hardcore hockey fans out-of-the-box. The good news, though, is that these issues are quickly fixed via tuning, and I think at that point the game really shines.

Yes, the graphics are slightly more polished. Chris Pronger looks like Chris Pronger. Teemu Selanne looks like Teemu Selanne. Most players are more easily identifiable as themselves, with obvious exceptions, but I think that component is improved slightly.

The navigation and UI is fairly straightforward, and most of the features of the game remain standard to previous iterations.

Players can now Live the Life of a hockey player, and start their professional careers all the way back in Juniors. It’s nice seeing Teams like North Bay (OHL) on the big screen, and provides this Canadian transplant some great tie-ins to living where hockey really matters and is a way of life. This mode is basically the same as previous years, sans the name change. Now, though, players have off ice things to navigate and interviews to give, allowing them the opportunity to endear themselves to players, fans, and coaches, and helping their game. I do like this mode, but having really started in Juniors took a looooooong time to “Go Pro”.

You can play online in leagues with tons of other players, but none of my friends had the game yet so I didn’t venture into this area. Personally, I’m more a “play out a career” sort of player in these sports games, but I know that the big online followings are very real for many sports titles, and I’m sure the folks that like this style of play will be happy with the features. EA did make it so you can have some massive leagues, with up to 750 (!!) players competing. That’s just insanity to me, and I wonder if that’s more about bragging that you can do it versus actually getting it done. I’ll be curious to see if any leagues get anywhere close to those numbers.

Ultimate team works like most of the other EA brand games. Collect cards to fill out a roster on an ultimate team. Game play = points = more cards = better team. Pretty standard stuff. My out of the box team wasn’t great, and I didn’t get to play this part too much, but it’s pretty standard.

No game, however, is without its warts. While the soundtrack and navigation in this game are great, the Pay for Features component has some drawbacks. When I played my first game, the Anaheim Ducks Vs. the San Jose Sharks, it took me a minute to figure out how to start the game. That’s because the default San Jose jersey requires unlocking, and you have to select an alternate jersey for the opposing team to allow the game to start. Not sure if that’s some early release issue, and I’m sure that sort of thing can get fixed via patch, but it was annoying and sort of ridiculous to me right out of the gate.

All in all, though, I think EA has done it again, and continues to make NHL one of its premier products for Xbox 360. I’ve been ending my recent reviews with excitement over the future of sports gaming on the Xbox One, and I am excited by this last hurrah on the 360. I think EA understands hockey, and understands the types of gamers that play the game. Casual fans and die-hards will probably both really enjoy this version, as it seems to hit well on all cylinders. Sure, the game intros and some of the UI are eerily similar to last years version, but you know what? This years NHL product on the ice looks a lot like last years, too. If it ain’t broke…

Fix some of those unlocked jersey bugs. Keep it up and make the new console NHL series even better. Can't wait!

Overall: 8.6 / 10
Gameplay: 8.7 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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