I’ve always liked rather than loved ice hockey, but I’ll tell you what, I certainly love rather than like EA’s quite brilliant, NHL 14; a sport game as consistently fantastic and downright complete as I have ever player. A game so good that it is almost singlehandedly leaving my shiny new Xbox One largely un-played and mostly un-loved.
With the NHL series becoming more and more sim-centric in recent years, I have found myself returning to my old copy of NHL 2K10 when the guys come over for a few beers due to the simpler controls and faster pace – not anymore though. No, current-gen or not, I can see NHL 14 being one of my go to sports games for the next year, and along with the most recent Pro Evolution Soccer, confirms that my current-gen consoles will remain plugged in and readily used for at least another 12 months.
While the improvements to last year’s already fantastic skating mechanics and physics engine, along with an array of enhancements to both the extensive single player and online options certainly help to make NHL 14 an extremely impressive package, it’s the triple threat of the all new Collision Physics, the brilliant new fighting engine and fantastically fun throwback to simpler times, NHL 94 Anniversary Mode, that truly mark NHL 14 out as the best game in an already consistently fantastic franchise.
While general movement, physics and AI have all been improved for NHL 14 (the AI in particular feels much more on point this time around), it is the Collision Physics that make the biggest difference to gameplay and game flow. Thanks to the more streamlined and realistic collision engine, NHL 14 not only feels like a more natural representation of the sport, but for the most part, a much more brutal and entertaining one to boot. Rather than spamming the check button, collisions now happen naturally based upon speed, momentum and the angle of collision. You can still set-up the big hits, but now, flattened opponents and glass cracking hits all happen as players collide via standard movement.
Not only are these hits incorporated more successfully than ever into a representation of the sport that feels extremely life-like, but when combined with the improved animations and general physics, leads to collisions that feel genuinely brutal without ever overstepping that mark into ‘arcade’ territory. NHL 14 still feels like a simulation; it just happens to be a simulation of the most exciting and downright aggressive game of hockey you are likely to see all year – it’s akin to playing a game made up almost entirely of highlights. Purists might not be best pleased, but for those looking for an entertaining game of hockey, NHL 14 delivers in spades.
Still, hardcore or not, how ‘arcadey’ or sim-like you wish NHL 14 to be is largely up to you thanks to the incredible array of sliders and game options available. Whether it is a life-like representation of the sport or a rule-lite, hit-heavy interpretation, NHL 14, thanks largely to its fantastic physics engine, works at either end of the spectrum. As if to prove the point, EA have seen fit to include the fantastic, NHL 94 Anniversary Mode, a mode that, while still using the current engine, takes the core gameplay and strips it back to its Mega Drive era, NHL 94 roots.
For those who have perhaps fallen off the hockey bandwagon or those who have always been more interested in video game hockey than the real thing, this mode in particular makes NHL 14 the perfect excuse to get back on the virtual ice. With its light blue ice, higher camera angle and stars around selected players, this really does feel like an updated version of the Mega Drive classic, complete with simplified controls and an extremely sparse set of rules. It’s simplistic, enjoyable, and with a few beers, absolutely great fun. So, exactly how you remember NHL 94 then.
Back in the game proper so to speak, after many failed attempts, it finally feels like they have nailed fights on the ice thanks to a liberal sprinkling of Fight Night style brawling. Gone is the obtrusive first person view with fights now taking place in third person with no break from the action on ice. Tussles go on, fights can be accepted or declined and enforcers can get involved on their buddies behalf. Fights are slick, realistic, and like the on-ice checks, totally brutal. With pushes, dodges and hits all controlled with the triggers and sticks, each fight really does feel as slick as anything from the Fight Night series. Battles are understandably shorter, but due to the slick implementation of dodges and counters, battles are often intense tactical affairs with wins usually coming off the back of careful timing rather than button mashing.
Off the ice, NHL also improves with an even wider range of single player and online options. The renamed Live the Life acts as the centrepiece and goes for the NBA 2K approach of attempting to create an all-encompassing experience for your created player that takes in every aspect of the game. It might not be quite as in depth as 2K Sport’s juggernaut, but what it lacks in comparative depth, it makes up for with a fleet of foot that keeps the whole experience ticking along nicely. Despite the array of distractions, the emphasis is always on the actual game rather than bogging players down with the array of brief but enjoyable side shows. With the depth of Live the Life combined with the usual array of game modes and the extremely enjoyable EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) which allows you to take your created pro online to play off against up to 12 other players, there is more than enough content here to keep you busy until the inevitable next-gen, NHL 15.
It may be a current-gen only title, but I can only assume that it has benefited from the type of focus such a decision has allowed. It may not reinvent the series (I’m not sure if it needs reinventing to be honest), but the combination of bigger, more natural feeling hits, a far superior fight engine and the brilliant throwback, NHL 94 Anniversary Mode (something that the Madden series could learn a lot from), combine to create what is arguably this generation’s finest sports game and proof positive that there is still plenty of life in the 360 and PS3 yet.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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