Review: NHL ’14 by EA Sports

In 1991, EA Sports brought the NHL to life in video game form with the release of NHL Hockey for the Sega Genesis.  In 1993, the company released what is still widely considered to be the best sports game of all time, NHL ’94.  Twenty years later, the company is still churning out one of – if not the – best sports games of the year with the NHL series, and this Tuesday they release the latest edition, NHL ’14.

The new experience starts as soon as you pop the game into your console.  I was presented with what they’re calling “Hospitality Settings.”  You choose your preferred difficulty straight out of the box with these, choosing between High impact (Enjoys Huge Hits, fast paced speed and Hard shots), Simulation (This game style allows for the most realistic hockey), and Hardcore Simulation (This game style is similar to simulation but with manual passing enabled, more stick on stick collisions and stick on skate collisions).  Next you choose your preferred controller settings between NHL 94, Skill Stick, or a hybrid of both.

Once you choose that and go through the usual standard stuff (connecting with your Origin account, for example), it’s time to hit the ice.  All the stuff from last year’s game is in there (though NHL Moments Live was buried pretty deep in the menu, to the point that I almost thought they quietly dropped it), and of course there are the widely touted new features,  NHL ’94 mode and the updated Be A Pro mode called “Live The Life.”

I jumped straight into NHL ’94 mode as soon as I finished the initial setup.  Having been a fan of NHL ’94, owning the original for Sega Genesis, the emulation that shipped with NHL ’06, and the EA Sports plug and play controller thing of it (not to mention the fan made emulation that features updated rosters and teams), I was excited to hear that they were including an NHL ’94 mode with updated graphics in this year’s edition.  While it’s good for a slight kick of nostalgia, it still feels like you’re playing NHL ’14 with blue ice and stars instead of overhead diamonds for player indicators.  The music doesn’t continue to play over the gameplay as it did in the original, there’s commentary, and you can only play one game at a time – there’s no old-school NHL ’94 playoff mode.  The no-holds barred gameplay lends itself to the arcade style feel of the original, but much like the Winter Classic mode, I can’t see myself playing this very often.

Courtesy EA

The other mode I’ve spent a little bit of time with this weekend has been the “Live The Life” mode, a new twist on the “Be A Pro” modes from previous years.  In this, you create your player and start from the bottom (or, if you prefer, start directly in the NHL).  EA has made the Be A Pro more realistic starting from inside the actual games.  You’ll no longer get 45 minutes of ice time.  A first line player will typically get 17-20 minutes, and a second liner will get 10-15 – and that’s if you earn your ice time.  Off the ice, you now live the life of an NHL player (hence, “Live The Life” mode).  This gives you situations such as interviews (pre game, post game, or news interviews – and even pre-draft interviews with NHL franchises looking to draft you), endorsements, or off-ice events (such as teammates wanting to go out for a night on the town, possibly angering your coaches).  Every little thing you do off and on the ice affects your “likability meters.” You have four sets of people to try and keep happy with you:  Fans, Management, Teammates, and Family.  These meters have an effect on everything else you do in this mode.  For example, a high fan likability will result in more endorsements coming your way, a low teammate likability may result in your teammates not passing you the puck during a game, and a high management likability will increase your likelihood of making and staying on the NHL roster instead of being shipped back to the minors.

Courtesy EA

This weekend, my nine year old daughter is spending the weekend at my house, and she was watching me play.  She says, “wow, those look like real people!”  She also told me, thinking that EA Sports releasing this game hinged on my opinion of it, “I think they should put the game out!”  So there you go, EA, praise from a nine year old little girl for you game.  But she’s right.

This year, the graphics have improved.  The team really went all out for this one.  For example, when you get into a fight (and, the new fighting engine is awesome.  That Damn Double C previewed it here), you can see the damage to a player’s face afterward.  Players such as Alexander Ovechkin are missing teeth, and the faces in the game look better overall, as do the team uniforms.

Courtesy EA

In a post regarding the demo, That Damn Double C mentioned that he felt “the game’s looks are tweaked to look better, but the overall feel is pretty much the same as last year’s edition.”  While this may be true, the fact is that the team had created an amazing game engine with the Xbox 360 version of NHL ’07, one that really makes you feel like you’re playing hockey, and they have incrementally improved on it every year since then.  While it may feel like the same game you played last year, the hits are bigger, the fights are better, and the new game modes really seal the deal.

To recap:  I’m not big on NHL ’94 mode, I really dig the “Live The Life” mode, and the graphics are superb.  The new fighting engine is awesome, and the gameplay improvements absolutely add to the overall EA Sports NHL experience.  Now if only we could get them to add in the 1990s Buffalo Sabres jerseys as throwbacks.

Overall, I think EA did a great job.  There is so much more that I need to get into in this game, such as the improved Hockey Ultimate Team, Be a GM, and GM Connected modes – the latter of which now has a app to keep track of your team even when you’re not by your console – as well as the mode that gets used the most often by me, the traditional Season Mode.   There’s enough unique ways to play this game now that browsing the menu might kill 30 minutes, but that just means there’s something here for everyone.  Another year, another great NHL game from EA Sports.  Now remake Mutant League Hockey already!

EA Sports’ NHL ’14 is available this Tuesday, September 10th.  Pre-order your copy today!

I’d like to thank EA for allowing us to review this game for our readers, you guys did an awesome job with it and I look forward to working with you again next year!

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