When I was quite a bit younger, I used to get free tickets to our local Ice Hockey team. They were and still are pretty good, they’ve won the UK national championships recently, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. I enjoyed the atmosphere, although it was chuffing cold. I got to know a little bit about the game but I really went for the on-ice fights. I took the chance to play NHL 14 on the basis that if it was bad, I could always resort to the fisticuffs.
EA Sports are quickly turning into a one-stop shop for all of your sporting simulation needs. The NHL franchise have been part of that set-up since 1991 with the first Xbox version having come out in 2002. I’ve not played an NHL franchise game before, and I was a little apprehensive as to what I might find. The opening scenes you get with the game are pretty much what you’d expect from an EA Sports franchised title. Heavy on the action, slick and graphically excellent.
The opening menus are a little on the clunky side, and while they are fast, there are a lot of choices to make and if you’re new to the franchise this can be a little daunting. So, after choosing what seems to be all and sundry in the hockey world, you finally come to the main play menu. From here you have what you’d usually come to expect from the likes of FIFA and Madden. There’s a Quick Play option, which includes a Winter Mode, single match and a 20th anniversary NHL 94 mode. Add this to the Training Mode, which I’d recommend if you’re new to the controls, the General Manager mode and the Ultimate Team ‘Live the Life’ mode, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have plenty of entertainment ahead whether it’s just to pick up and play, or to start a full-on simulated career on the ice.
Starting my first ever match-up on the ice, I pretty much knew I was about to get a hammering, so I chose to play an NHL 94 Anniversary Mode match just to get used to the controls and the speed of the game. Even in this tribute to the first fully franchised NHL game, the graphics are really very good indeed. The light reflection on the ice gives you the feeling that you’re sliding across glass. From the player movement to the replay close-ups, they all have the element of realism that allow you to lose yourself in the gameplay. The in-game physics have been tweaked to give you a more realistic experience from the previous versions too with collisions no longer based on a simple hit. The way the player falls is based on a combination of your speed, the angle of hit and where you hit them. Each time you do hit them, there’s an unhealthy sounding grunt. As it happened, in the simplified version that is NHL 94, I managed a 0-0 shut-out, something I was proud of given that in my next match I did get the hammering I was expecting.
The next element to come under scrutiny will have to be the controls. With NHL 14 you have 3 main options to pick. Simple controls are pretty much like a pre-aftertouch FIFA, you control your skater with the left stick and the shooting/passing/hustle/tackling are all controlled by the usual action buttons. There is also a spin option using the left bumper. All these are pretty intuitive and as you’d expect from EA, are responsive to your commands. The other two options are dual-stick affairs, with the right stick controlling your puck movement on the ice. Tweak the right stick to deke the puck from side to side and confuse your opponent, then spin and slap a shot goalwards. The third option is a customisable version of the dual-stick control, an ultimate hardcore control if you will, recommended for the hockey suicidal in my opinion if you’re a rookie. These controls lend well to the overall gameplay, although I did forget to deke the puck when playing dual-stick, which is probably the reason for my hammering.
The opponent’s AI is balanced to the point of being impossible to beat teams that are evenly matched to you as the opponent’s netminder is far too good for your shooting to beat. As such, this is frustrating, knowing that you will eventually get hammered, despite two good periods of shut-out, as your players tire is a little depressing. The other more annoying feature is the lack of auto-assigning your closest to the puck player to allow you to defend correctly. There is probably a setting you can tweak to set this to auto, but as with FIFA, this is a particular bug-bear in this kind of game for me.
If you want to play as just one player, you can with the Ultimate Team ‘Live the Life’ mode. This mode allows you to develop a single player career, as in FIFA, but be warned, you can choose to simulate some of the career, with the risk of you being incorrectly labelled and thus affecting your sponsorship and contract negotiations for the next season. It’s definitely something that can be improved on for the next version. It’s all well and good, but the whole mode feels more like an afterthought than a fully conceived and developed part of the career mode.
As a backdrop to all the on-ice action, you have a Canadian commentary team. On the face of it, this seems to work well. The shot, block, save announcements all keep up well with the action and while there are the inevitable repeats of lines, these appear to be few and not really as noticeable as they are in other sports games. A little research later, however and it would seem that those lazy tykes at EA have simply used the same commentary dialogue, and indeed recording, from last year’s game. Disappointing from EA and just that ever-so slightly bit lazy. The other audio in the game is very well done though. The skating effects are just this side of accurate enough to make me swing my hips and the grunts the players make when hit almost make you wince, but it’s all a little bit lost under the commentary. The shot hits and subsequent puck impacts are all pretty much nailed too, and if you’re anything like me you’ll be taking a huge number of shots only to watch them sail harmlessly wide or over or frustratingly beaten away or pounced on by netminders that are just simply unbeatable.
Again, in keeping with other EA Sports titles, EATrax is present to provide you with some music to listen to while the game loads and you trawl through the seemingly endless menus. These are all suitably rocking to get you pumped enough to go and lay some aggression down on the ice, which brings me nicely to the fighting. Yes, the fighting, the only reason most people watch Ice Hockey, I’m pretty sure. If one of your players is taken out particularly roughly, you can tap the Y button and instigate a bit of the old fisticuffs. It’s less of the Queensbury Rules and more of the back of the Queens Arms on a Saturday night. Your ruffian will storm over, ditching their stick and gloves along the way, ready to rumble in the best possible fashion. Using a combination of both sticks and the triggers you can dodge, grab and swing at your opponent in typical Ice Hockey brawling fashion. This I found quite fun if I’m honest, with that small sense of achievement as you get your quarry to submit after launching a flurry of blows. Once you’ve won, your players get a welcome boost of energy and I have to say this brought out the inner cage-fighter in me, resulting in me not losing a single fight.
Back to the hockey action then, it’s easy to see why the NHL franchise has been a mainstay of the EA Sports roster of sports simulation games for so long. It has that rare commodity of being easy to pick up, easy to become immersed in yet with enough longevity to keep you interested for more than just the odd quick match or one-season wonder. It’s just a shame that there are no UK-based teams amongst the plethora of North American and Canadian heavyweights, mixed in with the pick of Czech, Swedish, Finnish and German teams. Teams such as the current Stanley Cup holders the Chicago Blackhawks and the otherwise well-known teams such as the Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs all feature with accurate player rosters and stats. It’s a shame also that in the UK the game doesn’t get the promotion of the likes of FIFA, which reflects the popularity of a sport in this country that I’ve certainly been to watch and enjoyed.
So, I like NHL 14, not mainly for the fact that the gameplay itself is slicker than one of the rinks you play on and that the graphics are not only accurately portrayed, well animated and tweaked to give a weight to them that would almost have you imagining you’re actually there but I like it for the simple fact that it brings a game that I’ve watched on and off for some years to my Xbox. It presents me with the opportunity to buy into the ethos of being a big-time Ice Hockey player and on the whole it does it quite well despite some AI issues and some balancing problems with the ‘Live the Life’ mode. The NHL 94 Anniversary mode brings the arcade-style gameplay into a marriage with the slick graphics and I have to have this down as my favourite mode so far, not least for the fact that it’s clearer, with the star under the selected player instead of the overhead marker, to see who you are actually in control of. Sure, the game has its faults, the apparent imbalance in equally matched teams, the impossible to beat netminders, the flawed player career mode and the infuriating defensive player selection all count against it and yet I will keep coming back for more, like the drunk spoiling for a fight at the end of a Friday night. It might not get as much promotion in the UK, but UK Ice Hockey fans (and there are a fair few of them), should definitely consider investing in NHL 14, you won’t regret it if you’re a proper NHL nut.