Having played EA Sports’s NHL franchise for many years, I’ve seen the greatness that was NHL ’94, the complete overhauls over the next few years that continued the tradition of excellence, the lean years of the early to mid 2000s, and the return of to glory that started with NHL 09. The newest version, NHL 14, released on September 10th. It’s likely the swan song for the current generation of consoles, with the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One releasing this November. This is not to say that EA will stop making the NHL games for the PS3 and X360, but the focus will clearly be on the newer platforms.
EA hyped this game by advertising a new fighting engine and enforcer mechanics, as well as better goalie, shooting, deflection, and defensive AI. The new fighting/enforcer engine is very well done. Fights are now triggered by big hits on star players, or illegal hits on most anyone. Players still have the option to decline fights in multiplayer, so there’s no risk of losing a top skater for five minutes because you crushed some poor soul along the boards. As for the remainder of the AI changes, they’re a mixed bag. Defenders are much better at positioning, which was the biggest problem in NHL 13‘s on ice play. It was too easy to blow by a defenseman who wasn’t perfectly placed, and the changes made for this year have mostly remedied that. Shooting and deflections are better as you can now shoot the puck flush to the ice, as opposed to always having at least a little elevation. AI teammates now actively try to redirect the puck on net, as opposed to it randomly flying off in any direction. However, the goalies are awful. For all the changes made since NHL 13, somehow the goaltenders came out far worse than they were before. Previously, goalies were able to make crazy, unrealistic saves on some shots, but were embarrassingly bad at covering high to the stick side and the five-hole. Now, it’s an absolute free-for-all. Goalies are better positioned and have a harder time reacting to screens, which is good, but in NHL 14 it seems that the average goalie couldn’t stop a child from scoring on him. It is now far too easy to score goals, and many games I play end with scores like 6-5 as opposed to the more realistic 2-1’s and 3-2’s that NHL 13 produced. The new one-touch deke system also falls a bit short. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that it can be a fairly awkward system to use. I liked being able to toe drag people into submission and pop the puck over a defender while avoiding a hit. This system is more focused on cutbacks and while it works, it isn’t as fun as the old system to me.
NHL 14 features a revamped version of the old Be A Pro mode, dubbed Live The Life in this title. In it, the old standby features of Be A Pro are complemented by added statistics regarding your likability to fans, management, teammates, and families. To affect these attributes, different multiple-choice events will pop up sporadically as you progress. These can be interviews, your teammates daring you to do something, nutrition choices, and more. The same expectation system and coach’s grades from previous years persist in this game, largely unchanged. They remain based around the player type you select for your pro. Snipers will be asked to score goals, playmakers are told to tally assists, two-way forwards have to do a little bit of everything, and so on. While the mode is more fun than in years’ past, some of the same problems are still present. Teammate AI, though better, is still subpar. They will still make bad passes, get caught out of position, and take bad shots. The goalies are worse than before, allowing soft goals left and right. The worst part about this mode from back then is the line change AI, and that still hasn’t been fixed. Oftentimes I start a shift with the puck either deep in my zone or the other team rushing in during a 2 on 1, and we get scored on. This craters my plus-minus rating, which is one of the requirements to unlock items and progress your player.
GM Connected returns with a faster user interface and less delay in the menus. For those who are unaware, GM Connected allows you and up to 749 (you read that right, 749) others compete online in an NHL season. You can take control of a team as the general manager, be a player on the team, or coach a team. It’s a great concept for a game mode, but it still isn’t quite right. Weird things like trade exploits and sloppy menus keep the mode from being truly great. I personally am hoping for a fix in next year’s game on the new consoles. I think another great feature that is missing from this mode is the option to have a live fantasy draft for your league. The fantasy draft option is in the game for season and Be A GM modes, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement here.
Hockey Ultimate Team also returns with minimal improvements. In this mode, you buy packs of cards containing players, jerseys, contracts, attribute boosts, and arenas, which all go towards constructing your very own hockey team. Packs are bought with either EA Pucks, which are earned in the various game modes (you earn the most at a time by playing HUT though) or by paying real money. Once you’re ready to play, you can take your team into tournaments against the AI or online to battle other players’ teams. It’s an interesting way for people to build a team from scratch, but it takes a long time to save up for any of the good packs (gold and up, and even then you won’t get many top-tier players) and people who aren’t willing to go through the grind are going to get bored quickly.
Now, to the part of the review that I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to write. Seemingly every EA Sports title that comes out has freezing/glitching issues. In NHL, said problems are often centered around the Custom Music feature. I love the idea of it, since EA’s musical selection for its games is normally terrible and I’d rather not hear the same ten songs repeatedly while playing. For last year’s NHL 13, I went all out with it and made a separate playlist for each team. In NHL 14, I brought the old playlists over and added three more songs per team. Even after installing the game to my hard drive and taking great care of the disc, in ’13 I still had freezes occurring sometimes due to the music not being loaded properly by the game. In ’14, half the time I play the game it freezes at some point, most often right after the final buzzer and the home team’s win song gets played (goal horn + whatever playlist you pick). As far as glitches go, the same glitch goals from the previous games exist, and a handful of new ones have already been discovered. This coupled with the community make online play an absolute mess. I usually refuse to touch online play in sports games, because people are too lazy and immature to actually learn how to play the game and instead resort to these exploits, and this game is no different.
When the game runs properly, NHL 14 is a solid hockey title that delivers fluid skating, hellaciously fun fighting, an immersive mode in Live The Life, and an overall more realistic hockey sim than NHL 12 and NHL 13 when it comes to everything but scoring. However, as it stands right now the game is a glitch and bug-filled mess. EA is supposedly working on patches and ways to fix the issues, but these are things that should have been addressed in production and not post-release. The sooner they fix the freezes and exploits, the sooner we can all get to enjoying the game, but until then I’m giving NHL 14 a grade of Incomplete on the grounds that due to some bugged features it can be unplayable for some. Once fixed, I’d say this is a B+ title.
System: XBOX 360, Playstation 3
Players: 1-4 offline, 2-12 online (simultaneous)