NHL 94 mode turns the ice blue but doesn’t bring pixels back.
NHL training camps are right around the corner, and for players, that means conditioning, drills, and preseason preparation. For fans, though, it’s time for EA Sports’ annual virtual hockey release. In this console generation, we’ve seen EA Sports really take the mantel of video game hockey, integrating a variety of gameplay modes and a huge online feature. NHL 14 is the final title before the launch of the Playstation 4 and XBox One.
There’s a lot to be familiar with when it comes to NHL 14’s controls, regardless of whether you’re a modern gamer or a classic gamer. Just about everything carries over from the previous iteration, meaning all those things you’re familiar with — the skill stick, trigger button alternates, etc. — are still there.The biggest addition to the series is the use of momentum to create collisions out of movement rather than direct intent with the right analog. Get a good head of speed and you’ll be able to ram into the opposition for a thundering check (or, if the matchup doesn’t work, you’ll kind of slide off). There’s also the option to revert to Genesis-era controls with the NHL 94 setup and EA Sports offers hybrid controls that take advantage of the skill stick while still allowing for some button inputs.
Fighting uses EA’s Fight Night engine, and that means that it’s more than a first-person button mashing minigame. Now you’ll be dodging with the trigger buttons while moving and punching with the analogs. It adds more finesse to this side of the game, and though some subtlety is required to master it, at its core it sometimes does still feel like dodge-’n'-punch fighting from NES Blades Of Steel.
Whenever the NHL series (or previous hockey games) bragged about revamped hitting, I always worried that “revamped” really just meant “more” and the game would turn into an arcade-style scrum. Last year, a real-time engine entered the series in an effort to transition from canned animations to ragdoll physics. This year, EA Sports has evolved this into Collision Physics, an engine that takes the ragdoll element and factors in elements like approach angle, speed, and player weight. Other factors, such as surrounding players, stick interference, and even limb-on-limb hits (beware the second coming of virtual Bryan Marchment) come into play, creating life-like situations in which a big hit generates a domino effect on the pace of a shift. Hitting is such a big part of hockey and Collision Physics take us closer to reality than ever before. It all animates beautifully.
As for the players and arenas, well, you’ve seen it all before. I’m guessing EA Sports has maxxed out what it can do for this console generation, and we’ll have to wait until next year to see just how much further developers can push graphics.
If you’ve played any NHL game over the past few years, then you’ve heard what NHL 14 has to offer. Gary Thorne and Bill Clement still provide commentary despite not being part of NBC’s, CBC’s, or TSN’s play-by-play coverage (Thorne does the Frozen Four and baseball for ESPN, Clement does local coverage with some national studio spots). Legacy mistakes still exist, though a number have been cleaned up, and you’ll get deja vu with a lot of the banter and phrasing.
NHL 94 mode is supposed to look and sound like the Genesis classic, but it only goes halfway there. The players and arenas are still the modern 3D models — the only real differences are blue ice, a star icon beneath your controlled player, and a few sampled organs and siren sounds. I’m not sure why EA Sports didn’t go full bore and make an actual emulated version of the classic game with modern teams and rosters. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the visuals here, but for a throwback skin, you’d think they’d dabble a little further rather than just making it look like the colour setting on the TV is off.
For the on-ice product, EA Sports’ two big additions are Collision Physics and the Enforcer Engine. Collision Physics allow checking to take place without a dedicated control — it’s purely a body on body collision. This allows for some of the sport’s inherent chaos to reign supreme. It’s a bit too sensitive at times, allowing for massive hits left and right on almost an arcade level when the pace really picks up. However, it does give a more realistic rhythm to checking and allows for the brutality of accidental collisions.
On the other hand, NHL’s fighting system has been in place for a few years, so it makes sense that the developers would build it from scratch. This year, they’ve borrowed from sister franchise Fight Night to create the Enforcer Engine. Heat-of-the-moment bouts and defending-your-teammate scrums will naturally evolve into fights, and the opposing AI players will initiate too. As for the actual fights, well, EA has made a big deal about this in press releases, and while this element is well polished, it’s still such a small fraction of the game that I can’t get too excited about it. While Collision Physics continuously affects in-game play, the revamped Enforcer Engine feels akin to a Final Fantasy release bragging about the “most realistic Chocobo races ever!”
Fights can now be instigated by tapping the triangle button, and I found that it was almost too easy to start one. If you watch most games, particularly during the Stanley Cup playoffs, plenty of post-whistle scrums occur but most of them are just shouting matches and group bear hugs. If you really want to, you can start several fights a period, and the ability of non-fighter players to drop the gloves is fairly ridiculous. For example, during one game with the San Jose Sharks, four fights occurred, two with Patrick Marleau, one with Dan Boyle, and one with Logan Couture — not exactly enforcer material.
Off the ice, the biggest addition is the evolution of Be A Pro mode to Live The Life. Live The Life allows for role-playing choices before and after games. Menu driven options let you make decisions about endorsement deals or press statements, and you can almost feel the Mass Effect-style Renegade/Paragon options in play. What you say and how you say it affects a number of meters regarding your player’s fan perception, locker room likability, coach/GM trust, and family situation. Max those out and your player will be happy, so he’ll get a bonus. Bad family situation? Your player may slump. Fans hate him? Arenas will boo him when he touchs the puck. It’s a nice touch to make the game more personalized, but because decisions are driven solely through menu interactions, it can feel like a tacked-on feature.
Recent iterations of the NHL series have seen giant leaps in the online space. The EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) is essentially a sports MMORPG. By adding in Live The Life mode, players get a better sense of control over the character’s entire career. This does include the inherent limitations of Live The Life’s menu-driven choices, and Live The Life differentiates between online and offline — your choices in one will not affect the other.
All other online modes remain more or less the same except for the addition of relegation/demotion to EASHL and Hockey Ultimate Team. GM Connected mode remains a menu-driven experience, and one of my consistent EA Sports gripes is that its menus are too load intensive, making these features a little more laborious than they need to be.
Had the previous iterations of the NHL series not existed in the space-time continuum, NHL 14 would be a must-have. But because the moves forward aren’t terribly significant — Enforcer Engine is really take-it-or-leave-it and Collision Physics only enhances the previous ragdoll engine — it’s not an essential purchase for those that remain satisfied with last year’s version. We’ll have to see what the developers at EA Canada do when they unveil next-gen hockey.