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NHL 14 review: Shorthanded

Xav de Matos, @Xav

A sizable badge on the box for NHL 14 proclaims the series has been named 'Sports Game of the Year' by over twenty-six outlets throughout the life of the franchise, yet EA's hockey series rarely gets the same attention from its publisher as Madden and FIFA. Despite its critical success and commercial adoration from lifelong fans, the NHL franchise rarely gets promotion from EA Sports, as evidenced by its absence in the upcoming Xbox One and PS4 launches and EA's own industry press conferences.

Huddled in its own corner as the least-promoted sports series under EA's arm, the NHL franchise has made marked improvements to its mechanics year over year. This year, NHL 14's collision system sees a massive upgrade, borrowing tech from EA's top-tier FIFA franchise. But NHL 14 shows its age with presentation packages and commentary so old and recycled that they give the impression developer EA Canada is either unwilling or unable to make changes to the more costly elements of NHL's development.

Gallery: NHL 14 (Stick Skills) | 5 Photos

On the ice, NHL 14 represents the best product EA Canada has put together in the franchise's history. Its new collision system adds realistic weight to player movement and interactions. Collisions are no longer canned animations and have been replaced with a system that dictates impact outcomes based on a player's skill, the velocity of a hit, and a number of other attributes. Plainly, getting a good jump on a player means picking up speed and finishing the check. Doing so will absolutely rock the opposition, to the point that the crowd leaps to its feet in loud cheers or jeers depending on the venue. These tweaks are in addition to a refined skating system that makes the puck feel more like a separate object than ever. In previous iterations, the puck would stick to a player without compensating for speed and direction changes. In NHL 14 it's far easier to lose the puck by making drastic changes in your flow. Rushing into an offensive zone and firing a puck reduces speed and accuracy, whereas slowing to a glide to plant the biscuit gives you greater control. These changes lead to more realistic on-ice interactions, making it so players battling for possession must also maintain their speed and movements in order to retain control of the puck.

NHL 14's new fighting engine introduces a greater level of authenticity by giving players the ability to engage in ways that make sense based on the flow of a game. If your superstar is hit hard or taken down in a dirty way, you can initiate a fight as another player to "protect" your star. Watching your enforcer rush toward the culprit, while ditching his gloves and stick in the process, looks great. Fights offer so much control that each bout looks different and the ability to showboat after a win with a handful of celebratory animations made for hilarious online sessions. Playing online with multiple people, battling for the puck with the new collision engine and racking up the penalty minutes with the improved fighting system is a lot of fun, and these elements elevate the series well beyond its already solid foundation.

Less encouraging, though, is NHL 14's "between the face-off" cutscenes and its overall color commentary. The game's presentation package is nearly identical to the last two iterations of the series, and some animations and dialog have been around even longer. Countless anecdotes from the color commentary team are simply copied and pasted from previous games. Arena announcers still mispronounce names of players that were once unknowns and have since become stars. That's the audio EA Canada recorded many moons ago, and apparently the developer has decided it's still good enough. As someone who plays each NHL game throughout the year, it's extremely distracting to hear these mistakes repeated again and again. Whereas Madden does a good job of replicating both playing and watching a broadcast NFL game, NHL's simulation elements carry the entire game while its presentation stagnates.

The most interesting change to the off-the-ice content is NHL's "Be a Pro" mode, which has evolved into "Live the Life" in NHL 14. While you still play and battle for a spot on a team's roster, the mode adds likability meters. If you act like a jerk during text-based media interviews, your rating with fans and management may plummet. If your team dislikes you, they may stop passing to you during games. Coaches will demote or promote you based on these meters. You can sign endorsements, even allowing you to be named the next cover athlete for a new entry in EA's NHL series!

It's a good idea, but the mode is half-hearted. You may, for example, get demoted for a lack of "passion," something coaches will accuse you of despite there being no in-game definition as to what that means. I personally played 39 of 82 games during my first "Live the Life" season, allowing the game to automatically simulate the rest. In previous NHL entries, the game punished you for simulating, proclaiming that your player was lazy – even if you were leading the entire league in points. The system reacts the same way in NHL 14.

At the end of my first season I received the trophy for being the top goal scorer in the league, was named 'Rookie of the Year' and won the playoff MVP trophy and the Stanley Cup. After all this, my agent was only able to secure a one-year, non-negotiable deal because I had a reputation for being "lazy." Additionally, at one point during the playoffs I was sent to the minors to make room for a third-line center coming off an injury, even though I was the top scorer on my team. That is not a simulation of real-world events, and it flies in the face of the "Hardcore Simulation" difficulty I had selected. "Live the Life" is an interesting idea, and I hope EA continues to build on it, but the franchise shouldn't punish you for playing how you want to play, by default.

NHL 14 review Shorthanded
In other areas, at least, changes and tweaks to the game work very well. The menus are still clunky, but they load quickly, which makes a huge difference considering how many of them you'll be sifting through. The Hockey Ultimate Team mode has online seasons for the first time, which is a welcome addition. GM Connected allows for easier interaction between General Managers to better accommodate and organize scheduled games.

The NHL 94 Anniversary Mode is a nice nod to the franchise's first game with both an NHLPA and NHL license, and it features sounds from the original and gameplay that does its best to recreate the classic. Like other parts of NHL 14, however, it feels disjointed, offering only local multiplayer. The argument made by EA Canada's producers is that being "offline-only" is intentional, and is designed to replicate memories of the original SNES and Genesis game. Considering that the developers have already injected vintage gameplay into a modern engine, there's no reason online multiplayer should be less authentic to that experience.

There's a noticeable imbalance to NHL 14. The act of playing hockey – the game's primary focus – is outstanding, but there's a lack of passion and attention given to many of the other components. Whether this is an issue of transitioning to a new generation, a lack of support from EA or "the easy way out," NHL 14 can't simply rest on heavily promoting new features that are largely lackluster.

On the ice, NHL 14 is the best the series has ever been, and that alone will be enough for many returning fans. I love playing it and I'll keep playing it. Between the face-offs and outside of the rink, however, NHL 14 shows a laziness that is not befitting of a franchise that proudly touts its accolades on its sleeve.

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 version of NHL 14, provided by EA. The game is available on September 10 on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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