I love hockey. I love the Red Wings. I love video games. I hate and love EA Sports’ NHL franchise. Ever since its conception right up until NHL 2001, I had owned each release at some point. I started to drift away from the series because the color commentary was getting to be too much and the play style was feeling more arcade-like with every release and I didn’t like that; until NHL 12, that is, where the series returned to a more realistic approach and made way for NHL 13, my first franchise purchase since 2000. The new skating mechanic changed the way I played the game, from top to bottom, and felt as though it didn’t matter if the game was the same on many levels – there were improvements but nothing felt drastically different – that one big change was the game-winning goal and I loved it. I still play it to get my fix in-between seasons.
That brings us to NHL 14 which promises a few things – a huge change to fighting and collisions as a whole and revamps to things like goaltending and stickhandling. Of course, there’s your usual ‘improvements’ but let’s look at the things that EA Sports is pimping to be the biggest factors in selling the game to the masses, shall we?
Collisions and Fighting
Let’s face it, folks – physical play is a big part of hockey, whether your agree with its existence in the sport or not. It’s always been an aggressive sport but always trying to keep it from going too far. One of EA Sports’ big deals was to make this aggressive nature feel more realistic. I’m glad they’re upgrading this because I can’t count how many times I crashed the net and had the immersion of a barely-there breakaway taken away from me when I run into a player, the goalie, and the net, without ever leaving my feet. It’s not necessary, no, but if you want to create a realistic hockey game, that’s something that I feel has to be there.
What EA Sports did was take elements from other games – such as FIFA and Fight Night – to control fighting, incidental collisions, checking, and momentum. Fighting no longer feels like a game of rock, paper, scissors and incidental and purposeful contact always feels like it has consequences and payoffs. No longer will I need a huge running start if I want to take the puck off of a player, especially if my skater isn’t the greatest physical player in the world. There’s a lot more need for strategy and great stickhandling to get around defenders from an offensive standpoint and from a defensive standpoint you get a lot more options to shift the momentum of the game forward. This turns up the threat of a physical team with a strong forecheck.
Fighting is something that I’ve really fallen off with, in hockey games, but I feel that might change in NHL 14. I don’t think I can make a judgment just yet but what EA Sports is promising looks good. You have way more options when choosing how you fight and how you end a fight. It’s no longer a statistical battle that relies on numbers and stats.
This is important because my latest Be A Pro star is an average-sized grinder that can really edge out the competition but doesn’t have the weight to throw around, like many other physical players; the trade-off is that he gets enough skill to put the puck in the net and create a few classic plays. I can now use him specifically for what I would like to use him for.
Stickhandling and Deking
True Performance Skating has been retooled, somewhat, focusing a lot more now on changing how one player uses their stick as opposed to how they’re skating. Skating has been improved a little but stickhandling and deking got the focus this time around, allowing the player to become way more proficient and creative with his moves. While this still bases a lot off of skill statistics – meaning that a player with low deking skill, low offensive awareness, or low stickhandling skills can’t pull off the same moves like our boy Datsyuk here – it feels as though it opens up a lot more options for the offensive front, if worked in correctly.
What I’m hearing from this? In previous games, there were things that I like to call “possession zones” on players that meant if the puck fell within this zone, depending on his stats, he would take possession of the puck, merely make contact with the puck, or simply let it go by, even if the puck appeared to make contact with the player or his stick. This possession zone was merely a marker for possession. This upgrade to stickhandling mechanics seems to promise to do away with this, meaning that if that puck makes contact with the player or his stick, that puck stops or changes direction, no matter the player’s statistics, allowing the player to directly affect the course of the game by changing the momentum at any time.
There’s your usual set of “improvements” outside of these two big things, really. I could go into detail but the only improvement that I’m really psyched about is the additions to Be A Pro mode, changing its name to Live the Life mode. I’m really excited about being able to control small factors about a players career that may change their ability or their life in some way; while these are really just text-based and don’t offer too much – some people are expecting a GTA-level of control from this mode and I’m not sure if that’s really appropriate – but this is definitely a step in the right direction.
The big addition that I love, already, is the addition of Anniversary Mode, which is a great throwback to the launching point of the franchise, NHL 94, which technically started in ’93 but didn’t have the licensing rights from the NHLPA in order to make a fully-fledged and featured hockey game for the time. This game rocked and it was possibly the best hockey game on any system since Blades of Steel. To create such a standout homage to the game hits home with me and between all these features I think EA Sports has me hooked.
I would have to say that I would be getting this game though I wish they would announce a special limited edition like they did last year. I think that’s the only thing having me wait and see, so far. I have my preorder in, already, and I guess we shall see how things go. I’m really excited for this game and I hope that the game is as tight as I think it will be!