"Son, we've always got room for a goon."
(First, if you don't recognize that line, go listen to this song. Now.)
There are few video game-related moments more powerful than overcoming a task you thought impossible. Gunning down a seemingly infinite onslaught of zombies to reach a new high score, taking down a fearsome dragon after days of grinding to reach an optimal level, completing Super Mario Bros in one sitting without using a warp zone – such instances are why gaming matters, and help the medium transcend well beyond the simple combination of input/output functions tied to a video screen. These moments affect us on a physical, emotional and at times, spiritual level. When captivated so much that your accomplishment genuinely feels like your accomplishment – not a solider’s, not a wizard’s, not Mario’s – that’s special.
Such was the case when I scored my first goal in NHL 14, the most fun game I’ve played so far this year.
Before I go on, let’s get this out of the way: I am not a hockey fan nor have I ever even thought about playing an NHL game. As such, I’m uniquely qualified in that as a newcomer to the series, it’s easy to examine this title’s flaw from both a gameplay and presentation perspective. The anticipated learning curve for a guy who knows as much about dekes as he does dams was threatening. Thankfully, EA Canada has crafted a title that not only seems to get the nuances of the game down to a tee, but is an inviting title to non-fans who can’t fathom the idea of taking to the virtual ice.
My first foray into NHL game time was delayed by a 30-minute or so tutorial. Veterans should be able to by-pass this and get straight to the action, but I was all over the “Rookie” self-description provided. Never did a tutorial feel so good. It did an excellent job of walking through the control scheme and allowing the user to practice individual moves in the most basic scenario they’d be found in order to get a grasp of the game. I still felt unnerved as I stepped onto the ice with the Pittsburgh Penguins (their games air on TV back in hometown in Eastern Kentucky), but at least I had some inclination of what to do. I fell 1-0 to the Philadelphia Flyers, but I’d done so playing relatively decent defense considering my skill level.
I again pitted my Penguins against the Flyers in a second game. Scoreless midway through the second period, that magic moment happened – my first NHL 14 goal. Evgeni Malkin, unassisted. I’d spent just a bit over an hour with the game before I scored and took my first ever lead. That score felt different than a sinking back-to-back three-pointers in NBA 2k13 or completing a 60-yard bomb in Madden, not only because it was my first but also because it gave me a genuine feeling of relief. I’d accomplished something monumental. While such moments are certainly possible in other sports titles (anytime you can comeback in any sports video game it makes you feel damn good), after having played 15 hours’ worth of NHL 14 matches, that goal-scoring feeling has yet to abandon me.
Apologies for the evident amateurism in this appraisal, but it can’t be stressed enough how accessible NHL 14 is to new players. However, that’s not to say hockey veterans won’t be just as wowed by the latest entry in the series. While I’m unable to compare this year’s version to the last, it reasons that from a presentation perspective this is the best it’s ever been. From the post-goal celebrations to the scratches on the ice, not a single graphical detail goes unnoticed. A customizable control scheme which gives you more or less control of puck direction depending on preference is ideal not just for series rookies, but for regular users who may want to mess around or add a new layer of difficulty to something they may have already mastered.
Other new features EA touts in this year’s version include the implementation of a Player Impact Engine akin to FIFA’s critically-acclaimed engine, and given that my “Live the Life” career-mode player was the league leader in hits by a wide margin speaks to the level of fun such collisions yield. A new Enforcer Engine – also borrowed from a fellow EA Sports title (Fight Night) – has upped the in-game fighting, making it a more true-to-life and involved experience. A variety of punches are usable using right-stick inputs, different players are stronger than others or can take more hits, and there’s a dodge mechanic that I couldn’t quite get the hang of but others might have more success with.
Also improved (allegedly) is the True Performance Skating introduced last year. Again, I won’t vouch for the game’s improvements in this area over its predecessor, but not once did I feel stuck or that my player was moving in a manner that necessitated revisiting the mechanics. There was a noticeable difference in the speeds and ability to pivot among different players, which speaks volumes about the attention given to making this a truly realistic representation of the league. An extended Live the Life Mode, in which you play the part of no-name rookie playing in low-level hockey leagues trying to become an NHL legend, brings off-the-ice interviews and player popularity into the mix. This mode in particular, for my money, was the most compelling in the package. The online "Hockey Ultimate Team" seems like a mode that could rival that, however, once it gets going full steam. It's tiered competion seem pretty legit.
A unique addition to this year’s version is the NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. This penalty-free, big-hit emphasizing, two-button mode takes the series back to one of its most iconic members. 8-bit music, classic star icons and blue ice also adorn this nostalgia-driven mode. While it’s certainly not as engrossing as the regular games – the disconnect between accurate simulations and the arcade-y NHL 94 is truly remarkable – it does provide a decent diversion from the main style of play and will likely tickle the inner child living inside the adults who played back during the Clinton presidency.
Now, a few minor gripes. I believe I opted into it, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it to where I could skip from my “Live the Life” mode player sitting in the penalty box to when he was able to be back in the game. I appreciate the realism, and sitting and watching teaches some valuable in-game lessons, but it was a bit frustrating from a review standpoint in terms of lost time. I also think more effort could have been made to ensure players know the type of penalty for which they’re being assessed. This information is given by commentary and a quick on-screen graphic; I know many sports gamers who play with the audio turned off, and the graphic is very easy to accidently skip over. Other than these in-game issues, my only other complaint is the shear level of EA pushiness that oozes from the menus and loading graphics. “In case you forgot, THIS FEATURE IS NEW”. “By the way, YOU CAN BUY THIS IF YOU HAVE SEASON PASS”. I’m sure there are those who don’t mind this as much, and while I can accept the new realities of sports gaming, this level of intrusion does make it seem like a boundary has been crossed.
Onto the summary!