Sports games, in particular those with annual release cycles, have a tendency to feel little more than version updates as opposed to fully fledged new games. The rosters get updated, the game gets a bit of polish, possibly a gameplay tweak and then a new player is selected to be slapped on the front cover for the new year’s box art.
In fairness to these titles, it’s not as if they have massive room for manoeuvre – reinventing the wheel each and every year, when you’re restricted by the confines of a specific subject matter, isn’t always a viable proposition.
EA appears to refuse to be handicapped by such a situation though, adding a host of exciting new additions for their upcoming Hockey title, NHL 14. Arguably the biggest new addition to the game is the inclusion of NHL 94 Anniversary mode – a throwback to one of the most influential hockey games of all time.
Built within the NHL 14 engine, NHL 94 Anniversary mode takes the series back to its roots with a classic top down perspective, star-shaped player indicators, a 16-bit arena power bar and even retro organ music. The rules have been stripped back to the old-school days where almost anything goes. Forget offside and icing, just big hits, bigger fights and intense action – delivered via the original button controls found in the namesake game of 20 years ago.
The core gameplay hasn’t been neglected either: NHL Collision Physics will refine the way players interact, adding a new layer of realism to how players collide on the ice. Speed, angle, and the relative positioning of each player, along with their attributes, are all taken into account during the impact which should hopefully provide some of the most realistic player interactions to date. When the result of these exchanges inevitably turn hostile, the game has a new Enforcer mode which looks like it’s going to vastly improve the fisticuffs notorious to the sport.
Utilising technology from the Fight Night series of games, NHL 14 will have the most advanced mano-a-mano action in the series to date. These fights will now be initiated not by the old manual method, but by “heat of the moment” event driven catalysts, such as a big hit on the rival teams superstar player. Moving on from the first person, mini-game style fights from the previous games, NHL 14 takes the common occurrence of hockey fights and makes it a stand out element of the game in its own right.
Taking place from a third person perspective, you’ll also witness other players pairing off and also more involvement from the officials as well as the two main combatants, mirroring scenes reminiscent of actual hockey fights. The mechanics of the fight itself are also more realistic this time, with the size and attributes of each player taken into account; winning a fight will take actual skill and be a rewarding experience. Topping it off, players will take visual damage, such as black eyes and bruises that will remain for the duration of the game.
Outside of fighting, EA have listened to the fans and are including a number of gameplay improvements requested by the community. Goalies have been improved to make them not only more realistic but also more consistent. Many new factors of situational awareness, such as if the attacking player is on their back or forehand, have been added to the goalies’ artificial intelligence. Goalies will still, on occasion, pull off amazing saves, but this time only within tighter bounds of reality, making “spiderman saves” a thing of the past.
Advancements have been made to EA Sports Hockey I.Q. so computer-controlled players will now provide better puck support, with an improved understanding of developing plays. Players will use smarter shooting analysis to identify scoring opportunities and be able to read and react better to both offensive and defensive plays.
When it comes to stick skills, everything from passing to chops and pokes have been improved. Some of these may seem like minor tweaks, but they all add up to a more skill rewarding experience with refined gameplay. Button mashing face-off wins have been replaced by a system where the determining factor is timing and skill. AI behaviour has been improved in a way that it’s less prone to penalty inducing infractions, leading to more seamless gameplay.
Players are now even more agile on the ice thanks to True Performance Skating that features greater player responsiveness and unprecedented control through improved balance between speed and momentum, quicker pivots and enhanced lateral skating. It’s a new pinnacle of skating animation and control for the series.
Rounding things off, NHL 14 brings multiple community-driven improvements to all online game modes and the addition of new features, like Online Seasons to the EA Sports Hockey League. Within these leagues you’ll need to win games to advance to the next division to face tougher competition or, if you fall short you may find yourself facing relegation. The aim is to offer a more streamlined and accessible experience for both new and veteran players alike in NHL 14.
With NHL 14, it looks like EA has really listened to the fans. They’ve simultaneously added worthwhile enhancements to the core game that bring the experience closer to that of the sport its trying to represent, while also adding the new NHL 94 Anniversary mode, which throws realism out the window to bring you a gameplay experience from NHL of the past.
NHL 14 is due for release September 10th on PS3 and Xbox 360, with a demo that will become available on the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace in late August.