As someone who has played every version of the NHL series since the iconic NHL 94 was released 20 years ago, I've seen the series grow but still maintain the style and feel that made fans love the early versions.
There were a couple of years where the product didn't quite live up to expectations, but overall the series has consistently produced a solid product. In the last two years, I'll boldly say that it has become one of the best sports video games series out there.
NHL 13 was special, so my expectations for NHL 14 were very high. I've played the game consistently since it became available via EA Season Ticket on Friday, Sept. 6.
Here's my take.
I feel almost obligated to preface every evaluation of graphics for a newly released video game with the following statement: We are at the end of the line for current-generation consoles. The Xbox 360 and PS3 have been maxed-out in this regard. We won't see a huge jump visually until the next-generation versions of these series are released.
Now, with that said, NHL 14 obviously looks a lot like NHL 13, but there a few positive tweaks that enhance the visual appeal. The collision detection has been enhanced as it relates to hits.
It won't take you long to recognize that bone-rattling hits have had an injection of realism. With respect to height, weight and momentum, hits are quite impressive. Even incidental contact generates a more appropriate physical reaction.
Aside from the extra emphasis on collisions, the animations in relation to skating are a tad smoother. The True Skate engine has been great since its inception, and the effects in NHL 14 are excellent.
The detailed facial scans of the players remain sharp as well. No game captures the textures of as many player faces so accurately. Take a look at Jonathan Toews in the shot below.
Even without a major visual improvement, there won't be many sensible gripes about graphics with NHL 14.
Gameplay has been the hallmark of the series for years. This year there have been three key changes to this aspect of the game.
First, the one-button dekes make pulling off sweet moves even easier. If you're in control of a talented player with sick stick skills, undressing a defender is a bit easier. By holding the left bumper (or L2 on PS3) and flicking the left-analog stick in any direction, you can unleash the deke beast.
Take a look at some gameplay below:
Secondly, the new Enforcer Engine has added an element of toughness to gameplay. Gamers can now pick fights and pummel unsuspecting players to drive home a point. Don't take that to mean this is like the NHL version of NBA Jam.
There are realistic consequences for goonish actions. Penalties are called realistically as they have been in the past, but the new fight engine takes the physical aspect of the game to the next level.
It is powered by the same engine used in Fight Night Champion. The fighting is as detailed as it has been in years. The fighter ratings clearly matter, but if you master the controls, you may have the ability to pull off a few upset wins.
The size and weight disparities really shine through in these situations. Seeing a guy like Zdeno Chara bang with smaller players is a sight. This normally won't end well for the guy squaring off with Chara.
Take a look at this scrap with George Parros and Barret Jackman. Parros is no longer with the Florida Panthers, but the EA Season Ticket version doesn't have the updated rosters. They will likely be added on the date of official release, which is Sept. 10.
The most impacting change in the game is the A.I. The CPU reacts as intelligently as any CPU-controlled team in any sports video game. Continually charging the slot in an attempt to set up one-timers will see the A.I. adjust to take this strategy away.
It makes the game pleasantly challenging. I've been getting my butt kicked early on, but it is still fun to play.
The Sound and Style
The presentation is very similar to NHL 13. The packaging here could have been changed for a fresh look, but much of it is the same. There are new camera angles, especially in between plays, but this is one of the few areas the game didn't see as much attention as needed.
The commentary still has a good number of the lines from previous versions, which is a bummer, but the huge database of names even for the non-NHL teams is impressive.
The way injuries are presented is also a plus. The severity of an injury isn't given on the spot, which I find realistic. This is an approach I wish other sports games would adopt.
As good as the gameplay is, the feature set continues to be the best aspect of the game. From Be a GM to Ultimate Team (which was not yet functioning in the EA Season Ticket version), this game has nearly every base covered.
GM Connected is still a blend of offline franchise mode concepts and online play. Even with GM Connected returning and improving, the verbose Be a GM mode isn't watered down. You can still assume a ridiculous amount of control over an organization in addition to playing the games.
Conceptually, Ultimate Team has improved the addictive concept that blends fantasy sports, gaming and card collection. Chemistry is being incorporated in a way that rewards gamers for matching players from the same real-life team and country.
The Auction House, which is also used in the other versions of Ultimate Team in the EA Sports lineup, adds another way to acquire player cards to use on your Ultimate Team. The mode is still free, though some gamers may elect to spend real dollars to acquire star players.
Adding players via the Auction House is yet another way for gamers to enjoy and succeed with the mode without forking over more dollars. This is also available online through your PC, Mac or mobile device which makes some aspect of the game accessible no matter where you are.
Be a Pro is also back, but it has received a facelift and presentational change. It is now called Live the Life and requires players to make the right off-ice decisions for the betterment of their careers.
You'll have to do post-game interviews, decide if you'll go out for a night on the town and be faced with other realistic scenarios from the life of an NHL player. You're not just chasing statistics and wins. You're also managing your likability with teammates, fans, family and the organization.
I wish there were more signature presentation involved with these off-ice events, though.
An actual interview scene with audio would be awesome, or even a nightclub or locker-room scene when a teammate asks you about hanging with the guys. Perhaps we'll see that when the series makes its debut on next-gen systems.
If you're feeling nostalgic or simply can't grasp these new-fangled controls. The NHL 94 anniversary mode may be worth a look for you. You can play with today's rosters and player models, but with the simplified controls and rule set from 20 years ago.
The mode is packaged to look as much like it did way back when, but it isn't so primitive that it'll become a novelty piece as quickly as other tribute inclusions like this have been in the past.
EA Sports Hockey League and the intuitive training modules are also back in the game. They round out a jam-packed set of options that give NHL 14 about as much replay value as any sports game on the market.
Graphics and Animations: 9
Gameplay and Realism: 9.5
Sound and Presentation: 8
Options and Game Modes: 10
The Bottom Line
If you love video games and hockey—heck if you just love sports video games—I'd be willing to bet you can at least appreciate the smooth, realistic, deep and fun gameplay experience NHL 14 offers.
Follow me the Sports Video Game Journalist.