An all-time great

After living in SoCal now for a couple of years, I miss that first cool October breeze to signify that summer’s come and gone, and that it’s time to look forward to a deep, wintery chill. Mind you, it’s not the shoveling snow, changing of tires, or layers of clothes that I reminisce about—I miss that it actually starts to feel like hockey season.

The closest harbingers of hockey I get these days? Blasting my AC, complaining about the fair-weather L.A. Kings fans who constantly seem to crawl out of the woodwork, and playing the NHL franchise. Fortunately, NHL 14 does the best job yet of making me forget that longing for North Jersey winters and drowning out the know-nothing Kings fans.

As always, I started off by selecting and using my favorite team, the New York Rangers. Yes, I’m from New Jersey, but I root for the Rangers. The reason? Fans of the New Jersey Devils are as mythical as the Jersey Devil itself. They don’t exist, and if they do, there’s only about 30 of them huddled in a cave down in the Pine Barrens somewhere. South Jersey roots for the Flyers. North Jersey roots for the Rangers. End of story.

The Rangers are actually ideal for a review like this, though, since they’ve got a balanced team: Some guys can shoot, some guys can hit, and some guys can skate. Sure, NHL 14 sees plenty of major additions this year—and I’ll get to them—but when I want to test the nuances of the game, I’m covered with the Broadway Blueshirts.

Take winger Carl Hagelin and his blinding speed, for example. In NHL 14, I could really see how much faster he was than everyone else as he pulled away from the defenders who chased him through the neutral zone. Similarly, it makes sense to use a guy like 6’7” forward Brian Boyle to bowl over a sniper on the penalty kill, whereas 5’7” right wing Mats Zuccarello will just bounce right off. Having every player feel unique when you take control of them is a huge plus in a sports game, and that shines through in NHL 14.

But it’s not just about the physics of a monster like Boyle running over a hapless player on the PK. In previous NHL entries, you’d have to flick the right analog stick—almost like the truck feature in Madden—to deliver a punishing hit. While that option’s still there for fans who can’t break old habits, you can also simply skate as fast as you can, and the new momentum feature will automatically see Boyle stick his hip out and send that sniper spinning to the ice—or maybe rough him up a little harder if some bad blood’s been brewing between the two rivals over the course of the game.

And that leads into the next big feature—and probably the one that’ll be a favorite for casual hockey fans: The fighting system is completely overhauled. Borrowing mechanics from EA’s Fight Night franchise, NHL 14 offers nuances to each throwdown. You can try to push or pull a guy off his skates, bob and weave to avoid incoming haymakers, or drop some bombs of your own—it feels more like a hockey fight should instead of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots–style fights of years past.

Of course, similarly to how everyone’s helmets started to fly off or they got checked into the bench more often in NHL 12, the fighting’s definitely tuned to happen a bit more often now. If it’s not your thing—and I’ll admit that it can be a bit jarring, since everything else around you stops pretty abruptly—you can at least turn the frequency down in penalty options. If you leave it as is, though, you’ll go from having no fights or one fight per game, like in previous years, to potentially two or three each game. And if it’s a rivalry matchup—say, the Rangers versus the Devils—you’re likely to see it even more than that. I got into five fights the first time I played the Devils!

The fighting’s so detailed now, in fact, that players will walk away with black eyes and face bruising that’ll last for a couple of games. Of course, even before the fights, these are some of the ugliest character models I’ve ever seen. EA Canada can’t even get something as simple as a player’s hair color right. I look at Rangers center Derek Stepan when he scores a goal, and I see a real-life picture of him with dark brown hair—and then I see his character model with albino-white hair. It’s a little thing, but at this point, I’d like to think that the developers have figured out the differences between brown and blond.

I’ll take little snafus like that, though, when NHL 14 sees significant additions—such as the ability to change the opposing general managers’ AI in Be a GM mode. For years, opposing teams were either so stupid that you could easily fleece them and put together a virtual team of all-stars, or they were so smart that you’d have to sell the farm to even get a mid-tier prospect. While Be a GM’s default AI seems pretty good in this incarnation, it’s nice to be able to make adjustments if you don’t think it’s acting as realistically as it should. And adding money options—such as taking on part of a player’s contract instead of the whole thing—makes the negotiating room even more heated if you like wheelin’ and dealin’ like myself.

But if stylin’ and profilin’ on the ice is more your bag, the new Live the Life mode—a revamped version of Be a Pro—is the way to go. I don’t normally create players, but I tried this option out and worked my way up through the CHL to get drafted 7th overall by the Edmonton Oilers (I’m still working on getting traded to the Rangers!). Pre- and post-game press conferences with your player, interactions off the ice with teammates, and talking to your agent about what endorsements you should sign gets you closer to living the dream of being a pro hockey player than the franchise has ever offered. And for me, personally, it was even more special. See, every NHL player has a soundbite associated with his surname, and thanks to Chicago Blackhawks left wing Daniel Carcillo, it always sounded like Gary Thorne was saying my name during play-by-play—it freaked my girlfriend out when she heard it the first time!

Part of why I was drafted so high? The new, simplified deking system. I’ll freely admit that this aspect of NHL was way too difficult for me in the past. Some people swear by it—and more power to ’em—but I’d rather just make crisp passes that work the goalie out of position instead of worrying about spin-o-ramas and the like. This year, instead of working both analog sticks while holding a bunch of buttons, you simply need to tap a shoulder button—if your player’s skilled enough, of course. I’d never done so many dekes in a single version of an NHL game before, but it’s so simple here that I couldn’t stop.

One new feature, however, hasn’t been simplified. If anything, it’s gotten more complicated, and it comes when you skate into the face-off circle. Now, I’ve never been good at face-offs. I’m lucky to average a 30-to-40-percent success rate. Face-offs require a lot more finesse this year, and you’ll need to use both analog sticks to really work for the puck. This may feel more realistic, but it’s also a lot more frustrating—I only won around 5 percent of my face-offs against the computer. I could hold my own against human opponents, but it’s damn near impossible to win against the computer—especially when the friendly AI, for all the strides it’s made, still isn’t smart enough to skate over and take the puck if I tie up the opposing center.

Let’s be honest: I could probably be here all day talking about hockey. My love for the Rangers. My hatred of the Islanders. And the Devils. And the Flyers. And the Penguins. My love and hatred aside, this is easily the best hockey experience EA Canada has delivered yet. They’ve listened to just about everything the fans have said over the years, and they’ve done their best to incorporate it here.

They’ve even heard the fans in a particularly special way: NHL 14 features a full-blown NHL ’94 mode that not only celebrates 20 years of what many consider one of the greatest hockey games of all time, but that also expertly blends the arcade style of the past with the simulation style of today. That shows true dedication and passion from the development team, and NHL 14 is as close to that hallowed Super NES/Genesis classic as any entry we’ve seen since then.

Developer: EA Canada • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.10.13
One of the best hockey sims to date. A couple of minor adjustments are always needed, but this is as close as its going to get for you short of lacing up skates and donning pads yourself.
The Good New fighting mechanics, better physics, and Online Seasons for Hockey Ultimate Team.
The Bad It’s impossible to win a face-off sometimes.
The Ugly The character models get worse-looking every year.
NHL 14 is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.