The "Gordie Howe hat trick". One goal, one assist and one fight by a player all within the same game. This unofficial hockey stat is a rarity in today’s NHL but highly lauded because of the combination of skill and toughness required to pull it off. Wayne Gretzky owns about every statistical record in hockey but he never had one. Player roles are so clearly defined in today’s game such that the toothless Canadians that drop the gloves rarely have the tools or ice-time to bulge the twine with any frequency. I was thinking about Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe and the statistical anomaly named after him after spending some time with NHL 14, the latest installment in EA Sport’s long running franchise. In my first six games of the season I saw three Gordie Howe hat tricks which fittingly describe this year’s take on the hockey game franchise.
NHL 14 has a decidedly large emphasis on the physical components of the game. From retooling the collision mechanics to a completely revamped fighting system, the game looks to dish out the bumps and bruises inherent in the real game. For the flashy offensive minded gamers this year sees the introduction of one button skill moves and easier spin-o-ramas. EA Sports tops things off with a true celebration of the games roots by revamping the classic NHL 94 game in this year’s game engine.
There is no denying that EA Sports has amped up the damage this year. The hits are extremely realistic with open ice checks often knocking someone clear off their feet. A cheap hit into the boards from behind can induce some cringe worthy moments that you almost feel in the roots of your teeth. As in real life, not all hits or the players delivering and receiving a hip or shoulder are the same. Clearly the on-ice carnage increases proportionally with the speed and momentum of impact. Small and speedy Phil Kessel had a difficult time bumping the goliath Zdeno Chara off the puck yet he was launched into tomorrow when on the receiving end of a Chara shoulder. In fact the 6 foot 9 inch Slovak’s physical presence was a game changer like I had never seen in a hockey game before.
NHL 14 is much like many of the NHL’s greatest grinders. Like Bobby Holik, Darcy Tucker and Kris Draper the emphasis is on taking the body instead of the puck, not being afraid to drop the gloves and potting a few in the net while you’re at it.
The physicality of the play is also emphasised by the prominence of player tie-ups against the boards. Long gone are the days where AI defender would give you a free lane along the wing as long as you didn’t cut to the middle. If the defenders don’t deliver a well-placed hip check to send you airborne they are likely to push and hold you against the boards inhibiting all progress. While the tie-ups were previously in the last few iterations of the NHL games, it is now a more dominant factor which punishes players who hold on to the puck for too long.
The new Enforcer Engine for in-game fights, utilizing the near perfect punching technology from EA’s Fight Night series, turns what was previously the weakest aspect of the series into a rip roaring good time. Throwing punches with the right stick, looking for counters and “jerseying” your opponent are all visceral and satisfying. With another touch of realism, all fights don’t end on a knockout or knockdown anymore. Often the fisticuffs are finalized with simply pulling your opponent to the ice. The fights are setup more realistically with players looking for retribution after a cheap hit on a star player or a shot on net after the whistle.
The heavy emphasis on the physical aspects of the game, while deeply satisfying and exactly what my 12 year old self valued most in a hockey game, doesn’t always enhance the overall experience. The ease with which the devastating hits could be delivered turned them from amazing spectacle to the main defensive tool in the game. Laying out a player at centre ice became a more successful strategy to get the puck than a poke check diminishing some of my initial accolades for the collision system. The overall size of the ice surface just never quite felt large enough to accommodate streaking wingers that would be tied to the boards if they stayed on the wings or hit into tomorrow if they ventured to the points. This does address the sometimes near impotent AI defenders from previous years but it feels that the pendulum has swung too greatly in the other direction.
The game’s visuals are once again spectacular with jaw dropping attention to reflective surfaces. Close inspection of the ice shortly after the Zamboni has had a spin on it is an exercise in inspecting all of the areas of the arena that can be seen in the sheen on the ice. Likewise player visors are a faint mirror of their surroundings. The team at EA also went through the trouble to add facial bruising or cuts to the players that decide to drop the gloves. I took particular note that the damage isn’t just for the animation of the player skating to the penalty box, the facial contusions last for the game’s duration.
Gary Thorne and Bill Clement providing the announcing and colour commentary are beginning to get stale. Phrases and comments are often familiar but not in a comforting way such as hearing Joe Bowen yell “Holy Mackainaw” whenever something crazy happens on ice. While Thorne and Clement are competent in their duties, revitalized commentary is essential to keep the experience fresh. For seven or eight years I have listened to the duo as I played a minimum of 98 games to hoist Lord Stanley’s mug and I am tiring of their contribution to the game.
Beyond my quibbles with the over-use of checking there are multiple gameplay improvements to the NHL series. Offering one button skill moves and spins makes it much simpler to regularly incorporate a little pinache in your offensive assaults. Goalie rebounds also seem to be slightly fatter so there is the opportunity to pick up some extra garbage goals by hanging out near the crease. AI defenders also do a better job of inhibiting the old NHL mainstay of the one-timer off the offensive rush forcing players to be more creative when setting up their offense.
Creative doesn’t even begin to describe the addition of the NHL 94 Anniversary mode to NHL 14. In celebration of the classic game’s 20th anniversary the NHL 94 game is presented with the current game’s engine. The old school controls, blue ice and top down viewpoint are back but with updated graphics and commentary from Thorne and Clement. From the opening notes of the NHL 94 organ music I was immediately transported back to a simpler time. A time where you only pressed a button to shoot the puck. A time where line changes, icing and penalties were optional. A time where the day’s greatest glory was winning the Sega Genesis hockey tournament after school to lift a brass antique watering jug in a friend’s basement we dubbed the “Zwolman Cup”. Yes, EA has given NHL 94 the proper reverence it deserves and made it both relevant to people unfamiliar with the title as well as those who cut their teeth playing it. Game companies need to take note that this is how an anniversary should be celebrated.
NHL 14 is much like many of the NHL’s greatest grinders. Like Bobby Holik, Darcy Tucker and Kris Draper the emphasis is on taking the body instead of the puck, not being afraid to drop the gloves and potting a few in the net while you’re at it. The game’s bone jarring checks and physical play, while deeply entertaining, are ever present skewing the offensive/defensive balance. Whereas one button controls have improved the gameplay and the visuals are stunning, Gary Thorne and Bill Clement have run their announcing course and new blood is needed in the commentary department. The anniversary mode celebrating NHL 94 is simply the best homage I have ever seen in game sequel and sports games would be remiss not to copy this idea in the future. Overall NHL 14 delivers a bloody good show and a bruising good time with only a few minor black eyes.
-NHL 94 Anniversary edition is incredible
-Collisions are impressive and visceral
-Fighting is leaps and bounds better
-One button skill moves
-Excellent visual presentation
-Fatter goalie rebounds
-Highlight worthy checks are constant, losing the appeal
-Gameplay almost too physical for the amount of available ice
-Put Thorne and Clement on ice and get new announcers
For the fifth year in a row the Canadian Videogame Awards (CVAs) will be celebrating the very best in games created in the Great White North. The nomination process opened today and will feature...
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Release date : 2013-09-10
Publisher : EA Sports
Developer : EA Canada
Gameplay : Sports
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