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Game review: ‘NHL 14’ puts icing on the hockey cake

At one point in time, EA Sports’ NHL franchise couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be, running a distant second to 2K Sports’ brilliant NHL 2K franchise. But then, something strange happened. The developers began devoting themselves to new ideas that clicked with the hockey community, including right stick analog controls and some new features to involve fans both online and off. The end result? NHL 2K is officially out of business, and EA’s NHL brand is thriving.

Still, I doubt fans could be as startled as they’ll be when they get their hands on “NHL 14.” This is easily one of the better games in the series, not only loaded with the great online and career recreation features they’ve come to expect, but also a smoother flowing Infinity Engine that makes everything look and feel just right when it comes to hockey action. Let’s not forget the loving tribute to the classic “NHL 94” either.

First off, the career modes will definitely keep you busy. Be a Pro/Live the Life enables you to build your hockey player how you feel, starting through the minors and eventually making key decisions that will decide how your playing career ends up. It’s really something, even if you’re just answering simple questions to the media. It all plays out into a provocative feature that will keep you busy.

In addition, the GM Connected mode is superb, helping you manage your team to greatness while occasionally making tough decisions that are going to be difficult to come back on, such as key trades and putting all your chips into a player who isn’t the hottest prospect. The menus in this mode are easy to use, and the ability to battle against others for key trade folks – and through Online Seasons – is simply awesome.

If you prefer to just play, though, “NHL 14” has you covered. The gameplay feels as natural as ever, thanks to great implementation of the Infinity Engine tech. Checks now come across much better than before, shots work like a charm, and the fighting engine is the best it’s ever been, avoiding the awkward first-person view in favor of a more distant third-person approach. There are some great control schemes here as well, whether you go all out with the Skill Stick or keep it simple with the two-button “NHL 94” approach.

Speaking of “NHL 94,” the Anniversary Mode is a loving tribute to the classic Genesis/SNES games, doing away with huge changes to the game in favor of simple, fun-to-play hockey. Shame you can’t do it online or against players in GM Connected, though. It would’ve really made a difference.

The graphics for “NHL 14” couldn’t be better. There are times that the game slows down a bit, or runs into a player model who looks less realistic than usual, but the overall ebb and flow of the game remains intact, and the replays are a knockout to watch. Likewise, the in-game arena music has its moments – there are some good EA Trax choices this time around – and the sound effects couldn’t be any more hockey-like if the team tried. I just wish they would do something about the commentary. It’s not really annoying, just repetitive and in need of refreshing.

While EA Sports still has yet to make the “ultimate” hockey game for its fans, “NHL 14” is a step in the right direction, thanks to strong gameplay, a multitude of extras for sim and arcade fans alike, and a mostly decent presentation. If you’re a fan of the sport, you shouldn’t be without this. Besides, what else are you going to play, “NHL 2K5?”