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I eagerly await EA Sports' NHL game each year not just because I myself am a die-hard ice hockey player and fan, but because the last few entries have provided some of the most realistic hockey simulation I've ever come across.
That said, last year's effort seemed to plateau in terms of innovation which sparked a cause for concern. Unfortunately, this year things have officially become stale. To the hard-core NHL loyalist, NHL 14 might feel like a disappointment.
New this year are two modes of note: Live the Life and NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. Live the Life is just like Be a Pro, except you make oddball decisions about your player's personal life. For instance, you'll decide how you "feel" before games (by selecting the response that closely aligns with your emotions) and make sponsorship and promotional decisions as well. It's mostly nonsensical fluff that you won't want to bother with regardless of how badly you want to feel like an NHLer. Answering trivial questions doesn't cut it.
To me, what's most important about an annual sports sim is how well -- and close to reality -- the game performs. With NHL 14, the refinements made are mostly unnoticeable, but what's far worse is how some of the annoyances from years past haven't been corrected. At times the AI feels completely off. Sometimes players stray out of position altogether or won't activate when they're obviously the man who should be chasing down the puck. Player selection isn't always warped to the most logically positioned teammate, which can result in some ultra-frustrating moments of helplessness. Even the soundtrack is tired, for crying out loud. Some of the same tracks are reused in game, like the chanty "Zombie Nation" song. It's those kinds of little details that give you a sense of malaise.
Checking has also gotten a significant bump in NHL 14, making it much easier to deliver some jarring hits. You can even check someone simply by running into them (as opposed to relying on the right hit stick). As a result it causes the game to be too hit-heavy and in turn triggers retaliation fights far too often. Fighting has gotten a refresh too (thanks to the "Enforcer Engine," but it just doesn't resemble a real-life NHL scrap. Plus, you'd expect enforcers to be the one standing up for their teammates after big hits, but on a number of occasions I've had players who don't usually fight step in instead.
On the other hand, I really liked the addition of "one-touch dekes." These are a crop of dazzling puck-handling maneuvers that will give the defense a run for their money. While tough to pull off, they're profoundly satisfying when used effectively.
Without a doubt, the addition that will have NHL veterans salivating is the new Anniversary Mode, which attempts to emulate the action of NHL '94, widely regarded as the greatest hockey video game of its time. Unfortunately the novelty wears off way too quick because there's nothing more than the classic blue ice, old-school, star-shaped player markers, nostalgic 8-bit organ music, and all of the speed and checking sliders in the game set to max. The pace and action are all over the top, but it's really just a coat of paint slapped on top of the current engine. There's really no effort to recapture the actual gameplay of NHL '94. What's worse? NHL '94 mode can't be played online. That's pretty lame.
The problem I have with NHL 14's gameplay is that it's become a predictable production. Players of the series will expect and foresee -- with great success -- a lot of the AI's behavior and sniff out the hot goal-scoring spots rather quickly. I'm not great at the game by any means, yet I've managed to score eight goals on two separate occasions. All in all it feels as though the game has exhausted its life cycle on the current generation of systems. It should then come as no surprise to learn that it will not be available for next-gen consoles when they launch this November. The Ignite Engine that EA teased at E3 2013 will have to wait for its implementation in a hockey game until NHL 15.
I also maintain that the puck physics need a reworking, especially the way they interact with the net. I'm also all but ready to mute the commentary within the game because Gary Thorne's voice track is officially collecting dust. To add insult to injury, a lot of the same illogical commentary has remained in the game. The words "it feels like the next goal might decide this one" should never be muttered six minutes into the first period. There's rarely a time when an empty net goal should generate the overenthusiastic "what a shot, scores!" The little color commentary stories that Bill Clement chimes in with are going on three years old and that's just unacceptable.
NHL 14 isn't a bad experience by itself. If you haven't played an NHL game in a while, this entry will likely feel like the best hockey sim you've played in a while. But for the franchise loyalist, the type of fan the NHL typically attracts, they'll feel disserviced with this latest installment.
As a diehard Devils fan it pains me to say this, but perhaps it's poetically just that Devils' goalie Martin Brodeur graces the cover of NHL 14 this year. At 41, he's a legendary goalie who's dominated the position for close to two decades, with a track record similar to the accolades the NHL series has embraced. But like most great things, Marty will soon hang up his skates and retire. He and his team will move on. Perhaps it's time for the series to do the same in preparation for NHL 15. Close the book on a stellar career and reinvent the franchise properly for next-generation systems. Deliver the experience its loyal fan base expects and deserves.