Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Games on the AVE: Gamespot Reviews NHL 14

Also on PS3




It's too bad that EA Sports doesn't have any competition for the hockey gaming market anymore. While the previous two editions of its long-standing hockey franchise were impressively playable--if not exactly groundbreaking refinements of the superb game that was NHL 11--too little of note has been added this time around. EA Sports is really pushing things this year with a game that incorporates nothing significantly new aside from arcade-style hitting, more fighting, and a lame re-creation of NHL 94.
It has now been two decades since NHL 94 changed hockey gaming forever, so EA is marking this with what's ostensibly a souped-up version of the usual release. But just like in Madden 25, there isn't much here worth blowing out the candles over. Game modes are similar to those offered last year. You still play one-off matches, get into careers running a player or a whole franchise, take on GM duties, mess around with Hockey Ultimate Team card-collecting, relive big games from last season in the expanded NHL Moments Live, and take the whole shebang online for multiplayer games, tournaments, and leagues.
Controls are identical to what was offered last year, save for the addition of a one-button deke move and some finicky dangles that are tough to pull off on a regular basis. And like last year, some moves are still overpowered, most notably poke-checking. You can control the nuances of nearly every stride and shot, or drop down to basic button-pushing as was offered in 1994. The game continues to include most of the international hockey world, from Major Junior in Canada and the elite European leagues to the NHL and its minor-pro AHL affiliate clubs. Team rosters are a little messed up, though, apparently dating back to June, and even the first downloadable update includes some noticeable mistakes and omissions, like the absence of the new division names that were announced in July.
Graphics and sound have been ported over almost intact from last year's game. Visuals remain very good, with impressive animations and TV-accurate depictions of players. The broadcast duo of Gary Thorne and Bill Clement spouts the same lines as before, the sound effects are ultrafamiliar, and the soundtrack includes the standard alt-rock lineup of new and old tunes where the most prominent track is Wolfmother's "Joker and the Thief" from its 2005 debut disc.
Additions are present, though they don't amount to much. The big new feature change is that the Be a Pro franchise mode, where you play an up-and-coming phenom or an existing star, has been converted to a slightly more elaborate role-playing experience called Live the Life. It never rises above being more than a half-baked version of what 2K Sports has been doing with its NBA 2K series, where you gain endorsements, design shoes, and even mess around with the media to make a name for yourself. Live the Life functions similarly, but there's no meat on this bone. Interactions are handled through bland text screens. You choose from several possible answers when teams quiz you before the draft, for instance, or simply say yea or nay when sponsors come calling with deals like putting your toothless mug on billboards in exchange for cash.
The results of how you mouth off to your team or the press directly translate to scores given to four audiences--fans, teammates, management, and family--that govern how things work off the ice. Be too much of a prima donna, and your team and management hate you, and might just trade you out of town. It's all too boring and rigid to feel authentic. Scores go up and down immediately after you finish answering questions, making the whole thing seem like you're painting a good guy like John Tavares or a nut like Steve Downie by the numbers, rather than creating a real hockey player.
The other headline new feature is NHL 94 mode. This is a retro option where you play arcade hockey just like you did in the Clinton era. It's a great idea, although it doesn't include many actual retro touches. The mode acts more like a dumbed-down NHL 14 sped up and locked to an old-school top-down camera. You get the distinctive blue-tinted ice, stars under players, 16-bit sound effects, and the zippy action that made NHL 94 so great back in the day. But the game uses the new graphics engine, mostly modern sound effects, and the current rosters.
Other modern touches that could have been more meaningful, like online multiplayer and league play, aren't supported in this mode. Ultimately, it's as if EA Sports couldn't decide between going full retro with the complete 1994 game or doing a modernized take on a classic, so it compromised and did neither. The result is barely a passing nod to this legendary hockey game, with the most standout detail being the bleepy-bloopy music you might remember well from long-ago marathons on the Sega Genesis.
Gameplay changes are also very slight in NHL 14. This is the second year of EA Sports' newest physics engine, but the action on the ice isn't noticeably smoother this time out. Granted, the skating physics are still very good. Momentum continues to be extremely well handled, especially when it comes to sharp turns and stops. Opposing defensemen get really aggressive in front of the net, and it's routine to see the net knocked off its moorings when forwards drive hard into the crease.


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