Review: NHL 14 Xbox 360

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Being neither Canadian nor American, I can’t say that I’m much of an expert when it comes to ice hockey.

My only real-life hockey experience is via the vicious and violent game played by UK schoolgirls.

If I’d grew up in the US or Canada instead of the UK, I’d have had an entirely different view.

Instead of a game played by nasty girls on dank English school fields, hockey would instead bring to mind burly men skating on ice, with a bit of crazy in their eyes, all padded up and out for blood.

To this casual British gamer, EA Sports’ recently released NHL 14 served as a perfect introduction to one of Canada’s national sports (the other being the rather peculiar Lacrosse).

First impressions would suggest that NHL 14 plays like a like a game of FIFA (i.e. football or soccer for you Aussies) on steroids with unresponsive players falling all over themselves and dirty fouls being order of the day.

A few in-game tutorials later and things became a bit clearer. The reality is that NHL 14 seemlying manages to capture the subtleties of a complex (and rather brutal) sport that requires a keen eye and lightning-fast reflexes.

For the uninitiated, ice hockey is played by two teams of six skaters, one of each team being the goal keepers guarding the small goals at each end of the rink. It a game of three periods, each period being twenty minutes in real-life. In NHL 14 the periods can be adjusted to whatever length you want, normally being four minutes each.

The game’s studio, EA Canada, have borrowed some key, proven technology from some of EA’s other popular sports franchises.

From FIFA, the Player Impact Engine provides NHL 14 with physics-based player interaction; whilst the game’s Enforcer Engine, which powers the on-ice fighting, has been inspired by the Fight Night boxing games.

All of this technology is tied together with the True Performance Skating engine, which was introduced last year.

Whilst I’ve dabbled with games from EA’s NHL series in the past, I’ve not revisited the franchise in years.

Thankfully, for relative newbies like me the game comes complete with a training mode. This provides a comprehensive range of detailed tutorials and drills to help you get to grips with the mechanics of the game.

If you are unfamiliar with the actual rules of ice hockey, whilst you will probably easily pick it up, it wouldn’t hurt to read up a little on the internet.

The basic controls are really easy. The left analogue controls the direction and speed of the player and the right controls movement of the hockey stick.

When in possession of the puck, moving the right stick side to side preforms a deke (i.e. a decoy, a fake manoeuvre to confuse the defence); whilst pushing away slap-shots the puck towards the goal. For a powerful shot on goal you need to pull the left stick towards you and then push it away. It’s a very intuitive control system that I found works very well.

As you’d expect, there are multiple other button combinations at your disposal, which you can introduce as your play improves.

Those same analogue controls also come into play when not in possession. The brutality of ice hockey is a major part of the sport.

After winding up a defending skater and driving him into an opponent, the left stick can be used to carry out an amazingly satisfying body-check; usually sending the attacker flying. You can almost live for those delicious impacts.

NHL 14’s player-on-player violence is easy to get into. Whilst a crafty opponent in FIFA – AI or otherwise – can just get away with a dodgy bit of play, NHL 14 allows you to turn the proceedings into a dirty grudge match.

I was, however, absolutely horrified with the in-game fighting, both the way at which the game simulates the scuffles and how the commentators follow the “action” blow-by-blow. I was even more shocked when I researched fighting in real-life ice hockey only to find that it is an accepted, if unwritten, rule of the game.

As you’d expect with a EA Sports game, NHL 14 is as slick as they come; with the sounds and commentary perfectly mimicking a real-life hockey game, right down to the rink’s acoustics. The visuals are eye-popping and in your face with logos, stats and suchlike flying out at you in the usual EA Sports hyperactive TV-style manner.

The NHL in the title is a bit misleading as the game also features teams from other ice hockey leagues. As well as the National Hockey League, there’s also the American Hockey League, The Canadian Hockey League and five licenced European hockey leagues.

EA Sports games are usually stocked with game modes and NHL 14 is no different. Career mode allows you to take a team through a season playing each match or simulating the results.

For those wanting a more strategic experience, Be a GM put you in complete control of the team. Live the life is NHL 14’s Be an Pro mode, letting you guide a player and shape his career by making decisions both on and off the ice.

NHL 14 also features Ultimate Team, EA Sports’ famous fantasy team mode. In this mode you can select your own team made up from all the game’s available player and take them online playing head-to-head against other gamers.

To celebrate 20 years since the defining NHL 94, there’s a special anniversary mode which uses the NHL 14 game engine for a retro hockey experience.

Whilst it may offer seasoned players a bit of nostalgia, the simplified controls feel awkward compared to those in the actual game.

There’s a certain challenge in reviewing a sports game for a sport that you know very little about in real-life. It would be easy for a developer to just assume that purchasers of their game follow, or at least have some understanding of the sport.

It is a credit to EA Canada that not only was I able to just pick up NHL 14 and play it, learning the rules on the fly, but I was also able to get hooked into the game and unable to put it down since.

NHL 14 is a great looking game that has all the razzamatazz of the USA; perfectly capturing the nuances of a sport that they call “the fastest game on Earth”.

If you like FIFA and you fancy something different and a lot more frantic; you could do a lot worse.

Graphics: 8.5
Gameplay: 9.0
Sound: 9.0
Lasting appeal: 8.0

Overall: 8.5

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