What do we know about Canada? Living about as far away from there as you can get, down here in balmy, trouble free, New Zealand, not too much. We know Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart is Canadian, the Trailer Park Boys are Canadian, and hockey is about (or should that be ‘aboot’) as Canadian as it gets. So, for these three things alone, we know Canada is the most awesome place on the planet.
If we needed anything else to confirm the country’s awesomeness, developers EA Canada have provided it with NHL 14. A game that can be as easy - or as complex - as you want to make it. But, while it still struggles with the ‘what’s new’ syndrome that plagues all sports sims, it does an excellent job providing a fun, great looking, and remarkably accessible and intuitive gaming experience.
When you first load up the game you have to select newbie, average, hardcore, or extreme NHL gamer. Then you choose between arcade style, simulation, or hardcore simulation gameplay. Finally you choose a control setup. From the ultra-simplified NHL 94 single stick system, to today’s complex twin-stick set-up - or, if you want, a hybrid of both. These hospitality settings allow any gamer - new to the franchise or expert - a gaming experience tailored to their ability.
Recognising that not only new players but also those that have been around for years would enjoy the stripped back ease of NHL 94 arcade style hockey, NHL 14 has packaged it all up as NHL 94 Anniversary Mode. So it's the same players and graphics, but with a control system that takes ten seconds, not ten hours, to learn. But, while playing NHL 94 Anniversary Mode is simple and enormously enjoyable, it feels like a bit of a cheat. It wouldn't say much about NHL 14 if the best thing about it is a reboot of a game twenty years old. Thankfully, there’s more to NHL 14 than that.
NHL 14 has dipped into EA’s deep technical well to use FIFA and Fight Night game engines to drive NHL 14’s collisions and fights. When fighting, the view stays on the players on the ice. No more cutting away as your teammates grab and struggle with the opposing players. You can avoid punches, throw uppercuts and overhand punches, or grab the jersey and try knock your opponent to the ground. While it’s still no more than a mini-game, the fighting definitely gets better every year.
Better fights are fine. But what every fan wants is better hits. In NHL 14, big hits are almost the default. Now, to pull off a bone crunching hit, all you have to do is run into a player at speed. Get the timing and the angle right and the opposing playmaker will be rolling around, face down on the ice, while his defencemen charge in to start a fight. Of course you don’t always have to knock everyone down. Releasing the stick will let you glide past your opponent, while attempting a poke check will also void the collision. In NHL 14 checking, along with skating, passing, and shooting, have all had tweaks. No matter how good last season’s game was, every year it gets better.
Also returning to the franchise is the online Hockey Ultimate Team, the now typical EA online system for building a team and competing online in singleplayer versus matches, 6 v 6 cooperative matches, and custom tournaments. Once again you get dealt your team cards. From there you can trade or buy better players as well as upgrades and equipment. While you have the option to spend real money on players, if you log in every day, after a week of playing games and completing a few challenges, you should earn enough EA pucks to buy a gold pack of players.
To help you earn EA pucks you can play NHL Moments Live challenges. From the 2012-2013 season you can take the LA Kings to an opening day comeback victory over the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. Or help the Blackhawks score two goals, in the last two minutes, to beat the Bruins in game six of the Stanley Cup. To make the challenges even tougher you can play them at a bronze, silver, or gold level to earn more EA pucks. Or you can just earn pucks by playing singleplayer exhibition matches, leagues from all over the world (well, Europe and North America), tournaments, and the enhanced Be a Pro where you can now choose to be either male or female. Although the commentary team still refers to you as a he no matter which you pick.
This year you also have to manage your fan, teammate, management, and family likeability. This is done by selecting answers in simple text-based media interviews. Your likeability can have an effect on endorsement offers, whether teammates pass you the puck, team selection, and depending on how happy your homelife is, even your on-ice abilities.
Add to this one touch dekes, black eyes after losing fights, sticks getting tangled up with arms and skates, a wonderful bogun soundtrack that includes bands like Airbourne and Wolfmother, and you get a deep, great looking, and surprisingly accessible sports game.
In doing a bit of background research I was reminded of Claude Lemieux – one of Canada’s not-so-secret shames. A hockey player so dirty he single handedly started the Avalanche-Red Wings feud. So annoying he would drink out of opposing goalies water bottle. And such a cheat that his own coach refused to send out the trainer when he ‘claimed’ to be injured. If Lemieux is the worse the country has, as long as EA Canada continue to produce games as good as NHL 14, they more than make up for it. Thank you Canada. You're still awesome.