We know that EA Sports is rather busy right now with Madden NFL 25, but in a couple of weeks' time, it'll be back on the ice with NHL 14, the latest in its highly successful hockey franchise. If you're a fan – like us – there's a lot to look forward to this time around, as we could tell from the recently released demo for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.
The first thing you'll notice about the game is how much smoother everything is. That's because the developers managed to implement the Infinity Engine that made Madden NFL 13 run so well last year. This means checks actually come off more realistically, whether you're trying to trip someone with a quick hip check or full-blown blasting them into the wall to try and get possession of the puck. They show better consistency when it comes to leading into the check, rather than just transitioning from one animation to the next.
Positioning also plays a tremendous part when it comes to checks. You no longer magically hone in on someone. You can build momentum and charge at them, but you won't get the full effect unless you aim right at them with the check. Sometimes it can leave a player lying on the ice, especially after a big hit, but it just adds to the dynamic realism of the game.
Part of that should be credited to speed and momentum. The Infinity Engine really makes proper use of this. When a player tries to make a stop, they'll use their skates and shred up a little ice coming to a halt, in order to change direction.
Enforcers react in a much better way as well. In prior games, fights on the ice happened from a somewhat confusing first-person perspective, where the player had to throw punches from the perspective of their player. That changes with NHL 14, going with a higher-up view of what's happening. It's a much better perspective, as you get a better look at how the fight is going – and what you can do next.
These fights also show how other players get involved. You can see other members of your team jostling with their opponents, but never to the point where blows are traded – unless a fight really gets out of hand. You'll also likely see the effects from said fight, whether it's a black eye, a bruise or maybe even a lump if you hit them hard enough. That shouldn't stop you from winning the fight, tho – or celebrating once you've done so, even if you're on the way to the penalty box.
Fights start as easily as breaking the "hockey code," as EA calls it. This is where you drop a player or a goalie, and a nearby enforcer calls you out for it, taking off their gloves and challenging you to a stand-off. From here, a punch targeting system – which is rather easy to get into – will help you land the punches you need, judging off of both speed and power. It's important to keep your defenses up as well, unless you feel like dropping on the ice. Use the block, dodge and counter to your advantage.
If you can, watch for the opportunity to land a key punch. With the right amount of speed and power, you can lay someone out with one well-timed hit. It'll take practice to figure out – and you'll need to use defensive tactics – but it's sweet when you land it.
It's not just the players on the ice who are affected. The goalies play a big part as well. They'll usually defend their zones like madmen, not only fending off most quick shots that come their way, but also reacting if someone gets in their face or tries to make a sliding play for the net. Penalties are also a big stiffer this time around for players who mess with the goalies, just like in the real thing.
If all this seems over-complicated – or you just want to revert back to the "golden age" of hockey – NHL 14 has that, too. A new Anniversary Mode that pays tribute to the Sega Genesis/SNES classic NHL 94 is thrown in, and it does away with most of the intricate penalties and play physics in favor of a classic round of hockey. The shooting and passing controls are simplified, and the appearance of the game calls back to the "old-school," complete with a top-down perspective and blue ice. You'll also be able to make your pro a superstar with enough good shots, and a blue star icon appearing around them. It's retro, but still new at the same time – and totally fun to play with friends.
NHL 14 has enough fundamental changes to make it feel like a refreshing round of hockey. Throw in a tribute-worthy Anniversary Mode and plenty of online action with the Hockey Leagues, and you've got something to keep you busy until real pucks starting dropping later this year.
Look for NHL 14 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on September 10th.