EA Sports was showing a slew of current-gen games at E3 this year, and I got a chance to go hands-on with NHL 14 for the PS3. Even though this current-gen game is being slightly overshadowed by the next-gen horizon of FIFA, Madden, UFC and NCAA, the producers on NHL appeared confident in their product. They feel that it addresses some lingering concerns and adds a lot of intensity, thanks to revamped hitting and fighting. From what I played – on Pro difficulty, admittedly – the game seems as rock-solid as ever, and the new additions add something meaningful to the mix.
The new physics-based hitting system, lifted from FIFA's player impact engine, is the most apparent change. Zdeno Chára plays with the heft of a man befitting his 6' 7” frame, and he is able to hit opponents unlike almost anyone else on the ice. I was happy to see opposition players only able to nudge Chára or make him wobble, as he was able to use his size to stabilize himself, especially on the boards. The drive-through and feel of the hitting that EA has talked up was indeed present and accounted for, and the feedback on hitting was great. You could actually focus on lining up your player and going for a hit without worrying about some sticky timing on the right stick, and it was super satisfying to watch players get properly driven against the boards or stood up at the blue line, all with the necessary follow-through and impact.
Like any change towards simplicity, there is a danger of overuse as well as empowering already skilled players with too much of a good thing. However, I'd say that the hitting makes more sense now in the flow of gameplay, as it's more organic in both its execution and presentation. It was always frustrating in previous years to line up a hit and put everything you had at someone only to bounce off or bump up against them. I never experienced that in this demo, as I was able to drive through vulnerable opponents and edge out wingers along the boards. Now, this isn't to say that I didn't miss any hits, because I put myself out of the play several times trying to explore the new feature, so timing is still paramount.
All things considered, I enjoyed the way the new collisions felt. There were entertaining helicopter hits where guys got spun around as the stick came flying out of their hand, and there were impacts where a player just got driven right over, with bone-rattling force. None of this really got so carried away that I thought of the “big hit” button from years gone by, and you can easily counter a crushing hit with the new deking system.
The simplified deking was also a worry for some, myself included. The worry was that it could become overused, especially since the input is being simplified and emphasized. In practice, the dekes feel a lot like the new hitting, with a more organic place amongst the rest of the game's systems. I had hoped that it would feel more “reactive” when using the deke system, and that seems to be the case. By holding L1 (or the left bumper) and flicking the left stick in a direction, your player – throttled by skill level – will be able to perform minor dekes, stick drags, jukes and curls. The right stick input for flashier loose puck dekes is still in the game, and the developers emphasized that the new deking was meant to add speed and finesse to that part of the game, but that it was for simpler space-creating dekes. It certainly felt that way to me, as I was able to shimmy around defenders from time to time, creating the necessary space to get by. Then again, the producer playing the game flattened me a good deal when I tried to get too cagey with the moves, so there is a balance.
Speaking of balance, you'll need plenty of that in NHL 14's new fighting engine. This feature is sure to be a crowd-pleaser, as scrums happen much more believably now, and they are a hell of a lot fun. Harkening back to 2K's hockey fight engine, you're able to circle your opponent initially, and you can decide when to engage. You can even throw a punch before the clinch, but it might leave you a bit open. Once the clinch begins, you'll be spinning around, trading jabs, uppercuts and hooks, all the while trying to time the R2 (right trigger) dodge moves to create openings in the scrap. Punching is mapped to the right stick, and it feels great, and the left stick pushes and pulls your opponent off balance. There were some amazing sequences with multiple bombs landing, a helmet flying off, the crowd popping as a dude kept getting fed, and then both combatants falling over in a heap. I had several fights during my play time, and they were all entertaining, memorable and unique. Even better, everyone else is present during a fight this year, and other players will jostle and shove while the fight goes on. Better still, the right players will fight at the right times. You can have Dustin Brown fight for the Kings if you want, but he's going to get rag-dolled by a bigger player – and that can happen in this fight engine. More than likely, a bigger player will rush in to defend him. Oh yeah: real-time fight damage was apparent, with some bruising on some of my tough guys. Fun stuff.
Here are some other housekeeping items: the puck-chop move is now more intuitive, and you can execute the move while approaching the puck, queueing it up; the revised defensive skating adds to the hitting action, and it allows defenders to keep a wider cone of vision on attackers, meaning less time going the wrong way; goalies seemed more human (albeit on pro difficulty), as several one-timers were scored across the crease, and they had some new glove save animations; the poke-check has been toned down, and player attribute levels will affect it more; finally, the “Live the Life” mode was mentioned only briefly, but it sounds as if interactions with the media in the mode will be a lot of fun.
Overall, the action felt crisp and responsive, and it was reinvigorated with the new physicality and speedier dekes. I know everyone is going to enjoy the hitting, as it is truly satisfying, but I'm sure many will adjust sliders to keep it at a level that suits their preference. The fighting should be met with universal love, as it was a blast to play. Other adjustments seem smart and subtle, but we won't know of their true impact until we see the full game. Expect to hear more on the other modes and features very soon.