What are your impressions of the NHL 14 demo?
Glenn Wigmore: While the feature set and ancient presentation are definitely an issue for NHL 14, the gameplay has received some noteworthy upgrades that change the feel of the on-ice action in a positive way. I'm enjoying the new hitting, especially since it's not as dominant as it could've been. There's a satisfying impact on blueline hits, and contact along the boards has a bit more variety now.
The simpler left-stick dekes also act as a bit of a foil to the hitting, and it provides an option for players when they are up against human competition. The hits are exaggerated, to be sure, but the EA games have always been about 75 percent simulation and 25 percent arcade. That's the nature of the franchise at this point. A straight simulation game would not achieve even the moderate success that NHL has received, so the product is always going to alienate some who want more of a truly authentic experience.
The fighting is a lot of fun, and I honestly haven't had too many scraps or silly mismatches, but there has been the odd time where Jonathan Toews has ended up in a fight he shouldn't or something to that effect. It seems to be that charging-style hits along the end boards create some of the "strange" fight scenarios. There is some logic to this, as a player winding up to deliver a big hit in open ice or along the end boards is going to create a reaction from the other team. The rub comes from the fact that this is a videogame and hits are going to be more common than the real-life sport. I'm glad to have the fights improved a lot in terms of the fun factor and strategy, but EA may need to tweak their frequency (as well as the non-existent instigator penalty) if users aren't satisfied with how it feels.
The flow of the gameplay is definitely a bit faster, as skaters pivot and move with some additional haste. Also, shots have better velocity, and this is evident from the quicker stick whip when releasing a shot.
I don't think the speed is particularly problematic, and I've enjoyed the flow of the games I've played so far. Playing on all-star created plenty of goal-scoring opportunities, but superstar difficulty provided a nice challenge overall, with limited goals and challenging face-offs. I tried playing the game on "hardcore simulation" settings, and I certainly noticed a big difference in speed, acceleration, shot accuracy and aggression. Looking at the sliders for this setting, it certainly bears out that these areas are tweaked for that feature. This mode seemed to provide a more measured pace to the action, as hits didn't happen quite as often, and it took a bit more effort to get from A to B.
The AI is still a bit of a problem, as they'll only really step into hits along the end boards or occasionally in the middle of the ice. The main weapon of AI defense is either to get a late poke check or to rely on the (thankfully) improved goalie AI, which benefits from better movement and less unrealistic automation. The improved defensive vision is apparent, as the AI does track better, but their eagerness to initiate contact in the neutral zone or at the blue line remains problematic. Also, the AI for puck support along the boards for your own team seemed slightly better, but there are still instances where you do not have an outlet when you should.
To be honest, NHL 14 still feels like an entirely iterative product that's holding the fort until next-gen, but I'm glad there have been some solid gameplay changes. It's a step in the right direction in terms of physicality, especially with a hitting and fighting system that are better than the predecessor, and there have been some decent tweaks to poke checks, puck chops, penalty frequency and the overall feel of the skating.
The Presentation in NHL 14 could be a problematic area of the game for some.
Jayson Young: RoboGoalie has been terminated! Instead of the teleporting superhumans NHL 13 had in net, NHL 14's goalies move with much greater inertia, making them slower and less precise when squaring up to one timers. My only complaints with the revamped goaltending are that weak, low wrist shots still generate too many juicy rebounds, and that goalies still allow too many short side goals off simple dekes.
After just 30 minutes experimenting in the demo's free skate mode, I was able to find an easy, go-to deke that beats Tuukka Rask every time to the short side. Cheap tactics like this have the potential to kill NHL 14's online experience, especially coming off last year's game, where glitch goals were not an issue.
While NHL 14's goalies are much improved, all the other computer-controlled skaters on the ice remain too passive and clueless. AI defenders are as threatening as a traffic cone, harmlessly holding their sticks by the side, refusing to challenge the puck carrier or take away passing/shooting lanes. Gamers can weave and deke their way through the entire computer defense with minimal resistance, even on "superstar" difficulty and "hardcore simulation" game style. Computer skaters are equally dumb when the puck is on their own stick, completely ignoring the deke button, skating through the neutral zone in straight lines and turning the puck over instead of dumping it in or passing it off when an obvious hit is staring them in the visor.
Once again, NHL 14's fun factor will be directly tied to how many computer players are on the ice: the more AI buffoons that are present, the less fun the game becomes. Replacing the bumbling CPU with human players looks to be the only way to get some fun out of NHL 14, as has been the case with every entry in EA's hockey series this generation.
Big changes to hitting and fighting, however, could impact the fun of NHL 14's online modes, as too many hits now animate like they are career-ending, or even life-ending, kill shots. Every skater on the ice seems capable of delivering suspension-worthy blows. In the Ultimate Team mode, smaller defensemen like Kris Letang and Roman Josi are able to send big-bodied forwards like Rick Nash and Bryan Bickell spinning to the ice in a heap. Fights do not account for a player's size or style of play, either. Twice in a single period, I watched Jonathan Toews start a fight with (and knock out!) Zdeno Chara, as if the 6'9", 250-pound Slovak was some helpless peewee player.
The majority of these unavoidable, CPU-initiated fights are triggered by legal hits, and though the game's antiquated announcing crew will verbally identify a fight's instigator, I have never seen an actual instigation penalty handed out in the demo. Penalties, beyond fighting majors, remain a rarity in NHL 14. I've yet to see any charging, boarding or checking from behind calls, though all three infractions were promised to be reworked for NHL 14. As with NHL 13, interference, tripping and slashing are about all that will draw a whistle in this demo, and even then, it's rare to see more than a single non-fighting penalty per period.
Despite all the headhunting and fisticuffs going on, I have not seen any injuries happen in the demo. Combatants often leave fights with visible bruises and cuts, yet their on-ice performance never suffers the next shift. Blocked shot injuries, which were removed in NHL 13, also remain absent from play, allowing gamers to kneel in front of a Zdeno Chara slap shot without fear.
The demo's Rock 'Em Sock 'Em gameplay offers the type of mindless fun that's enjoyable for a game or two, but with such poor AI and so many aspects of hockey being overlooked or mishandled, NHL 14 does not feel like the type of game that can hold up over an 82-game season, much less a multi-year franchise mode. EA Sports' NHL series has always catered more towards the arcade style of play, but it's disappointing that the only option hockey fans have this year is a game that plays more like the 1977 comedy, Slap Shot, than anything you'd see in the 2013 National Hockey League.
The gameplay feels familiar, which is both a good and bad thing.
Kelvin Mak: Is NHL 14 improved from NHL 13? Yes. Is NHL 14 improved enough for me to part with my hard-earned sixty bucks? I'm not sure just yet. Like Glenn, I feel like the game is essentially NHL 13.5.
The good news is that pretty much all of the new features, I found, made gameplay a better experience. The improved hitting--and I say this with the assumption that it will be toned down from the existing level in the demo, which I assume is more of a showcase than anything-- feels organic, as there are more possible outcomes than in previous years depending on your position and momentum (like steering a guy into the boards instead of decking him). The pivoting and skating feels quite a bit more fluid, and the game is certainly smoother as a result.
The new third-person fighting module is so much better than its previous counterpart that I have to slowly rid myself of the phobia of pressing triangle. Not that, it seems, I will have a choice sometimes, as this year big hits to star players will trigger a fight whether I wanted one or not. It's a neat feature that I enjoyed, but again, fingers crossed, here's hoping the rather large amount of these occurrences are there for mostly marketing purposes.
So overall, there were a number of improvements that make NHL 14 a better experience than 13. But here's the thing: even with the positives, I just don't see myself lasting a very long time with the game. My main gripe, like Jayson, lies with the AI. I understand it's far from the easiest thing to make these virtual players have the ability to assess and react to the immediate situation (especially since hockey is such a fast sport).
Still, at the moment it just seems like the players' movements remain too trigger-point based, rather than contextual to what's going on on the ice-- as in they hardly ever stray from their assigned paths. Defensively, the AI is still overly passive and, even on higher difficulty, allowed me to gain entry rather easily. It's this passivity that makes games much more run-and-gun than they should be.
From my time with the demo, I'm just not sure if I will buy NHL 14. I stopped playing 13 (consistently) after about four months or so, and I have a feeling that it will be even shorter this time around, especially if the neutral zone remains as a flyover state, game in and game out thanks to the way the AI plays-- I'm sorry, but that just doesn't scream longevity. Besides, there's still no news on Be A GM, and while I am intrigued by the new Live the Life (contrary to a lot of gamers, I don't mind the text interface and am curious to see how it can play out), the fact is that the on-ice product, hampered by an AI that doesn't really play the game dynamically, might very well hold me back from making the purchase this year.