I don’t know how they did it, but EA fit a boxing game into their hockey game. Not since the classic “Blades of Steel” has fighting felt like such an integral element of a hockey video game.
“NHL 14” (PS3, X360; $59.99; Rated E10) actually features a number of new elements that push it beyond the dreaded “roster update” style of sports release, but none of them are more impressive than the new fighting engine. Fights can start either separated or in a clench, with the typical punch/block/dodge/counterpunch moves, plus so much more. You can force a clench. You can hold your opponent down, if you dodge, and use his momentum against him. You can break out of a hold-down with a well-timed swipe of the right analog stick.
There is so much more to fighting now than whacking the punch button. You’ll actually want to defend your teammates. You may even take shots way after the whistle for the sake of starting fights.
The NHL (and a certain segment of its fans) may not like the new emphasis on fighting. But from a video game player’s perspective, it’s an element long overdue for an update, and EA has done an admirable job.
Elsewhere, the ever-present “Be a Pro” mode has been revamped into “Live the Life” mode, which essentially adds an off-ice element to the game. As your user-created pro hockey player, you’ll get to answer press conference questions, weigh the benefits and pitfalls of endorsements, and accept or decline invitations to social events.
It’s more lightweight than it sounds – most of it happens via text menus, so it’s not as though you’re going to be playing “The Sims” between hockey games. But it’s an interesting addition that gives you a deeper connection to your player. To be sure, the pre-draft interview was far more nerve-wracking than I was prepared for.
Perhaps most exciting of all, you can make Wayne Gretzky’s head bleed all over again thanks to the “NHL 94 Mode,” inserted as a celebration of that game’s 20th anniversary. If all you’ve ever wanted is the glory days of ’90s hockey games except with better graphics, this is your mode. It only uses three buttons: pass, shoot and “turbo.” It has blue ice. It’s faster than the modern, simulation-style hockey games. And yes, there are a few classic players you can put in, including Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick.
Otherwise, “NHL 14” is mostly the typical year-to-year collection of tweaks and fixes. The Ultimate Team mode offers promotion and relegation in its online play to ensure that you keep playing with people at your own skill level. And the on-ice play is as strong as it’s ever been – The ability to hit by simply skating into another player at a high speed makes a certain kind of sense, particularly in the moment.
If all you ever want from a hockey video game is a game of hockey, there isn’t much here to recommend “NHL 14” over any of the past five or so versions of the game. However, if you live with your hockey games – if you appreciate the little nuances and the many game modes – “NHL 14” is an utter delight.
New this week: Sony is capping off the current generation with the feature film-style “Beyond: Two Souls” (PS3), starring Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page, from the makers of “Heavy Rain.” Nintendo is offering the latest “Pokemon” experience with “Pokemon X” and “Pokemon Y” (3DS), which are being released alongside the 2DS, that is, a 3DS without the 3-D.