‘NHL 14′ Demo Impressions

The demo for NHL 14 hit XBLA and PSN on August 20 for North America and Europe. While the full game doesn’t become available until September 10, the demo gives eager hockey fans the chance to sample a few of the game modes they’ll find waiting in the full version. Upon launching the demo, players will have access to a small Play Now mode, a small preview of the Hockey Ultimate Team, Free Skate, NHL 94 Anniversary mode, and several trailers showcasing the different modes and new features.

The first mode to touch on is the Play Now mode which lets you play the last period of a game. Able to pick between the Bruins and Blackhawks, you will be dropped into the game and experience the new and improved game mechanics to their fullest. The upgraded physics and enforcer engines are phenomenal and they are what shine brightest in this mode. The skating is fluid and realistic and the goalie AI is noticeably more adept, but I couldn’t help but feel awed by how much more natural the bodychecks felt. The animations for players hitting one another do not feel scripted like they have previously, bringing the chaotic realism of NHL bodychecking to the game. As far as the new fighting mechanic is concerned, it is a monumental step up from the previous style of fighting. Other players on the ice do not suddenly disappear and while the third person view may feel a little odd for fans at first, it is the optimal view for the different tactics used within the fights. You can push, shove, and grab your opponent, dodge their punches and catch them offguard with a nasty uppercut, or you can try the approach of merely throwing shot after shot but there’s a very high likelihood that unless the AI is on the easiest setting, you aren’t going to win the battle.

Fans of the NHL series should be familiar enough with the Hockey Ultimate Team (HUT) mode that it does not need much explanation, however for those of you who may be new to the franchise, it is a mode that allows you to embrace the desire to collect hockey cards and use them to create the dream team you’ve always wanted. There are cards to upgrade your players’ statistics, varying leagues to draw players from, and you purchase the players from packs of cards just as you would in reality. This mode is not for everyone, but it’s a unique style of gameplay that EA Sports seems to have geared towards the NHL fans who grew up collecting the cards of their favourite players. As an added bonus, if you happen to play this mode in the demo and play a game with your team, you will receive a free booster pack for this mode within the retail game. If you win that game, your pack will be upgraded.

The NHL 94 Anniversary mode is a throwback mode, allowing you to play with current gen graphics but without all of the pesky current aspects like penalties or offsides. There are simplified controls, shifting the buttons used for passing, shooting, bodychecking, and boosting. Rather than using the analog sticks and the right trigger/R2, these functions belong to the four core buttons found on your controller’s right-hand side. For those of you who have not tried out these controls in previous NHL games, it is a fairly significant shift from what you are used to, and as such, has a bit of a learning curve to it. However, once you adjust to the controls, it is a lot of fun to play the game without having to worry about rules.

The last mode available in the demo is the Free Skate mode and this was actually my favourite mode. It is just a skater against a goalie, allowing you to constantly skate around and take shots on the goalie, try out dekes, etc, with a running tally in the top left corner that keeps track of how many times you score and how many times the goalie freezes the puck. The Play Now mode allows you to see the goalie AI in action with multiple players on the ice, but the Free Skate mode lets you really get a feel for how the goalies respond in general. You watch as they scramble to make a save, you learn what sorts of situations the goalie will leave the net in the name of grabbing the puck, you get an idea of how quickly they move, and how aggressively they will attack the puck as you rush the net. This mode may not be quite as exciting as the ones allowing you to play an actual game, but it is far more useful in allowing you to gain an advantage over goalies.

All in all, this demo suggests that hockey fans worldwide will receive yet another quality NHL title in the coming weeks, with game modes that will please every variety of fan. NHL 14 launches on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 10 in North America and September 13 for the rest of the world.