EA flew in the Nordic media to Stockholm earlier this month for a playtest and chat with producer Andy Agostini. The event was attended by roughly 20 Finnish journalists and devoted fans, while the other Nordic countries only sported a handful of journalists in attendance. It says something about the popularity of the game in Finland. It's the best selling video game year after year. It's easy to say it's merely a result of the passion Finns have for hockey, but let's not overlook the excellent quality of the games EA Sports put out and the way the sport is naturally adapted to multiplayer. It's a sport with speed, violence and skills that's easy to jump into, yet very difficult to master. Unlike football that is more tactical in its nature, and not as well adapted to quick games at a party.
According to Agostini, NHL 14 has been specifically designed with fun in mind. He went on to talk about the triangle of speed, skill and aggression - elements that all play their part in making a game of hockey enjoyable. NHL 14 features more physical gameplay as far as checking goes, realistic brawls and quicker feints. The buzzwords or tech to power the changes are the Player Impact Engine (lifted from FIFA), Enforcer Engine (lifted from Fight Night) and One-Touch Dekes. And while we've grown accustomed to EA Sports introducing the most minute changes with PR oozing buzzwords, the impact of the changes on gameplay should not be underestimated.
The biggest improvement is actually seen in the fights. In previous entries you were transported to a first-person view when a fight was triggered, something that sort of brought you out of the experience. These skirmishes happened inside of their "bubble" and things like the size of the players didn't seem to matter. In NHL 14, fights are viewed from the same perspective as the game and they merge seamlessly with normal gameplay. If for instance you're pestering a star player in the opposing team, an enforcer may jump in to defend said star. Big and strong hulks, like George Parros, are much more effective fighters than your average skater.
However, it should be noted that while other players surround the fighters, only two players are ever directly involved. Agostini laughed off the mention of some Finnish brawls that involved more players, and fights are kept to 1 on 1 as it's designed to reflect the NHL code of conduct rather than allowing for situations where half your team may end up with black eyes and premature showers. It's probably for the best.
Personally Agostini was most excited about the new physics engine, and having played a couple of hours, it's easy to agree with this notion. NHL 13 introduced True Performance Skating, better reflecting the kinetic energy of skating, but still at times when you delivered what ought to have been a huge hit it felt like the players bounced off each other as if they had no mass whatsoever. NHL 14 better simulates the proportions of players and it simply feels more physical. You don't even need to tap the right stick to check. It's a simple change that makes a huge difference as you no longer need to launch repeated efforts to check an opponent and instead your free to focus on positioning yourself to block off his route.
On the opposite end of the ice, attackers are given a new powerful weapon with One-Touch Dekes. Nifty tricks to get by defensemen are now readily available by tapping the left shoulder button. They are certainly not guaranteed to work (they depend on distance to the player, size and skill), but they are quicker to use than before, which opens up more options.
If you've been catching up on NHL 14 news you may have heard of the enhanced goalie AI that now takes the handedness of the shooter into account (if not screened), and therefore is better equipped to predict how the attack will unfold. This isn't the only improvement made to the AI as it has been tweaked in all areas to improve gameplay balance. One example of this is how the team has always looked into ways of creating greater diversity in scoring situations. The penalty mechanic has also been completely rewritten in order to make the AI commit more realistic offences, thus offering the solo player more powerplay opportunities. In this preview code my teammates were often a little quick across the blueline, resulting in off-sides, but Agostini assured me AI was being fine-tuned up until the last minute to find the perfect balance.
An interesting contrast to the pursuit of realism in NHL 14 is the NHL 94 classic mode. Previous entries had the NHL 94 control model for those looking for a simple pass-shoot-move control scheme, but there is more to the NHL 94 mode than just controls. It speeds up the game and also features grotesquely blue (retro) ice, and the legendary organ music. This mode also does away with things like penalties, off-sides, and icing and it's all about skating up and down the ice, shooting and scoring.
It's not really meant to be a perfect simulation of NHL 94, and it's still very much NHL 14 only modified with the same players, teams and arenas. They could of course have included the original NHL 94 as a bonus to celebrate the 20 year anniversary, but Agostini said they opted against this for two reasons. First, because people remember it as being better than it would play today, and the developers also wanted this mode to be an introduction for new players to NHL 14. This is when NHL 94 mode really shines - if you have friends who haven't played the game in a few years they can jump into this mode, and once they're hooked they're ready for the more complex nature of NHL 14.
Further minor changes includes a reorganised main menu that's less cluttered, you can now also earn EA Pucks (in-game currency) from just playing single matches and not just in Ultimate Team, and updated online features brings the NHL series up to the level of FIFA.
Based on my limited time with the game and what I learned from talking to Andy Agostini, NHL 14 looks to offer a very complete experience, but it's not really pushing the envelope. Perhaps it is better looked at as a compilation of all the lessons EA Canada have learnt while making hockey games this generation. Bone-crunching body checks, more natural fighting and nifty tricks on the fly makes for more fluid gameplay, but it still clearly builds on an existing foundation. The team has focused on development for PS3 and Xbox 360, so a next-gen version doesn't seem to be on the cards, and while Agostini refrained from specifics he did seem to suggest we'll see NHL 15 on next-gen hardware.