This week I was able to get my hands on the NHL 14 demo, which didn’t offer a ton of content but gave a brief glimpse at some of the new features coming to this year’s installment of the long-running franchise. Of these features, one surprised me and fixed what I found to be one of the most boring and unauthentic parts of the entire game: Fighting.
In previous entries, fighting turned into it’s own mini-game done in first-person where you just punched and pulled at your opponent in a stagnant position. It was a system that became just a flicking of the right thumbstick up like a madman until your opponent went down. They also had to be agreed upon by players on both teams and, as a result, never really occurred that often. They surely didn’t happen at moments where in a real game fans would be screaming at their team to do something, say after a dirty hit or scuffle in front of the net. As a result, it became an incredibly boring and forgotten about aspect of the game.
It just didn’t feel authentic. A lot of fights are meant as ways to send a message or defend a teammate in the heat of the moment. While I’ve never gotten into a fight in my hockey career — I was never an enforcer in high school and doing so in my adult league means suspension and possible banishment — I still understand why it’s an important aspect of the game and what makes hockey exciting.
The above video by EA Sports shows the changes that the developer has implemented to make fighting in the series far more like what you would see in an actual game. Late hits or dirty shots won’t go unnoticed and anyone who ignores the way to properly play both between and after the whistles will have to pay with a fight. Having someone charge in to doll out that kind of justice in the demo or someone from the other team doing the same gave a shot of adrenaline to my system and had me thinking, “Oh, it’s on now. This game has just picked up!”
It’s the same thought that runs through my mind — in addition to perhaps some other, profanity-laced thoughts during Rangers games — when I watch NHL action on my television or in person. It felt real, true to its source in a way the previous fighting system never did.
To prove this leap in authenticity, here’s some examples of real-life hockey fights from this past NHL season:
If you watch from the opening seconds, Jay Pandolfo of the Boston Bruins takes a nasty push from behind by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mark Fraser. Fraser pushes him in an almost cross-check motion head-first into the boards. Though not hard and with clearly no intent to injure, it’s not a nice play that puts Pandolfo’s head and neck at serious risk given his proximity to the boards. Knowing how dangerous the play was, Boston’s Andy McQuaid reminds Fraser that those kinds of hits won’t fly with him or his team, and the two engage in fisticuffs.
The fight is also a fine example of just how NHL 14 nailed the mechanics of its fighting system down through the jostling and spinning of the players on the ice, the risk of losing one’s balance, and how players will sometimes square off for a second or two before grabbing hold and engaging. The one thing this fight shows, however, that perhaps the NHL franchise should implement is the possibility of draws.
Though over incredibly fast and not exactly how NHL 14‘s fighting system plays out, this bout between the Devils’ Tom Kostopoulos and Islanders’ Matt Martin is another perfect example of a teammate sticking up for the victim of a questionable or dirty hit. Martin comes up high on Stephen Gionta, connecting dangerously close to his head. It’s a type of hit that, when it makes contact with the head, has caused tons of concussions in recent years and has been the target of the NHL’s disciplinary committee to get out of the game.
As a result, Kostopoulos knows that Martin should know better and takes exception. He pays the price for taking a stand, but at least now Martin understands the Devils didn’t like it and are willing to strike back.
This final fight is an example of another new and authentic way that fights can be initiated in NHL 14: the post-whistle scuffle in the crease. In almost any and every hockey play in front of the net that ends with the goaltender freezing the puck, players from both teams will gather around the goalie to say a few words and get in a few shoves. The reasons for this are simple: The offense wants to get the puck free to score and/or jostle the goalie, while the defense wants to protect their teammate and keep the goalie from taking unnecessary hacks and pokes.
In the NHL, these can often times slowly escalate into fights when the offensive player doesn’t back off or shoots some dirty insults the defender’s way. NHL 14 has allowed for a system where players will tie each other up in the crease, put a glove in one another’s faces, and shove each other with the Y or triangle button until a fight breaks out. It plays out in the game almost exactly like how Kris Newbury of the Rangers and Tye McGinn of the Flyers do above, as Newbury uses the whistle and jostling as a way to get even for McGinn’s unintentional high stick to him earlier in the play.
These final two examples come back to NHL 14 in order show the kind of fighting I experienced in my time with the game’s demo. Notice how the AI takes offense to a late, brutal hit after an icing as well as a strong slapshot after the play ends in the direction of the goaltender. As shown in the real-life videos above, this stuff doesn’t fly in the real NHL, so why should it fly in the game? It doesn’t. Not anymore.
Of course, the frequency of fights I encountered in the game was surprisingly high. Whether this is simply a settings adjustment by EA to show off the new engine, or just a strong message that I better clean up my act a bit when the full game comes out, I’m unsure. Hopefully if it’s the latter, there actually will be a setting in the full game to adjust the frequency of these spontaneous fights. Regardless, I still enjoyed the heck out of this new engine and love how every year the EA developers in Vancouver bring the video game closer and closer to the real thing.