The NHL franchise was, for a time, the undisputed best sports game coming out on a year-to-year basis. EA found a way to catch lightning in a bottle again and again, and the series went on to suck free time away from tons of NHL fans around the world.

Now? Fatigue is starting to wear in. It's been awhile since EA has even found a reason to rethink this franchise, and that fact shows with the slight modifications that come into play in NHL 14.

This is a solid game, don't get me wrong. It's good, fun hockey with interesting tweaks and tilts to make the package more enticing for veterans.

However, EA needs to reapproach the franchise again. The work is growing old, and the team behind it must find a way to get fans pumped again.

Mostly the Same Game You Know

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This year's entry in the NHL franchise is, once again, not a reinvention. The skating engine from last year is present and accounted for, and still really strong. The Skill Stick hasn't seen many tweaks, as per usual for what's approaching a decade of releases. Deking has gotten a little better, though still is far from a necessary component of the game.

EA Sports is in sort of a rut with this series, as far as I'm concerned. For a long time, they've had the best (and then only) NHL video game product. For good reason, too, the franchise did amazing things from 2007-2010.

Unfortunately, things are growing stale. Especially the announcers. These guys have been saying practically the same exact stuff for the last five years. It's getting old.

Announcers aside, the on-ice product is always great in the NHL series. 14 is no different. You'll love playing hockey here once things get going, though the process will still feel incredibly familiar.

I will say, though, that hitting has gotten a touch strange. In previous editions, hitting happened when you lined up a check and flicked the right stick to initiate big contact. This year? Just skate into another player and you'll level them. While more realistic, it breeds a whole lot of unintentional contact and penalties. Before I figured out what was happening, I was up ice and off camera in Be A Pro mode accidentally checking my opponents. That lead to too much time in the box.

Went to a Fight and a Hockey Game Broke Out

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To the casual fan, hockey has a lot of fighting. Stick with me here.

If you ask someone who knows very little about the sport of hockey what types of things they'd expect from a game, most would likely say fighting. It's true, fights happen. While they don't happen every game, they do break out with some measure of regularity.

NHL 14 looks to capture that fighting essence with a brand new enforcer engine. At the NHL level, and this is going to get a touch complicated, most teams have to employ enforcers. Enforcers are players there to insure the stars. If an opponent goes after a star with a massive check, an enforcer might hop into the scrum, drop the gloves and start a fight.

There are those who hate fighting in the NHL, and then there are those, like myself, who believe the game would be a lot more dangerous without it.

NHL 14 has this enforcer feature. If I'm playing, for instance, the Penguins and I go after Crosby or Malkin, odds are that someone like Kunitz (not really an enforcer) or Engelland might skate in to beat me down. It works well in play… at first.

Instead of a once-a-game occurrence, fights happen constantly in NHL 14. The fighting engine has been improved, so it's not a complete mess like it has been in past years, but fighting breaks out way, way, way too much. This can be trimmed back with in-game sliders, but then you lose the enforcer feel.

I liked the idea of seeing one of the NHL's most interesting dynamics come to virtual life, but the in-game side effects really don't warrant the enforcers' virtual presence.

Living The Life in Be A Pro

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Be A Pro is not new to the NHL franchise. This mode puts you in the skates of one player throughout their career. You'll play in the AHL, work your way up to the NHL and go on to establish a glorious career (or middling one, if you're not very good).

NHL 14 introduces "Live The Life" to Be A Pro. According to the in-game text, this mode lets gamers "truly Live the Life of an NHL player, on or off the ice. Every decision you make shapes your legacy as an athlete." How does that translate to in-game action?

Essentially, you'll be asked questions before and after games. These questions typically have obviously kind answers, average answers and the sort of answers that will make you look like a jerk. Your answers and decisions will either positively or negatively affect your relationships with your teammates, the town of your team, your management and your family. Those relationships are represented by a 200 point scale ranging from -100 to +100.

If you're loved, you'll play better. If you're hated, you might be forced out of town and into an early retirement.

Really, this mode offers little in the way of actual play. It's fairly easy to pick decisions that will always produce a positive relationship score. Live The Life really only offers more to do in between games. It creates a slightly more realistic look at being an actual professional athlete, but it doesn't do much to make NHL 14 a better game. It's interesting, sure, but not a clear and concise selling point.

Otherwise, this is the Be A Pro mode that you already know. My only real qualm comes from something odd that happened early in my virtual career. After scoring eight goals in three games at the NHL level, I was somehow bumped down to the AHL team. The game's reasoning? Tough decisions had to be made. That makes no sense.

A Note on NHL 94 Anniversary Mode

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NHL 94 Anniversary Mode is really silly, but it's honestly what I would have hoped to see from EA Sports' Madden NFL 25. That game celebrated 25 years of releases with trivia and art in menus and loading screens. NHL 14 marks 20 years with a throwback mode.

The mode offers up classic controls, much like previous iterations of NHL. A is pass, B is shoot, Y is fight and X is hustle (on the Xbox 360, of course). It's a good pick-up-and-play mode for friends and family who don't have the patience to learn the simple Skill Stick.

The controls are one thing. With them alone, this mode would have been a complete throwaway. The saving grace comes in the form of aural and visual aesthetics. The ice is blue and the goal horn and arena organ sounds like it was ripped out of an old video game sound file set.

More of The Same

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If you like picking up the yearly show for sweater swaps and roster updates, you'll be happy with NHL 14.

I'm a big time hockey fan. I'm also a big time fan of hockey video games. I've been playing them for roughly 20 years now, on a yearly basis. The change from NHL 13 to NHL 14 was a little simple for my money.

I still had fun with the game. I loved the new fighting engine, when it wasn't annoying. I dug the Anniversary Mode as a quick, temporary pick up and play option for friends. The Live the Life stuff? Eh, I could have done without it.

The additions and changes here are minor at best. If you like picking up the yearly show for sweater swaps and roster updates, you'll be happy with NHL 14. It's a solid game and doesn't do much to buck the already working formula for the franchise.

EA needs to figure a way to reinvent the wheel here. As odd as that sounds, franchise fatigue will start to take its toll soon. Change up the announcers (please!), reinvigorate the UI and figure out a way to maintain the on-ice quality and this thing will start scooping up sports game of the year awards left and right once more.

We received a review copy of NHL 14 for the Xbox 360 from EA Sports a few days prior to release. We played roughly 12 hours of the game before starting this review.

3.5 out of 5