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game review

As usual, the latest EA NHL hockey game is the only place where the Leafs can win the cup.EA Canada

Finally, a hockey game with some humour in it! Admittedly, it's so subtle that if you're not looking for laughs in NHL 14, you probably won't find them. But if you are so inclined, it's a hoot.

The latest outing from Electronic Arts is as good as hockey games get. The action keeps getting better and deeper, but the game also manages to avoid becoming impenetrable and inaccessible. Developers have eschewed new feature overload this year and have instead concentrated on a few fun extras.

As in many sports games, you can create a player and oversee his (or her) climb through the minor leagues and into the big time. The usual stuff is there – points that can be spent on upgrading certain abilities, new gear to be bought and the ability to simulate games.

But the franchise's new Live the Life mode adds a unique twist in that you need to try to keep four separate groups happy: the fans, teammates, management and your family. You do this through events in between games, which often take the form of media interviews. If you've ever rolled your eyes and yelled better answers at the TV during a cliché-riddled post-game athlete interview, now you can be the one who instigates the groans.

I might be biased because I'm a journalist, since it makes you the interviewee (as opposed to the interviewer), but this is where the subversive fun kicks in. You routinely get questions from the media, like "What went wrong out there on the ice tonight?" You then have several options to pick from. You can pull a Barry Bonds and extoll your own greatness, or you can trot out the old standbys: "We played well, but we just didn't have the bounces going our way," or "You have to hand it to the other side, they were just the better team tonight," or the always popular, "We just have to take it one game at a time."

Cockiness might sometimes score points with the fans, but it certainly won't sit well with management. If your rating there falls too low, the bosses might send you down to the minors or trade you. Smack talk your teammates too much and they'll stop passing to you.

Of course, there's also the opposite end of things. Shooting your mouth off while you're a rookie is a sure-fire way to get demoted, but after you've been in the bigs for a while, it's also not a bad way to get traded, perhaps to a better team. I didn't have a chance to play long enough to experiment with what happens when you royally tick your family off, but I'm curious enough to go back and try.

It's all goofy, off-ice fun, even if it is all text-based and a little repetitive. Some sort of visuals or even animations would have been a nice touch, but it's still neat to manipulate your way through a career. It's one of the few sports games that makes players experience the pressures athletes face when it comes to saying the right thing.

The humour exerts itself in a more overt way with another new feature, the NHL 94 20th anniversary mode, which is a well-done replica of what many consider to be the greatest hockey game ever. EA Canada developers smartly opted against a straight-up retro recreation and instead went with a mode that holds true to the spirit of that game, but incorporates modern touches.

It's therefore fast, hard-hitting and high-scoring with a just few retro elements, such as the blue ice and star icons around players – plus 16-bit chip-tuned intro music, which is funny no matter how many times you hear it. Also, the mode uses current rosters and graphics and a control system that isn't too different from what's found in the main game. It does indeed feel very much like NHL 94, but with some contemporary complexity added in. This is the right way to do retro.

The core game itself is pretty much what we've come to expect from EA Sports, with the same rock-solid game play, coupled with the standard annual tweaks and improvements. Key among them this year are imports from EA's FIFA Soccer and Fight Night boxing franchises, which add more reality to skating, collisions and fighting.

In particular, the scraps are more fun this time out, with the camera maintaining its third-person action view rather than zooming in for a close up as in previous games. It's actually a more immersive choice because you can see teammates watching and interacting around you. And yes, it's possible to have multiple teammates in multiple fights at the same time.

The skating and collisions feel even better this year, with player weights and aggressiveness now playing more of a role. Charge into someone with a larger player and they're more likely to go flying.

Online play is mostly the same as last year, with GM mode allowing you to run your own giant league and games under whatever rules you like, with up to 750 players.

Perhaps the best part of NHL 14, at least for noobs, is a simplified interface that features only the main mode choices on the front menu page. You can tweak just about any imaginable setting, from camera angles and controller layouts to automatic aiming and artificial intelligence levels, but all of that plumbing is wisely hidden under the virtual hood. The game is thus as deep as any hard-core aficionado could hope, but it's also accessible right from the get go.

Not everyone will dig the media subversion of Live the Life, but you have to pretty stone-hearted not to enjoy the NHL 94 anniversary mode.

And yeah, the core action – both offline and on – is top-notch too, even if it isn't all that funny.

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