The NHL game franchise has consistently improved over the last few years on all fronts, and it shows no signs of stopping there. The catch with annualization is that changes are never too radical, but that hasn’t stop NHL from making the improvements it has needed to stay ahead of the game. EA Sports hopes to do the same thing with NHL 17.
Skating around the ice still feels as fine-tuned as ever. Momentum can still knock you off course if your trajectory is not accurate and you will not end up with the puck automatically simply because you’re in the vicinity. Puck control has also been altered and requires an acclimation period. No longer is the puck stuck to a player’s stick while in control of it. Poke checks are much more relevant and effective this year, and even accidental nudges of the puck or another player’s stick can yield a possession loss. Even messing around too much can see the puck slide off at a tangent while your player swings at nothing but loose ice and air.
Like the game itself, puck control is as key as taking shots, and the need to focus on that aspect of the game is a much needed directive. Some will welcome the change and others will rue it, and I won’t deny that there’s a need to acclimate to the it all, because the first bunch of games will have their frustrations.
The look and feel of the game is streamlined, and this goes tenfold for the menu screens. The standard found on tablets, Windows 10, and practically every sports game interface follows this mold, but NHL 17 has it channeled well and layered nicely. All it all, it feels more organized and accessible while still retaining that minimalistic display; this is an umbrella statement for all game modes, because all modes are so well organized that sub-menus are slick to assume and navigate.
There’s the addition of Draft Champions to the concept of Ultimate Team, and anyone familiar with the mode in the Madden franchise will feel right at home. The one big difference here is the benefit of not having to accommodate for 22 positions with fifteen picks, allowing you to generate proper squads and a few extras instead of just a starting lineup. This allows for a more personalized experience, to be honest, because the need to swap players is paramount to the game of hockey, so having control of all of that not only in game but with your choice of players makes it more of a personal investment rather than a one-off.
From there, the standard Hockey Ultimate Team encapsulates the microtransaction formula that NHL 17 has in place. Online and offline seasons play a part here, as is customary, contributing the standard two-point wins and one-point losses toward a season score needed to qualify. As par for the course, you can buy currency with actual cash for card packs, and you can earn in-game currency as well. On note for the latter, NHL 17 features rewards for both in-game performance as well as returning every day to play. Though this was in last year’s version as well, seeing it again is enlightening. Having a reward for returning to a game mode that already requires massive amounts of investment and time is a great way to incentivize your return to the mode.
On the topic of incentive, Be A Pro does everything well. Last year’s setup was well thought out and executed, generating player development based on what you actually do while on the ice. This is the epitome of leveling the way you want, because the game develops you automatically based on the specific things you do, such as offensive points for scoring goals or defensive points for generating turnovers. There are also three options now for starting your career in the National Hockey League: Start in the minors, play qualifying matches, or start for your preferred team. From there, your player begins to perform and excel in the way that you, the player, actually plays. On-ice prompts also help you stay in position and perform tasks as the game requires, facilitating new players and keeping old vets focused on the task at hand.
I will mention that playing as a goalie is more boring than it should be, and I’m not referring to the times when you’re waiting for the puck to enter your zone, either. Most control is set around R2 for low block and the right joystick for sliding back and forth on the ice. It does make goaltending easier, but it doesn’t take long to max out interest with it, since all high shots are blocked automatically with the new programming for goalies. Half of the intrigue with goalies is seeing them make those impressive glove saves and risky stick saves in a pinch, but those cooler goalie moves are automated. As someone who loves the skill needed to be a goalie, having half of the functions automated reduces the experience substantially, though it facilitates the experience for newcomers.
Commentating takes a bit of a back seat to the gameplay and presentation, showcasing a more minimal approach, as I mentioned before, and eliminating a great deal of the in-game banter expected from most sports game commentators. The track list also has a nice balance of sound to it, bringing in a decent set of artists that compliment clicking around menus or sifting through HUT decks and card packs. We see what you’re doing, EA, and we don’t mind one bit here.
The online side of things consists of two modes that revolve around the game of hockey itself: team play. Online Team Play (OTP) is a matchmaking option that pits you on a full team of five against another full team of five. As would be expected, the quality of the game will be determined by whom you’re matched with. This on its own is a piece of good news, because the servers themselves are smooth and stable, so here you’ll only have to worry about teammates who showboat or won’t spread the puck around. The other side of online is EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL). In execution, the concept is the same here, but your team must be predetermined beforehand, allowing you to compete with the same team members against other pre-made teams. After customizing your character (again either male or female), you can create a squad, customize jerseys, and even develop and customize the way your arena looks. Customizations are somewhat narrow here too, but the ability to do all these things for the first time in such a scale is still leaps ahead of any similar modes in other sports games.
I’d also love to make a note about character creation here: While customization options aren’t vast, I adore having the option to be a female player both online and in Be A Pro. The option to create a female player has been in the game for a few years now, and some may file it as a novelty featurette, but I respect it up and down as female players are also included in Be A Pro, OTP, and EASHL.
While staying true to its ideals, NHL 17 is a set piece for all sports titles on the market, offering more freedom, flexibility, and customization across many different levels, which puts it at the top of the sports gaming genre among the likes of NBA 2K. It’ll take a bit to get used to possession of the puck again, and playing as a goalie is more boring than it should be, but NHL 17 has more than enough to validate a purchase for both veterans and newcomers alike.