Since its reinvention 10 years ago, EA’s annual NHL games have been so entertaining that competitors have long ceased any attempts to usurp its mantle as the go-to hockey franchise. Since the series transitioned to the current generation of consoles, however, it has suffered from technical setbacks — forcing developers to clean up the mess and win back fans.
Despite some annoyances and gaping holes, the franchise has returned to Stanley Cup form in NHL 17. Hardcore fans will rejoice, but even those with a curiosity for hockey will find it much easier to get into this game.
Like groomed ice
On the ice, NHL 17 generally feels like a smoother version of the hockey game fans know and love. Publisher Electronic Arts has nipped and tucked in various areas, making gameplay that feels generally smoother and more accurate. Players skate with a little more fluidity than before, a result of trimming framerates, according to EA. Shooting feels great, and it pays to be creative by finding different ways to generate scoring chances. Passing generally flows smoothly, though one-touch passing can feel imprecise at times. Hitting is entirely satisfying, as it should be, and more emphatic goal celebrations are a welcome sight for instilling some emotion into the game.
One of the best things EA did was add a Semi-Pro difficulty setting that bridges between Rookie and Pro.
These changes, while generally a good thing, have also led to small but noticeable issues. For example, new goalie AI has been tweaked so that those players use their bodies to block more shots. As a result, shooting has become unpredictable. The puck has a tendency bounce into the goaltender’s body, die by the side of the net, or sit in front of his pads waiting to be picked up. Moreover, it became evident the change curtailed more flamboyant and acrobatic saves. Many saves were little more than butterfly positions, where luck intervened to ensure the puck actually hit the goaltender’s body.
The surprises were not always negative, though. A hard shot could carom off the goalie’s shoulder and pop into the net. The area between the torso and arms also appears to be a more vulnerable spot this time around.
Physical battles in front of the net are now less random and literally more hands-on. Pressing Y or Triangle on offense or defense triggers an action to tie up the body, lift a stick to let a point shot through, or move him out of the way for a clearer shooting lane. AI teammates and opponents will tussle this way on their own, so it’s not something that needs manual control on every possession in the offensive zone. It’s a little more effective when playing in tandem with friends on the same team.
Referees are quick in waving off or going upstairs on inconclusive or controversial goals, be it a kicking motion, high-stick or goalie interference. Some calls were so close I wasn’t entirely sure which way it would go. Seeing the straight arm toward center ice was a nice boost, much like real life.
A change of scenery
Sports games are naturally scrutinized for the small tweaks and additions that distinguish it from previous years. The new and expanded modes of NHL 17 generally change things up enough so that dedicated players will find new ways to play.
The fantasy side of the game is wrought with choices.
With the NHL poised to expand to Las Vegas for the 2017-18 season, EA added in a timely set of features related to relocation and rebranding into the game’s franchise mode. In addition to the usual choices related to the business and performance of your team, franchise mode allows you to pick up and bring the franchise any number of cities and start over. You can also completely rebrand your team: You can change arenas, logos, and uniforms.
While creating the franchise of your teams adds a new and interesting path for serial franchise players, the mode leaves plenty of room for improvement. The options for new logos and jerseys feel very limited. Even worse, there is no way to upload your own designs, holding you from completing the fantasy of making a whole new team of your own.
Despite that, the fantasy side of the game is wrought with choices. The “Be a GM” mode takes better shape this year, particularly with pressure from the team owner and fan expectations. Though drafting and player personnel decisions still take up the bulk of your time, there is an increased emphasis on managing the business side of the team. Prices for tickets, merchandise, concessions, and setting up community events create challenging situations where you must weigh the importance fan loyalty, and the needs of the business.
If that sounds too slow for you, a new mode “Draft Champions” integrates the fantasy draft into a much quicker pick-up-and-play format. Players choose 12 current and former players — Everyone in the mix is elite, so we are talking superstar dream teams here — then play online or against AI to earn cards for another mode, “NHL Ultimate Team.” While “Draft Champions” offers the option for players to do a fantasy draft without diving into fantasy mode entirely, it feels like a bit of a half-step.
“Be a Pro,” the character-creation based campaign, feels like the odd mode out. The campaign hasn’t changed a great deal this year, except that key career moments and milestones are now celebrated with a short cutscene. For example, after my player scored his first goal, he skated by the bench and flipped the puck to the trainer. Point milestones, hat tricks, returning from injury, and retirement are all given some special treatment. The scenes add some visual splendor to your player’s career, but doesn’t make a big enough impact to enhance the rest of the experience.
Getting into the game
NHL 17’s features a set of improvements focused on helping new and/or casual players compete with the franchise’s die-hard fans. Semi-Pro, a new difficulty setting, bridges the gap between Rookie and Pro settings. Seasoned players accustomed to the higher difficulties will never bother with it, but newcomers and casual gamers looking to work their way up will fit right in. Where Rookie mode makes it too easy to score, and Pro significantly improves goaltending, Semi-Pro dials things back enough to make the game competitive and arcade-like. Goalies will make more saves, but defensive breakdowns ensure plenty of scoring chances.
The game also introduced a new version of the series’ visual on-ice trainer, which adds an overlay that coaches players on the ins and outs of NHL play. Though the added effects felt obtrusive at first, after playing several games with it on, it’s easy to see that the aids would be a boon for novice players who might not be able to read the ice and see passing lanes or exposed areas of the goal on their own.
The coaching feedback, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily seem so helpful. While it’s more dynamic than last year’s version, the path to pleasing the coaching staff and winning the game are not necessarily in lock-step: I was up 4-0 in one game, and still got a C grade on my defense because of how many shots I was giving up.
The World Cup of Hockey squads are included, plus the ECHL (East Coast Hockey League) minor league that allows NHL teams to call up or send down players with their affiliates. These are entirely playable, and in the case of the World Cup, European players who aren’t in the NHL anymore are in the mix. That includes retired Pavel Datsyuk and disgraced Slava Voynov for Team Russia.
It’s not perfect, but NHL 17 is a solid step in the right direction that makes the series’ recent missteps feel like history. The breadth of content here is not only substantial, but also broadly based to offer something for everyone. With a balance between deep league-driven modes for driven fans, and easy-in quick play modes, NHL 17 can be equally satisfying for all kinds of players.