Variety and depth make this year’s NHL a cup contender.
[Editor’s Note: This review is in progress because we have not yet tested NHL 17 multiplayer on live servers.]
With NHL 16 having accomplished its mission of righting the ship after the NHL 15 debacle, NHL 17 gets to try out a few new moves. Offline and online users each get something meaty — with a new franchise mode and deep EA Sports Hockey League customization, respectively — and Hockey Ultimate Team fans get some smart upgrades, as well as the new Draft Champions mode. This is a smooth, solid, hard-hitting and feature-rich game that delivers in the ways a modern sports game should.
NHL 17 is an appealing revision because of new ways to play as well as improvements to some existing modes, and the game accommodates various skill levels more than ever. Even the tenacity of computer-controlled opposition is upgraded, which is something I haven’t been able to say about certain previous entries in the series. It’s been a pleasure to see the opposing teams use aggressive hitting and a dump-and-chase style of hockey to put the pressure on, as it’s made me (a long-time player of the series) re-evaluate a few strategies. EA seems to be getting quite comfortable with the new engine they debuted a couple of years back, and that confidence has a positive knock-on effect for the whole package.
As you hit the ice you’ll find that this year’s game plays smoothly and crisply, with a good challenge if you want to seek it out. On higher difficulty settings you have less time in general to make decisions, and that pressure makes defensive zone battles feel more crucial. I’d say entering the offensive zone is still a bit too easy, but it can be hard to shake defenders a good deal of the time once you do. The computer also regains the puck too frequently after being poke-checked, but I’ll take this added aggression over some of the passive stuff that was seen in previous NHL games.
On the higher difficulty settings goalies are fairly sharp.
Another new angle is that players can now battle in front of the net, which allows bigger forwards to try to establish position in front of the goaltenders. This is useful for creating screens and setting picks. To combat this, the goaltenders have a new set of save animations, which allows goalies to move and react more believably. Goalies will have a distinct resting stance and many of them play positionally, shouldering down pucks and using their frame to cut down the angle. On the higher difficulty settings goalies are fairly sharp, requiring accurate slap shots, one-timers, and wristers to beat them. No obvious “money” goals yet, in other words.
There’s a lot of complexity to all of these interactions, but NHL 17 eases you into them and teaches you to make the most of a situation. A universally welcome feature from NHL 16 was the on-ice trainer, which helped guide newer players through some of the nuances of the controls. This has been enhanced for NHL 17, with added direction from coaches between periods and more on-ice visual aids. It’s nice to see specific zones that your player should be covering, and the projected bank path for saucer passes off the boards is a good touch. The return of “semi-pro” difficulty helps serve as a bridge for casual players, too. Hockey seems very well suited for this type of instruction, and it just makes sense to start novice players with the basics and then occasionally remind them of an advanced technique.
The presentation that was revamped two years ago still looks sharp, and it maintains the NHL series’ distinct look among modern sports games, even if there are no noticeable improvements over last year. I still love seeing the mascots dance around and fans getting pumped up after a goal, and the arena-specific items and effects keep that authentic feel. On the other hand, the commentary by Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro doesn’t seem to have much additional variety. Also, the green-screen intros have kind of lost their appeal after the initial professional broadcast sizzle.
Face of the Franchise
NHL has needed this sort of management mode badly for a while now.
The “Be A GM” mode has been a staple of the NHL series for years, and last year it was improved via the addition of a morale system which let you monitor your players and meet with them if things started to go awry. NHL 17 has expanded this and gone into full-on owner territory, pulling from the likes of NBA 2K and Madden, to provide full control of a franchise. It’s quite impressive how deep EA went with this feature, as you can adjust the price of individual food items at the concession, launch promotional nights, upgrade stadium facilities, meddle with ticket prices, and even relocate a franchise. All of these systems (including standard features like scouting, roster moves and player morale) interact in multiple ways. I was particularly impressed with the clean explanations of how a franchise’s national exposure, market temperament, and playoff performance would affect ticket sales, for example. Even building upgrades had an impact on how fans would feel about the team. There are limits to this mode, especially when compared with the game-day depth and presentation in Madden or NBA 2K, but NHL has needed this sort of thing badly for a while now. This franchise mode should satisfy those looking to fiddle with ticket prices and work behind the scenes.
For fantasy draft players, the Draft Champions mode (also borrowed from the likes of Madden) gives you the chance to build a team through 12 rounds of drafting. These drafts are themed, so you’ll be picking from the best Canadian players, the brightest young stars, and so on. Once you’ve drafted your team you can challenge players online or take on the computer. I would say that there are a few too many rounds for the choices to feel crucial in these drafts, and maybe limiting it to eight rounds would’ve added more pressure. Still, I do like the idea of making trade-offs while building a team.
Rewards earned in Draft Champions feed into the Hockey Ultimate Team mode, where you can continue to collect player cards and build the best possible fantasy team. The big addition this year is the synergy system, which replaces last year’s chemistry dynamic with bonuses awarded for icing players of similar skill types. Also, you can finally do something with all of those unused cards: trade them in as complete sets. These sets unlock premium rewards, including legend cards for specific teams.
This year’s novelty mode is the World Cup of Hockey, which will take place in Toronto in a couple of weeks. All of the international teams are represented, and the in-game overlays and commentary reflect the event. I’m glad the mode is included, but it likely won’t get too much play beyond the first month of release. It feels a bit gimmicky.
Fans of the EA Sports Hockey League were pretty upset when it didn’t make the cut in NHL 15 — and rightfully so — and EA tried to make up for that in NHL 16 by bringing it back with purpose. In NHL 17 teams have even more ways to play thanks to additional player classes to choose from, such as the jumbo playmaker, hitting sniper, and puck-moving defenseman. These classes add to the pre-existing builds, with the puck-moving defenseman helping the transition game and the jumbo playmaker creating a presence for passing lanes, for example.
As your squad levels up in the EASHL, you’ll gain badges and commendations that recognize your achievements. Even cooler are the arena and jersey customization options that unlock; EA really went all in on this feature, adding custom arena types, scoreboards, plexiglass, railings, stairways, goal music, lighting, and more. The team jerseys have customizable coloring and logos that allow for some distinct designs. I would have liked to see more custom logos, as the options are limited that way, but what’s here is a good start. Player goal celebrations are also unlocked through EASHL progression, so you’ll have a number of new ways to humiliate the other team after putting one in the net. My only worry is that some of these options take quite a while to unlock, so the time commitment might scare off some players.
Online team play also gets a smart little addition, as you and your friends can now group up before entering matches. Being able to pre-select positions and ready up keeps this experience feeling smooth, and more matches are likely to launch. You can also match up with your EASHL squad for some unranked games, which works well when you’re waiting for the whole team to get online.
However, I haven’t been able to get in many multiplayer sessions during the review period, so we’ll be noting this review as “in progress” until I can get a chance to play some additional matches on live servers. If I had to score NHL 17 today based on offline modes and playing online during the beta a month ago, I’d give it an 8.4, for great. Check back when NHL 17 launches on Tuesday, September 13 for the final score.