Like most annual sports games, EA Sports’ NHL franchise has gone through some growing pains over the past couple of years as it transitioned onto new hardware. With each new iteration, however, the series has taken huge strides forward—and this year is no different. With EA Canada looking to their sports game cousins over at EA Tiburon and Madden for a little extra inspiration, NHL 17 adds a ton of new features, and by continuing to iterate on their own systems, EA Canada has produced the most authentic on-ice experience to date.

The most obvious element taken directly from the gridiron guys at EA Tiburon is the fact that NHL 17 now boasts its own version of Draft Champions. Instead of picking coaches and schemes, though, your first major decision here involves selecting a general pool of players. Do you want perennial all-stars? Or maybe only players that were born north of the border? How about just Stanley Cup winners? Each choice will net you an impressive base team no matter what, but will also dictate the players and legends available to you according to the theme. For example, no one would argue picking Hall of Famer Mike Modano early on to center your first line—but if you choose the Canadian-born player pool, you’ll never see him come up.

The actual draft part of the mode is shorter—down to 12 rounds instead of 15—due to the fact that there’s far less players on a hockey team than a football team, but it’s still enough that every gamer should have an outstanding group. There are also four player choices each round instead of three, making each pick more painful as you get deeper and deeper into the draft.

I found myself enjoying NHL 17’s version of the mode more than Madden’s. Here, each team is chock full of superstars, unlike the Madden side where each team has myriad scrubs filling holes at too many positions. My only issue with the mode lies in the fact that Madden allows you to have both an offline gauntlet against the computer for practice and an online one against other players going on at the same time. With NHL 17, you can only pick one or the other, which sucks if, say, you were playing online and your internet goes out. You either have to re-draft and forfeit the remaining gauntlet, or wait until you get back online.

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The other new mode NHL 17 touts this year is World Cup of Hockey. Replacing the old tournament mode, the World Cup of Hockey pits the eight authentic teams from this year’s international tournament against each other in round robin, and then elimination play. It’s not the longest or most intense mode, but it’s a nice way to try out players you might not normally use in other modes. For those of us who live and breathe the sport, you can’t help but try to take your home team all the way—and, yes, I took Team USA to the final where I swept Team Sweden.

New modes are always fun to mess around with, but the core four pre-existing modes—Franchise, Be a Pro, Hockey Ultimate Team, and EA Sports Hockey League—have seen such major renovations that you’d almost think they were brand new, too.

EASHL has added a plethora of customization options for building your own arena and team in order to give yourself the truest home ice advantage possible online. As your arena evolves and levels up over five different tiers, you’ll unlock everything from being able to mix up what color seats you have on each bowl level, to customized scoreboard and entrance effects when your team takes the ice for the first time. In terms of gameplay, the mode also adds new player classes for your skater, like hitting sniper and jumbo forward, so you can have a more refined role when you actually do take the ice.

Hockey Ultimate Team has seen more drastic changes than just some customization features. When you start, no longer will you be saddled with a team full of scrubs. They won’t be superstars either, to be clear, but you don’t have to worry about minor leaguers from the OHL mixing with pros at the NHL level anymore, as you’ll be given a roster full of NHL-level talent. You can always improve your squad through skill boosts or finding better players in packs or the auction house, but you’ll be competitive as soon as you start now, which is great if you’re like me and don’t consider grinding for online currency part of a quality play experience.

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HUT also boosts several new systems borrowed from the Madden franchise. A new metagame for you to focus on in NHL 17 is the completion of sets. Collecting every player from a team and placing them in a HUT set will net you one of that franchise’s legendary players. There’s also a new Synergy system borrowed from Madden, which replaces the old Chemistry meter. This means you no longer have to hope for finding a “change team” card when opening packs so you can get all of one team on a line. Instead, each player will fall into certain categories, and when a team has enough of those players, they’ll all receive a boost. As one example, Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash of the New York Rangers have the “Wicked Wristers” ability; put them on a team with two others with that ability, and all four will have a plus-three rating to their wrist shot. It’s a big boost, and trying to mix and match Synergies adds a welcome level of strategy to putting your ideal online team together.

If online play isn’t your cup of tea, Franchise has you covered. This year’s Franchise mode not only allows players to control every facet of the team, but also the front office. I’m not just talking about contract negotiations like in previous years, but also having to meet certain owner goals to keep your job. You’ll have to decide on a marketing budget (who wants a Derek Stepan bobblehead the first time the Penguins come to MSG on November 23rd?) and stadium upgrades (hell yes we need more ice cream stands at the Garden). These moves permeate the mode so much that even the commentary from the returning Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk, and Ray Ferraro reflects these changes to the arena (those three guys do another fantastic job calling the games as part of possibly the best presentation package in sports games, by the way). It’s not the first time we’ve seen this level of team management detail in a sports game, but how it affects you staying in control of your favorite team is a nice added detail if you love to micromanage your team like I do.

If the idea of actually playing on an NHL team is your dream, Be a Pro mode also returns. There are two major changes here, with the first being that there are now three timing options to speed up the process of being a pro. Whereas it used to take upwards of 30 real-world minutes to play each game with authentic 20-minute periods (that’s with skipping to your next shift), the new 10-minute and 5-minute period options speeds up each game experience considerably—but come at the sacrifice of playing time for your pro. This double-edged sword really came back to haunt me, because your coach—who offers points on how he wants you to play between shifts—is also a lot more harsh this year.

While I appreciate the solution to speed the game up, I really felt my player was screwed when he didn’t make the team, and was sent down to the AHL to start the season. My rookie had eight points—three goals, five assists, and a plus-five rating to boot—in seven games and you couldn’t even stick me on the fourth line? It’s called Be a Pro, not Be a Minor Leaguer. With that kind of production and that end result to my pre-season, it still seems this mode is very unclear on what exactly it wants from you to be successful, leaving this still as one of the series’ weaker modes.

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Of course, these new bells and whistles in the modes are all well and good (mostly), but the thing that brings it all together is the gameplay. Some major changes to the all-around AI make this experience more realistic than ever before, and yet it feels completely different from years past. As impressive as puck physics and player movement always were, there were always moves and soft spots in the defense that you could find and take advantage of. Whether it was skating in a large circle from behind the net, taking slapshot bombs from the point with defensemen, or even just camping at the top of the slot, these strategies always worked because the AI players and goalies didn’t react in a way that actual NHL players do.

That’s changed, starting with the goaltenders. AI goalies will now more realistically play the puck, with shoulder shrugs and smaller, more nuanced movements. They’ll deflect a puck purposefully into the corner, headbutt it out of the sky, and scramble like never before if a puck starts to slowly trickle in behind them. They are also more susceptible to screens, deflections, and dekes on breakaways, though, to give them that sense of realism. Of course, should you decide to play as one of them in exhibition, Be a Pro, or EASHL, it’s still near impossible to be effective. I feel there needs to be a deep goalie tutorial mode, because as great as the visual trainer is—especially after this year’s upgrades will now teach skaters more pro-level moves like windmill dekes and spin-o-ramas—it doesn’t do enough for goaltenders. I often feel lost in the crease, that movement is sluggish, and that I’m always out of position.

The AI improvements also extend outward from the goalie, with defensemen now getting into battles with forwards in front of the net, and forwards moving into positions to better get rebounds and score those critical ugly goals down low, or block passing lanes on defense. Those soft spots I mentioned before are now gone for the most part; while they will occasionally pop up because a blown coverage will always happen here or there and a goalie will have to bail out his team, they are a rarity. The AI takes better angles and covers passes more aggressively now—instead of every AI player just blindly chasing the puck, often pulling themselves out of position.

This change, more than anything, has made NHL 17 feel like a brand new game. While it may be frustrating at first for long time players who have gotten used to how the game used to handle (admittedly, myself included), know that it’s better for the authenticity of the game in the long haul. And, if it really bothers you that much that you’re not scoring half-a-dozen goals every single game, you can always dumb down your opponents via the options menu.

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NHL 17 is another step forward in the hockey sim’s ever-continuing evolution. Better gameplay serves as a shining star in this year’s product, bolstered by new modes and important tweaks to existing ones. And, even if some of those are borrowed from other EA Sports games, NHL makes them all its own. Not every change was for the better, and there are still a few snags that hold it back, but overall it’s harder to get a better hockey experience than this outside of lacing up a pair of skates and gliding across a frozen pond.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Canada • ESRB Date: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.13.16
8.5
NHL 17 takes a step forward with the series in terms of more authentic gameplay, but has lost its edge in a couple of its long-standing modes.
The Good New goalie and defensive AI makes the on-ice product feel more realistic than ever before.
The Bad Playing as the goalie is still a nightmare. Be a Pro mode needs to be sent down to the minors.
The Ugly It was a bad idea to put my controller in the freezer overnight to “enhance my simulation experience” the next day.
NHL 17 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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