It’s perfectly fitting that the first game I got to go hands-on with at this year’s E3 was NHL 17. After all, not only am I a big fan of the series — which long-time readers and friends are likely well aware of — but I’m also a proud Canadian and a frustrated Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Don’t hold the latter thing against me, though; I give myself enough shit for the torture that it brings.
Upon my arrival at EA Play, I headed straight to the EA Sports section of the Novo’s interior, and entered into the short line for NHL 17. That is, if it could even be classified as a line due to its saddening lack of interested bodies.
EA Canada’s latest rendition of Canada’s favourite sport was limited to just four demo kiosks, all of which were somewhat hidden behind an oddly placed wall. The two exterior ones — as I later noticed — were Xbox One consoles, whereas the two in the middle were PlayStation 4s. I just jumped onto the first available one, and it ended up being an Xbox One, which fit right in with what I’ve become used to.
Instead of asking one of the developers to play against me, I went at it alone and played against the computer. That way, I could test things out on my own and set things to my liking. As such, the game ended up being a slightly shortened match between my Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators, which I won handily.
The menu system in this work-in-progress version of NHL 17 was par for the course, and starting a game put me through the same, predictable paces, including picking teams, choosing their jerseys and confirming settings like type (simulation, arcade, etc.), sliders and difficulty options. After that, it was on to the pre-game stuff.
As you probably expected, the team from NBC Sports is back again, meaning that you’ll once again see the usual aerial shots of the home team’s city and arena before things shift to the talking heads of Eddie Olcyzk and Doc Emmerick, superimposed (for lack of a better term) over a computer generated background. It’s familiar, it works well, and it feels pretty realistic, so there was no need to change it up. Plus, they have a deal in place for however many years.
When it came to the gameplay, what I quickly noticed was that everything simply felt tighter than it has in the past. It feels as if EA Canada devoted a lot of time to refining how the game plays and making improvements where it saw fit. Of course, there are new features like net battles where players compete for valuable space in front of the padded goalies, but one of the developers told the guy behind me that those are harder to see in exhibition play. All I can say is that I didn’t really notice them during my short game, which had four minute-long periods.
The controls did feel better, though, and I was able to pull off some pretty slick moves and dominate the ice more than usual. The shooting and passing both seemed tighter, and the visual assists that were introduced last year were definitely helpful. I know people don’t like them much, but they’ve never bothered me, and I tend to keep them on even though I don’t particularly need them.
Since I scored nine goals, I got to see some of the game’s new goal celebrations, which all looked more realistic both in terms of their animations and the way they were shot by the in-game cameras. I’m used to watching a lot of hockey, and those fist pumps, celebratory skates and what have you, looked very familiar to what I’ve seen on TV (and in-person) over the years.
This wasn’t a perfect demo experience, though, as in its current state, NHL 17 features an unfortunate performance bug that causes it to judder a bit. Every so often, I’d lose control for a second, and it’d seem like the game had missed a frame, paused for a second or simply hiccupped for lack of a better term. That will surely be fixed before launch, though, and it’s worth pointing out again that this is an unfinished build.
Needless to say, I walked away excited about what’s in store for NHL 17 this fall. EA Sports looks to have improved upon its puck-based sports series in several ways, through gameplay tweaks, more realistic visuals and animations, and controls that simply feel a lot tighter. They’ll need to get rid of the one ugly performance issue mentioned above, but that’s surely in the cards given how debilitating it can be.