Summer is drawing to a close, giving way to fall and everything that comes with it. From colourful leaves to kids returning to their classrooms, it’s a season that, in certain respects, marks the start of a new year. It also ushers in the beginning of something else that many of us Canadians look forward to, that being hockey season. With cooler weather comes early morning practices, lively community rinks and, of course, more NHL competition, which is preceded yet again by the release of EA Sports’ NHL 17.
With NHL 17, EA Sports’ Canadian unit looks to build upon last year’s standout effort, which followed a very ho-hum and oft complained about debut on current-gen hardware. Let’s not dwell on the disappointment that NHL 15 was, though, because it’s in the past, and as NHL 16 showed, the developers took our many criticisms to heart. Now, through NHL 17 – their third time presenting interactive hockey on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles – they’ve continued their upward progression with another exceptional game.
Of course, NHL 17 is much more of a refinement than it is an overhaul, which makes sense and is to be expected. Everything – from the lifelike, NBC-sponsored presentation, to the modes and on-ice product – has been reworked and improved upon. The appreciated result is an experience that feels more polished than it ever has.
On the gameplay side of things, this year’s iteration offers enhanced puck control mechanics alongside improved player control and a brand new net battles system. Combined, this all allows things to feel more lifelike than ever before, and adds an extra amount of strategy to attempts at screening the opposing goaltender. What’s also notable (and appreciated, especially by this reviewer) are the nods that are given to special moments, like a player’s first NHL goal, 50th goal or 1000th point. Unlike before, the announcers and digitized camera crew will now take time to focus in on the player in question, while congratulating him for his milestone, as is done in real life.
This list of improvements isn’t just skater-specific, though, as the game’s goaltenders have also benefitted from being given more tools. Not only do they show more emotion after giving up bad goals, but their ability to make reactive saves has been heightened. As such, you’ll see a more varied amount of save animations, including some impressive-looking desperation stops. And, as is always the case, work has been done to try to make each tender’s unique stance as close to its real-life counterpart as possible.
What’s nice about all of this is that EA Sports has delivered a game that features notable improvements without any unfortunate side effects. In previous years’ outings, occasional glitches showed themselves during my review sessions. This time around, though, I’ve yet to come across anything worth mentioning, which is great. Sure, computer controlled players will stumble from time to time, and the game’s catch-up AI will lead to some annoyingly cheap goals on your tender, but that’s nothing new and tends to happen in other sports games as well.
Complementing all of the aforementioned work that was put into updating and polishing the on-ice package, is a suite of modes that has seen its fair share of additions, subtractions and combinations. Gone are the rarely played Be a GM and GM Connected scenarios, and in their place is Franchise Mode, which lets you run every facet of your favourite team. From ticket, concession and jersey prices, to the scheduled dates for giveaways, it’s all in your hands.
Of course, Franchise Mode also offers all of the challenges that come with being an NHL general manager. You’re made responsible for every trade and roster move that your organization makes, and have ownership goals to deal with. This may include winning the Stanley Cup, if you’re a contender like the Pittsburgh Penguins, or getting another first round draft pick if you happen to be in a rebuilding mode like my Toronto Maple Leafs.
Returning players can look forward to familiar modes like Hockey Ultimate Team, Be a Pro, Season, Playoff, Online Versus, and Online Team Play. However, it’s worth pointing out that Franchise Mode is not the only new addition. In fact, it’s just the first of three new experiences, one of which happens to be the World Cup of Hockey tournament that will get going later this week. Joining them is a completely new scenario called Draft Champions, wherein one must create his or her own team through a twelve round fantasy draft that is based around different themes like “All-Star Standouts” and “Canadian Heritage.”
By choosing a theme, you limit the pool of players that can be chosen from, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. In fact, when you really think about it, this decision adds replay value to a mode that would have otherwise been quite light. What also keeps Draft Champions interesting – and prevents it from being something people will only play to earn Hockey Ultimate Team credits – is that some of yesteryear’s greatest superstars are available for drafting. I was pleasantly surprised, and a bit shocked, when I saw that I could add players like Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros and Curtis Joseph to my team instead of Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos.
Speaking of Hockey Ultimate Team, it’s important to note that the competitive, card-based mode has not been left out in terms of improvements. In fact, it’s been retooled with a brand new synergy system that grants stat boosts akin to the buffs that you’d find in popular RPGs. Driven by the acquisition of similar players, it rewards thoughtful team management in a unique way that feels both new and refreshing.
Last, but certainly not least, is EA Sports Hockey League, which has quite possibly seen the most changes. Not only are there unique player classes to choose from now, but those who play regularly will find that, by levelling up their avatar, they’ll unlock a host of new possibilities (like goal celebrations, haircuts, and pieces of equipment.) Teams who stay together will also benefit from both their success and the time they’ve invested into it, thanks to a really neat system that culminates in a rags to riches storyline.
At the onset, your team will take up residence in a local community centre akin to something you’d find in small town Canada. However, as you progress and succeed on ice, you’ll start to develop more of a following and will eventually be able to move into much more prestigious digs. All of this culminates with a raucous, NHL-style arena, that you can customize to your liking using an arena creation tool that does a good job of towing the line between being involved and being accessible. This same mechanic is also available in Franchise Mode, letting those who relocate their teams create the arenas they’ve always dreamed of.
Before all of the above comes into play, though, you’ll need to decide on a name for your team, as well as unique jersey designs. Yes, there’s also a jersey creator to be found in NHL 17, although it’s another area in which EASHL progress is rewarded. When you start out, you’ll be limited to very basic logos in the form of letters from varying fonts, and will have to unlock more options (including licensed NHL logos, custom designs and more) by playing.
Some will likely find all of this progression-based unlocking to be a bit of a nuisance, and that’s understandable. It is what it is, though, and for a first crack at such features, EA Canada has done a pretty good job.
Needless to say, NHL 17 is another commendable step in the right direction. All of the above combines to make this a better and more realistic experience than its predecessor, while other improvements (like a semi-pro difficulty option and the ability to fast-forward to your player’s shifts in Be a Pro) also make a positive impact.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s presentation, which shows definite improvement over those that came before it. While we’ve already touched on the seminal moments (first goal, 50th goal, etc.) that make things feel much more lifelike, the commentary team also deserves commendation for going the extra mile. Their scripts and vocalizations show definite growth and improvement, offering more detail and immersion in the same way that the game’s licensed goal horns, celebratory songs and enhanced graphics do.
At the end of the day, NHL 17 is very easy to recommend to all fans of the sport. While it’s more of a refinement than anything else, the final product shows that a lot of work was put into updating, improving and expanding upon last year’s impressive effort.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which we were provided with.