It feels like it’s been an eternity since we were able to sit down and watch meaningful hockey. In reality, it’s only been a few short months since the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to conquer the San Jose Sharks and win the most coveted trophy in sports; the Stanley Cup. The offseason is finally coming to a close, with training camps starting up, and the brand new World Cup Of Hockey ramping up. The best players in the world will come together and battle it out for their countries; with Team North America, made up entirely of the top young players under the age of 25, and Team Europe, comprised of players from all over Europe. With this comes a change of seasons, a crispness to the air, and the release of the annual hockey offering from EA Sports.
NHL ‘17 is, once again, the only hockey game on the block and it does well to building off of the successes of its predecessor, NHL ‘16. It does this by adding to the fan-favorite game modes while introducing a few brand new ones in the process; creating what might be the best NHL game we have seen in the last few years. If you’re reading this review, you probably have some familiarity with the NHL franchise, and know what the games bring to the table in terms of gameplay and features. While there’s nothing that has been added that is revolutionary, under the hood you will find enough changes to hopefully justify purchasing this year’s game.
Chief among the new additions to the game, you will find the Draft Champions game mode. Draft Champions, originally introduced in the Madden franchise, allows you to draft a team in 12 rounds, having to choose from 4-5 players per round to fill out your team. Before you begin you have to pick a theme, such as the best young players, legends of the game, and so on.The players generated for the draft are picked completely at random, ensuring that each team drafted will differ from the last. After the team is created, you can play online or solo to earn rewards in which you can cash in for HUT (Hockey Ultimate Team) cash or players. The biggest downside to this mode seems to be the sheer amount of games you need to play in order to unlock players; requiring upwards of 100+ wins just to unlock a single player. While the game mode is a fun addition to the series, the rewards don’t seem to match the effort you have to put in.
Hockey Ultimate Team makes it’s obvious return, as it’s the NHL series’ biggest money maker from year to year. This game mode remains largely unchanged, except with the addition of player synergies inside your lineups. It is broken down into both individual player and team synergies, allowing for you to get stats bonuses if the synergies match; a small feature that, if done correctly, can give you quite the advantage on the ice. Also new to HUT is the introduction of “Dynamic Sets”, which in terms of collecting means you are given greater rewards for sets of HUT cards, such as elite players, coins, and packs. As any player of HUT knows, this is the bread and butter of the game mode. The player auction house remains and, with the improved menu systems, traversing the lay of the land has never been quicker and easier. Both online and offline play for HUT returns, allowing you to battle against the best in the world using the best players in the world, but again after spending a lot of time playing HUT in NHL ‘16, aside from Draft Champions, not a whole lot has changed in my opinion.
The biggest changes this year can be found in the much-beloved EASHL game mode. This year, customization is the name of the game. Everything from how your player looks, your goal celebration, equipment, right down to the look of your created club and the arena itself that you and up to 5 other friends will play in from game to game is customizable. The overhaul is massive and can’t be understated, given that in editions from previous years we were given almost zero team customization options. Creating a team is now as authentic and fun as it should be, giving you control over everything from your team’s jersey style, colors, logo, and the gear your team will wear; with everything behind a progressive experience system for both your team AND player. The unfortunate thing is that some of the player customization options, that were readily available from the start in previous years, are now locked behind this experience wall. To be honest, this left me feeling a bit annoyed. If EA would have given us something new then fine, but having to now unlock items that were just there in past versions feels a little cheap.
Arena customization is another massive feature that really adds a ton of depth to the overall EASHL experience. This new feature has you starting in a small barn, with no bells and whistles, much like if you were playing in a beer league. Through team wins, gaining titles, and experience, you can eventually have your own NHL caliber stadium; complete with pyrotechnics, goal horns, unique color schemes and logos around the ice, and all the flashing lights you could want. It sounds like a cool but minuscule thing to add, but when you are playing with your friends, having that legacy for your team really adds another level of depth and game immersion to the overall experience.
The other new game mode added this year is the World Cup Of Hockey mode, which as it’s name suggests, allows you to play out the WCOH tournament using the official rosters and jerseys. It’s a neat little feature, but in terms of longevity, I can’t see this one being something people come back to play again and again. Other classic modes you all know and love are still present, such as online versus mode, online shootout, etc. Not much changes with these from year to year, but as we have seen with EA games in the past, it’s not uncommon to see aspects removed without warning, only to be added back in later.
Franchise mode, formerly called ‘Be a GM’ mode, expands to allow the player total control over the team, both on the ice and off. This mode gives you the power to do everything from setting ticket prices, hiring and firing team personnel, and even relocating to an entirely new city; all while giving you full control over playing the games, making trades, editing lines, and winning the cup. It’s a pretty cool mode to dump time into if you’re one of those players who loves to micromanage everything and leave your stamp on the team.
The final big game mode is Be a Pro, which plays similarly to the editions in years past. You’re still given the choice to play in the CHL, play the Memorial Cup, or simply choose a team to be drafted to. This year expect to see a lot more nods to big milestones, both with the commentary team and in game presentation. It’s awesome to see your teammate pick up the puck you’ve just scored your first career goal with and toss it to the trainer, while the commentary team of Doc and Eddie marvel at how you are on the path to greatness; it’s really these little things that make NHL ‘17 stand out to me, especially being a longtime player of the game.
Visually, NHL ‘17 is the best looking game in the series by far. Player likeness is much improved, team arenas’ feel alive, team mascots bang on the glass during games, and the overall atmosphere during gameplay is as close as we can get without watching the real thing. Audio is spot on too, with all the sights and sounds of the fastest game on earth. Big hits make a big noise, the classic “ping” as you rattle a puck off the post, and hearing chatter on the bench. The commentary team is also improved and many new lines of dialogue added to the game. Gameplay is one area that I currently have a bit of an issue with, especially coming from NHL ‘16. This version feels slower and gameplay is not nearly as smooth and crisp at times. It feels frustrating to play at times, pucks bounce around far too much, and it feels almost like I’m constantly fighting, trying to gain true control over my player. There’re a few wonky shot animations I’ve noticed too, especially on breakaways, but I’m sure this kind of stuff will be fixed and tweaked with patches and game updates as the year goes on.
The big addition this year is net-battles, a sort of tie-up feature that allows you to jockey for position, fight for your ice, and trying to find an opening to get a pass or shot through. It sounds good in theory, but I’ve found it only really matters if you’re playing EASHL or Be a Pro, otherwise you aren’t controlling the player in front of the net, you’re controlling the puck carrier instead. Still, it adds a ton of realism to the game and gives a lot more opportunity for wild deflections and unexpected bounces in front of the net.
Hitting has been improved, giving you much better, harder looking impacts if you manage to line someone up. There is less bouncing off players, a problem which seemed to plague NHL ‘16. Puck pickups are much smoother as well; the skating system, in general, was given a bit of an overhaul. Goalies have been given an upgrade too, allowing more body saves by getting a hip or shoulder in the way of a puck instead of making saves primarily with limbs. The goalies are all given more authentic stances and reactions to shots, and overall are the best I think they have been in years.
The presentation was a big focus for NHL ‘17 and it’s pretty easy to see the payoff. Teams all have their authentic mascots, all which act as much like their real life counterparts. There’re quite a few more team goal horns true to life and lots of awesome fans in the stands wearing cool gear, holding up signs, and just generally having a blast in the stands. All of this is a far cry from the static and dead looking crowds from games past. Presentation flows down to customization, with player and team/arena modification really adding a much-needed layer to the classic gameplay.
Overall, NHL ‘17 should be a great addition to the coming NHL season, and is another well-made edition in the long running series of games.