Hockey fans have been left out in the cold with the past few releases of the franchise. Can NHL 17 be the return to form this series desperately needs?
Developers: EA Canada
Publisher: EA Sports
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Version reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: September 13, 2016
NHL 17 is a title that has pretty high expectations for itself. It almost reminds me of the strong promise the series had before its first dip onto current-gen hardware two years ago.
With NHL 15, the franchise went from one of the biggest critical successes in sports gaming, to one of the biggest critical failures overnight. A lack of fan-favorite game modes sent folks into a frenzy and left them with a sour taste in their mouth. While last year’s iteration proved better, there was still some ground to be gained in other game modes. It left people wondering if EA would ever live down its prior mistakes.
EA Canada has clearly seen what rock bottom looks like, and NHL 17 emerges like a phoenix from the ashes. Or, if you prefer, a star captain from the penalty box.
Presentation in NHL 17 is quite the double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s a brand-new menu system that’s sleek and really pops off the screen. On the other, there are some issues with navigating around certain modes. Setting up lines in Hockey Ultimate Team, for example, can be quite jarring at times. It takes a little getting used to, but that’s merely a minor complaint.
Giant graphical leaps from year to year aren’t usually expected in sports titles, and NHL is no exception. That doesn’t mean that the game looks bad, but you wouldn’t really know the difference between the past two iterations and this one by simply looking at them. That being said, some subtle lighting improvements and what appear to be more facial scans still make the game one of the better-looking sports titles out there.
The fantastic in-game NBC graphics package also returns, and looks as good as ever. The team of Mike “Doc” Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro provide the play-by-play and rinkside reports for the third straight year. The commentary team choice feels right for this sort of game, but the insipid lines and delivery leave room for improvement in future installments.
NHL 17 also offers a soundtrack as menu music for the first time on PS4 and Xbox One. While not the best, it’s an okay mix of alt-rock/poppy/EDM tunes that are better than generic orchestral music:
NHL 16 put a bigger focus on tightening the gameplay, and this year’s game sees the continued evolution of what came before.
Skating remains fast-paced and enjoyable for the most part, with new tweaks that give more control out on the ice. One of those is the new Net Battle mechanic, which can be used to set up more scoring chances on offense. Whether you’re getting the puck close to the net or moving around on a screen-like charge, the new system creates a new wrinkle for strategy in the game.
The number of gameplay options NHL 17 gives you is staggering, making it worth experimenting with different difficulties and control schemes.
Playing with a really good offense is a blast in NHL 17. More of my scoring opportunities came on slap shots from the point, which is something that would never normally happen in earlier installments. It’s a nice way to spice things up and challenge goalies with screaming shots towards the net.
Overall, action on the ice is fast-paced, fun and may even require some lightning-quick reflexes at times. The physical nature of the game is well represented too, with body checks looking and feeling like there’s some extra grit to them.
NHL 17 also continues the effort in making the series more accessible to new players. The Virtual On-Ice Trainer is back and improved from last year. It now includes pass trajectories and teaches techniques that can help even the most advanced players sharpen their skills.
Coaching Feedback returns as well, with more tips and suggestions geared towards trends that players make in-game. Different tunings for difficulty and controls can also be set from the start, and changed whenever the player so chooses. The number of gameplay options NHL 17 gives you is staggering, making it worth experimenting with different difficulties and control schemes to see what best suits your fancy.
The Goalie AI remained a big question mark coming into this year’s game. Despite it being one of the more advertised improvements, not much has changed in that regard. Blooper goals where the puck slowly slides under the goalie still occur more often than not. It almost seems as if differences in awareness ratings aren’t as clear as they should be, which is disappointing.
There’s also still something off with passing and player awareness to the puck. Too many times did I aim a pass at a teammate, only to have the puck slide onto a defender’s stick because my AI teammate was skating the other way. This issue can still be frustrating for casual or newer players, and can steepen the learning curve quite a bit.
Other Game Modes & Extras
This is where you’ll find the real meat and potatoes of NHL 17. This year’s game has the most mode depth in recent years, and it’s better for it.
Hockey Ultimate Team, arguably the franchise’s most popular mode, is back with a few tweaks that may seem familiar. Players can collect virtual cards to either play in offline or online games, or collect them with the new Sets feature. Borrowed from the Madden series, collecting a certain number of cards (or even specific ones) can unlock special rewards. Synergy is also new, and can give bonuses to players in your lineup that fit certain categories. Both are nice touches that give HUT some much-needed depth and purpose for collecting.
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Also coming over from Madden is Draft Champions, which makes its NHL debut. Here, folks will get to test out some gold-rated players and even some super rare items. It starts by picking a theme for the draft, which will generate a base team followed by twelve rounds of drafting. From there, you’ll get the chance to pick from four gold/legend/mix of both cards and the choices made can determine how well you do. After picking your squad, you can hit the ice and attempt to win four straight games either off or online. Draft Champions helps in getting rewards for HUT, and there are no microtransactions, so it’s completely free to play.
Franchise Mode also got a nice amount of depth added to it. The former Be A GM mode gives users more control than ever over a team, on and off the ice. Whether it’s trading up for a star player or adjusting hot dog prices, everything falls into your lap as you try and make owners happy and make your team into a contender. If things turn sour, you can even try and get the team relocated to markets such as Las Vegas, Quebec City or even sunny San Diego.
EA Sports Hockey League brings some new wrinkles to a fan-favorite mode this year. Earnable upgrades can give access to all sorts of different options through badges after playing games locked in a specific position on the ice. Team branding can also be fully customized with a logo and jersey creator as well as the Arena Progression system. You can essentially take your team from the local hockey rink to a big arena filled with screaming fans.
In the Arena Creator, there are options to change everything from scoreboards to pyrotechnics and even inflatable tunnels that teams skate out through. Customization options for both teams and arenas are very limited, however, leaving room for enhancements down the line.
Player customization is also prevalent in EASHL, though it suffers from the same lack of depth. There are new celebrations to unlock this year, such as the José Bautista bat flip. And yes, you can even dab in NHL 17.
Generally, these enhancements make EASHL one of the best ways to play online with friends or complete strangers via matchmaking. The lack of depth may be there, but the effort into making the mode better did not go unnoticed.
With all of the improvements, Be A Pro took a big step back this year in that it’s largely unchanged from NHL 16. It would have been interesting to see some new concepts implemented in this player career mode, with many other aspects of the game being changed. The offline World Cup of Hockey mode also stands out as a missed opportunity. Yet it’s still neat to see that aspect of the sport represented here, even if the novelty wears off quickly.
Aside from NHL and national teams, the AHL and other global leagues are also represented as in previous years. The ECHL, another minor league here in America, also gets representation for the first time in the franchise. So yes, you can match up the mighty Chicago Blackhawks against teams with names such as the Greenville Swamp Rabbits or the Orlando Solar Bears. It’s a nice addition for those who live near those markets and identify more with those teams.
As for online modes, the experience worked surprisingly well just after the official launch of the game. Once servers became active, I found it easy to connect to other players in EASHL, HUT and even just ranked quick matches. More advanced matchmaking options made it a bit tougher to find games, but that’s something that will get better once more people get the game.
Much like the beta, it seems that much effort was made to improve online performance; though we’ll have to see how it works out under a full load.
Finally, for the folks who like a more bare-bones experience, season mode, playoff mode, off and online shootouts, and practice mode are all here and function as they should.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.