NHL 17 review: Line Shift
The incomplete trainwreck that was EA Sports' NHL 15 came out two long years ago, and after the release of the overwhelmingly adequate NHL 16 last year, EA Sports is in a unique position to take chances and take their flagship hockey sim franchise to the next level.
Did they do that with NHL 17? Well...uh...kinda. Read on for the full review.
From the first time you boot up NHL 17, you'll notice the extra sheen that has been added to the game's presentation. Doc Emrick's commentary is tighter and more fluid (though it's still no substitute for hearing him actually call games), the menu and UI is easily navigable and changes based on your favorite team, and the pop-up displays are all refined and smooth. The fact that the game includes broadcasting assets from NBC Sports Network like stat tracking adds to the level of realism. Even the classic "dunnn-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-duh-dunnnnn" of the broadcast is in the game. It's a very nice touch.
Lace 'em up!
From a franchise mode that is finally, thankfully, on par with Madden's to a fully fledged career mode that allows you to work your way up to the NHL from one of three Canadian hockey leagues, there are, frankly, a ton of play options.
Returning from NHL 16 this year is the on-ice tutorial, and though I can personally attest that it works very well in teaching the basic skills of the game, it's really a shame that there isn't some sort of skills trainer or gauntlet mode like there is in Madden 17. Players are left largely to their own devices and are encouraged to learn by playing, which can be frustrating if you want to jump right into the game or learn the controls quickly. Having said that, there is a very limited practice mode that allows you to dictate CPU behavior or simply go 1 on 1 against the goalie. That helps.
Once you actually get a grip on the way the game is played, however, everything really opens up. From a franchise mode that is finally, thankfully, on par with Madden's to a fully fledged career mode that allows you to work your way up to the NHL from one of three Canadian hockey leagues, there are, frankly, a ton of play options.
Of particular note is the new World Cup of Hockey mode, a new addition to the franchise. EA Sports has obtained the licenses to the players and teams for all participating countries, and since international play is often some of the most exciting hockey you're bound to see, it's great to see EA Sports placing an emphasis on it.
There are also no shortage of online modes, but if you're smart, you'll stick to EASHL -- not because the other modes are bad, but because EA Sports Hockey League is simply so good this year.
The mode this year adds a few new player styles that shake up play a bit, but it's still the same over-the-top, slightly-arcadey, cooperative online experience that it was last year. You'll likely be spending a lot of time with EASHL, which is great, given the fact that there so many customization options.
Skating in style
One of the most surprising changes in NHL 17 is the added emphasis on customization. From the career mode to franchise mode to EASHL, there are tons of customization options from choosing the player's gender, their appearance, their equipment, and more. If that weren't enough, there are arena editors, logo editors, and team editors as well that allow hockey fans with a flair for art to really show their skills. It's a great touch, really, and it makes the game more fun. But I can't help thinking that some of the time spent here would have been put to better use making a simple interactive tutorial.
Once the puck actually drops, you'll notice that NHL 17 has made a lot of under-the-hood changes that make the game a lot more enjoyable to play. Passing and shooting are crisp, and if a pass is missed, or a shot goes wide, the game's adaptive on-ice tutorial will tell you why. The player feedback is great -- you always know what you did wrong whenever you mess up. Ice movement, line shifts, and checking are equally smooth, as is goalie play. Players and goalies slide across the ice realistically, and since the movement is crisp and precise, being out of position, or being late getting back on defense really hurts your team.
In addition, the puck bounces around more realistically -- that is to say, unpredictably -- causing more true-to-life scoring chances off the rebound as players crash the net. Speaking of net play, however, it seems like the new net battle feature never really works as well as EA Sports might have hoped. It's a bit overly complicated, and adds unnecessary steps to a simple process like screening the goalie (or getting an opposing player off the screen).
He shoots, he scores!
At the end of the day, NHL 17 is a more-than-capable hockey simulator, and can be unequivocally recommended to hockey fans that haven't bought a hockey video game since the travesty that was NHL 15. For people that owned NHL 16, however, things get a bit trickier. Unless you're a huge fan of international hockey, or are really into customization, NHL 17 doesn't really offer that much that you haven't seen before. Yes, a whole lot of gameplay tweaks have been made to make skating smoother, goalie play has been completely revamped, and player feedback has been improved, but I'm personally left feeling like the incremental steps are just that -- incremental.
If you're happy with NHL 16, at least give NHL 17 a rent. It's worth your time. And if you're a hockey fan looking for a game that rekindles the magic after having been disappointed before, don't hesitate. NHL 17 fits the bill and more.
Disclosure: NHL 17 was reviewed using a promotional/review copy of the game received from the publisher.