NHL 17 Review (Xbox One)
The transition of EA Sports' NHL series to the current generation of consoles has been a storied tale thus far. We arrive at the third iteration in the cycle with NHL 17, and it finds itself in the fortunate position of being born out of a period of stability. Unlike last year, there are no significant wrongs to be righted, and the outpouring of fan unhappiness stemming back to NHL 15 has all but disappeared. It’s because of this that the shackles of the series have finally been let loose, paving the way for future innovations.
And yet, while NHL 17 is packed with an array of brand-new features and upgrades, it doesn’t feel like a revolutionary moment for the series. Instead, it tinkers with an already successful formula to create a sense of déjà vu, but one that feels more satisfying this time around.
There's a very evident feel of similarity following the first puck drop in a game of NHL 17. Initially, the on-ice gameplay feels largely reminiscent of last year’s title, but subtle nuances gradually start to present themselves as you delve deeper into the experience. Take the skating, for instance. I never felt last year’s skating mechanic felt too "floaty" until NHL 17 came along. The new improvements have left players feeling much weightier in their actions, and the creativity in their movement prevents awkward animations from diluting the flow of each attack. In general, the game ends up playing out in a tighter and more realistic way than before.
There are plenty of other great refinements, too. Stick checking is much more effective as a defensive tool this year. The physics-based puck mechanics appear to have been fine-tuned as well, culminating in more realistically unpredictable situations. New animations go a long way towards solving last year's pick pickup issues, and refinements to puck control mean the puck doesn't glue to your stick as often as it did in the past, which is great in an offline setting and slightly chaotic in an online one.
NHL 17's gameplay isn't without its share of brand-new additions. Net battles have finally made a resurgence, and they're a little more subdued than you might expect. You won't personally engage with the mechanic too regularly in generic play (although the AI will), but it's the type of thing that Be A Pro and EASHL players will soon learn to master.
Goalies are generally improved, but they're not without fault. Their new-found intelligence allows them to make some legitimately incredible saves that you wouldn't have seen in NHL 16, and they're also much better at covering their angles and dealing with one-on-ones. However, fluke goals continue to slip past them with varying regularity, and instances of bizarre decision making occasionally leave you feeling infuriated with their actions.
Key improvements have been made to enhance the game's AI in every area of the ice, and 90-95 percent of the time, its decision making and creative abilities are gloriously realistic in nature. Unfortunately, that missing 5-10 percent is a result of certain issues persisting on a semi-regular basis, such as getting stuck behind the net, becoming confused under pressure and generally failing to assist in the way you want them to. These instances are becoming more rare on a year-by-year basis, but they haven't reached the point of extinction just yet.
All of these factors lead to the game feeling somewhat fragmented every so often. In general, the award-winning gameplay of years gone by takes precedence, meshing with this year's refinements to create a thrilling on-ice experience -- the best it has ever been. Yet, when the rare smattering of downsides kick in, the frustration does too. It didn't feel so bad last year, but another 12 months has added a stale and all-too-familiar quality to these occasional mishaps.
As always, this year's game can be easily customized to your needs via a substantial number of gameplay sliders. There have been many additions to this department in NHL 17, allowing you to craft a more tailored gameplay experience than ever before. It's also important to note that while NHL veterans will likely scoff at the idea of the On-Ice Trainer 2.0, it's hard to do anything but sing its praises. For even the most skilled player, it has been adapted to provide a more unobtrusive tool of assistance that genuinely provides helpful hints and tips along the way.
The presentation aspects of NHL 17 have taken a backseat for the most part. The previous two iterations introduced some key elements that brought the series up to date in this area, but a lot of untapped potential had also been left on the table. That potential hasn't yet been realized. Based on presentation alone, you might just feel like you’re playing the same game you’ve been playing for the past 12 months.
That's not to say the presentation is generally unimpressive or completely devoid of new features. The real-life crossover intros are still present, as are team-specific elements and authentic TV broadcast packages, and they're just as effective as they were last year. The crowd has been noticeably juiced up in the audio department, while Doc and Eddie have recorded new lines in the broadcast booth to add a bit of variety to their musings. You'll find some welcome additions scattered throughout the game, but the majority of content feels very "samey" by this point. It's just a bit too familiar, and most of the excitement wore off a long time ago.
Also, the sense of immersion you get is very similar whether you're playing franchise mode or the World Cup of Hockey. The camera angles are the same, the perceived size of the arena is the same, and despite some minor differences, almost everything about the broadcast is the same. More variety is needed to differentiate between arenas, leagues and modes that should drastically affect the overall feel of each contest.
Based on visuals alone, the game still looks excellent. Arenas are stunning, crowd models are wonderfully diverse,and incredible detail has gone into even the most inconspicuous of visual elements. The players themselves are detailed and reminiscent of their real-life counterparts, but close-up shots reveal some awkward animation transitions, particularly when they're reacting to something. It's all very similar to last year.
In terms of the menu layouts, there have been some key changes. Everything feels cleaner and a little more responsive, although Ultimate Team menus are still very slow in comparison to everything else. The endless, looping audio from past years has also been replaced by a soundtrack of tunes that won't drive you quite as insane.
With NHL 17, EA Sports has provided some welcome depth across its selection of game modes. I'll start with franchise mode, which is a somewhat re-imagined version of the Be A GM mode that was featured in recent years. This year, you're given the ability to take control of all the backroom dealings, from changing the prices of Alexander Edler replica shirts to upgrading the executive seats in your arena. Don’t want to get that in-depth? That’s fine, you can tinker with a variety of options before you get started, striking a nice balance for both casual and veteran players to craft the experience they want to achieve.
Throughout the season, you’re given a list of goals to adhere to by the team’s owner. They're realistic, and they give you a lot to aim towards over the course of a year. Financial responsibilities play a much bigger part than ever before, and the amount of money you set out to make is determined by a number of factors including the state of your arena, your management of promotional nights, and of course, your performance on the ice. There's a lot to wrap your head around, but the well-designed menus make this an easy task.
Relocation is also a brand-new option in franchise mode this year. Once your offer for relocation is accepted, a list of potential locations is made available. Negotiations are then followed by the ability to craft a new identity for the team via extensive customization options. Your first game will draw comments from the announcing duo about the historic nature of the contest, which is a nice touch. EA has done a fantastic job in making this feature as enticing as it sounds on paper.
World Cup of Hockey makes its debut in NHL 17, and it delivers up to a point. The new lines of exclusive commentary are a welcome addition, and there are some other neat presentation elements in the mix. But there aren’t any real differences in the way games play out, and the biggest downside is that the cup victory sequence is the same old Stanley Cup celebration we’ve been used to for years now –- just without the cup.
The ability to go it alone in Be A Pro mode has taken a slight backseat, but improvements have been made. The most notable of these is that your player will now be given more attention when they hit certain milestones. Special moments like scoring a debut goal will result in a unique cutscene featuring an entire team celebration at the bench. You’ll actually find these scenes dotted around the entire game, but in Be A Pro they serve to make you feel slightly more immersed in your role.
Once you venture online, there's plenty to sink your teeth into. EASHL is back once more, and it delivers a huge set of customization tools this year. Players are required to gain XP to unlock them, providing a genuinely enticing reason to progress. New player classes add depth to the amount of gameplay styles on offer and enhanced matchmaking tools make the drop-in experience a much more streamlined process. It’s also a relief to see the old system of grinding XP hasn’t made a return. Player skill takes precedence over in-game upgrades, and that’s definitely a good thing.
Hockey Ultimate Team has arguably undergone the biggest overhaul of all. The first major difference is that the Chemistry system of old has been replaced by something called Synergy. It's a little strange to get your head around at first, but it ultimately aims to provide you with fewer restrictions and more creativity.
Dynamic HUT Sets is a superb feature, ramping up the collection aspect of Ultimate Team to a whole new level. You’re given lucrative incentives for completing collections as you go, and it's a more prominent, varied and all-encompassing way of doing things than we've seen in previous years. It's sure to possess enough longevity to keep Ultimate Team at the forefront of many NHL players' minds all year.
The new Draft Champions mode is also heavily incorporated into Ultimate Team. With it, you’re given the ability to undergo a mini fantasy draft, drafting a team of players to take into a four-game spell. You can take them online or offline, and you'll be rewarded based on how well you do. It's more than just a side attraction; you can cleverly trade in your rewards via the Dynamic HUT Sets feature once you're done.
Customization plays a big part in this year’s game. Recent iterations of the series have been largely devoid of customization features, but this year looks to change all that with improvements across the board. You’ll find that most of them come into play when delving into either EASHL or franchise mode’s relocation feature. As mentioned earlier, EASHL customization tools must be unlocked over time through progression, and there’s so much good stuff on offer that you’ll genuinely be eager to unlock it.
We’ll start with the downsides, though. Player customization isn’t all that great. You have to start with a base of preset faces, and although you can get quite creative with the amount of cosmetic enhancements on display, you can’t quite create your own tailored hockey star. You can, however, equip them with one of many new celebrations on offer. They’re quite out there, including sequences like The Worm and The Dab, and you’re sure to be spammed with them in online contests before long.
Team creation brings back a lot of the features it incorporated a few years ago. You can finally create your own jerseys again, and there are a bunch of preset logos you can use to kit them out. The logo system isn't all that comprehensive -- you can't create lavish designs or import images -- but it’s still a worthy addition.
By far, the most exciting aspect of customization is the arena creator tool. There’s a lot to tinker with, including goal songs, seat colors, scoreboard sizes and even the actual design of the arena layout itself. There’s nothing quite like scoring a goal in your multi-colored arena to the sound of Adam Rose's WWE theme and fire blasting out of the scoreboard.
NHL 17 finds itself on the verge of feeling too similar to its predecessor at times, and there's scope for improvement in a handful of areas. That said, this is still an impressive, smartly designed hockey game. Its variety of subtle refinements present a more authentic gameplay experience than ever before, and improved game modes and customization content offer some much needed substance to the overall package. Ultimately, the game's large number of enticing qualities should prove more than enough to keep most players satisfied over the next 12 months.