NHL 17 Review: A Return To Form

It’s been two years since EA Sports released what many believe to be the worst game in the history of the series, NHL 15.

Since that, for a lack of a better term, debacle the development team in Vancouver have worked hard to bring the franchise back into the good graces of not only hardcore hockey fans, but also the gaming community in general.

With major improvements across the board and a couple subtle changes elsewhere, NHL 17 is a game that looks and feels like what a modern-day hockey game should.

Gameplay

As the years have gone on, the one thing that the development team in Vancouver have been determined to do is make the game as realistic as possible without taking away from the fun to be had on the ice.

In NHL 17, changes to puck and stick physics, goaltending animations and skating mechanics, among others, help make the game feel as fluid as it ever as on the ice. Each player feels different whether it’s a dangling forward like Pavel Datsyuk or a large, rugged defenseman like Dustin Byfuglien. No longer does every player feel like a copy of one another, it’s a nice touch that leads to some interesting on-ice decision making.

You can no longer just throw out a high-overall defenseman to go up against a high-overall forward and expect containment. If the defenseman isn’t known for his play in his own zone, he may be on the wrong side of the plus/minus scale in a matter of moments.

Goaltending sees a big improvement in the way saves are made. There are now blocking saves that include simple shoulder shrugs that stop goaltenders from sprawling to make the simplest of saves. Wrap-around positioning has improved to limit the amount of success players have trying to score that way, and smoother animation transitions allow for better overall net presence by the goalies.

There’s even an additional skill level, Semi-Pro, to help players find the level that’s right for them when playing.

A full rundown of the improvements that were noticed when it comes to the gameplay would take up an entire post in its own right. From loose puck play to checking to board play, NHL 17 touches all aspects of the on-ice action in some form or another, and none of it in a bad way.

Presentation

Despite some improvements, the presentation in NHL 17 is where the game falls behind the most. Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro are back on the call, and with it comes the robotic and lack of excitement that has plagued the commentary team since its debut in NHL 15.

Obviously it’s impossible to make commentary sound as authentic as it does on a real TV broadcast, but the recycled lines and game introductions bring it down quite a bit. The pre-game visuals remain a nice touch, but choppiness and frame rate drops take away from what should be a nice touch to the game.

Inside the arena, the crowd has seen some improvements in noise level, but it’s still not what it should be. It’s just disappointing when you win the Stanley Cup at home, and the fans are sitting down during the presentation. That’s a pretty big oversight that takes away from what should be an awesome moment in the game even when the camera shakes after the game-winning goal is scored in the final minute of play.

The menu system has also received an update after being ugly and slow for the past two years, the menu speed is faster and much more responsive. The returning soundtrack is another nice addition to the game.

Modes Galor

Gone are the dark days that NHL 15 presented with an offering so bare, fans stopped playing after only a few hours. With NHL 17, there is no shortage of modes for players no matter what they enjoy the most.

Popular online modes like Hockey Ultimate Team and EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL) are back along with classics like Be-A-Pro and a revamped Franchise Mode. However, the team at EA Vancouver have added a couple new modes to the mix: Draft Champions and The World Cup of Hockey.

The World Cup of Hockey is exactly what you’d expect. Players get to fully reenact the upcoming 2016 World Cup of Hockey on their own using authentic teams, jerseys and rosters. Even commentary has been recorded specifically for the mode to bring forward the feeling of actually taking part in the tournament.

Draft Champions is the other new addition to the game. Having made its debut in Madden NFL 16 last year, Draft Champions allows players to take a randomly generated team, and upgrade it by way of a 12-round draft. The players available are made that way based on the theme a player chooses prior to beginning the draft. Past stars like Eric Lindros and Joe Sakic available along with current greats Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Every draft plays out different and no two teams ever feel the same, giving a nice sense of replay value. It also helps that the mode can be utilized to build up your Ultimate Team which returns with slight tweaks like a new player synergy feature, but remains mostly the same. In this case, that’s not a bad thing because there’s no point in fixing what isn’t broken.

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The last big change to the modes was a much needed one that has put new life into the series. Franchise Mode, previously known as Be-A-GM, had be come repetitive, stale and just downright boring. In NHL 17, that all changes.

Franchise Mode now features owner goals that could lead to you getting fired from your position as General Manager should you fail to achieve them. In addition to goals, there are also arena upgrades, fan promotions and even team relocation. As you upgrade your arena, fans will sport different attire and even have different refreshments. You’ll also see new shirts in the stands should you decide to have a T-Shirt giveaway during a game. Franchise mode is all about having success both on and off the ice, and EA Sports has laid out a great foundation that can be built on for years to come.

The EASHL features more team unlockables that players earn as they move up the rankings. There are also new player types to utilize such as a jumbo playmaker or puck moving defenseman, among others. Jerseys and arenas in EASHL are now fully customizable which will certainly lead to some unique clubs online.

Be-A-Pro is the only disappointment when it comes to the mode offering. Because of the focus on Franchise, World Cup and Draft Champions, not much was spent on improving the mode that allows you to take control of a single player on your way to super-stardom. With what the game has to offer elsewhere though, especially with what the developers did to other modes, it’s hard to punish them for not having more hours in a day.

Verdict

NHL 17 may very well be the best year-over-year improvement in the 20+ year history of the EA Sports NHL franchise. From the changes to Franchise Mode to the addition of fun new modes, there is no shortage of things to do this year. Presentation and Be-A-Pro shortcomings aside, NHL 17 has the series back near the top of the sports gaming landscape.

SCORE: 9/10