NHL 17 looks to recapture the series’ glory days

EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts
Back to the big leagues after a detour

This is a big year for fans of EA Sports’ NHL series. Although EA has released two NHL titles on current-generation consoles, it feels like now is when the company is ready to truly get in gear on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

After starting off the generation in disastrous fashion, the makers of the NHL franchise got back on track last year. Their struggles in getting off the ground have frustrated fans, but have also laid the groundwork for what is hopefully the series’ first big leap forward in a while. The developers finally have the chance to recapture the series’ past glory. Now the big question is whether they can do it with NHL 17.

Cracks in the ice

It’s been more than three years since Electronic Arts unveiled its Ignite engine during Microsoft’s Xbox One reveal event. At the time, EA Sports executives promised that the company had learned its lessons from the prior console transition, when the publisher’s first sports games on the Xbox 360 weren’t nearly as full-featured as their previous-generation counterparts. EA officials insisted that this time around, the company wouldn’t make the same mistake.

"We definitely learned from the last transition where we didn't manage our technology well, and it's something where we took a real key focus on," said Frank Gibeau, then the president of EA Labels, in an interview with Polygon before E3 2013. "We did it early enough that the game teams right now are not fighting the engine."

In an encouraging display, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One launch titles Madden NFL 25 and FIFA 14 both matched or surpassed their last-generation counterparts when they arrived in November 2013. And when EA decided to hold back the next-generation arrival of its hockey series until 2014, we were told that it was for the best: that the extra time would pay off, because the NHL developers could benefit from lessons that the other EA Sports teams had learned already.

NHL 15 was so half-baked it was staggering

But when EA launched NHL 15 in September 2014, hockey fans were dismayed to find a product so half-baked that it was staggering. Some modes and features were scaled back; others were gone entirely. Developer EA Canada added some elements back in with post-launch patches, but the damage was done. NHL 15 joined the ranks of sports video game infamy alongside the barely there Madden NFL 06 and Major League Baseball 2K13, which was literally a roster update disguised as a new game.

After that debacle, EA Canada spent the next year apologizing to its fans and clawing its way back to respectability. NHL 16 was a positive step in this regard, bringing the series up to par with the reintroduction of key elements like the EA Sports Hockey League. Now rebranded as EA Vancouver, the developer is poised to take the leap that fans were expecting at the start of this console generation.

"We knew what the job we had to do with NHL 16 [was]," said Sean Ramjagsingh, lead producer on NHL 17, in an interview with Polygon during this year’s E3. "This is the year we could go above and beyond anybody's expectations."

A community rink in NHL 17
The starting arena in NHL 17’s EA Sports Hockey League

Graphic design and roster design

Now that EA Sports Hockey League is back, EA Vancouver is expanding the fan-favorite online multiplayer mode with a focus on giving players more ways to personalize and customize their experience. A few new player classes allow for additional differentiation in play styles. But more importantly, NHL 17 offers extensive customization options that give players the tools to make their EASHL team stand out.

Last year, the logos and jerseys for EASHL clubs had to be taken from the real-life teams that were playable in NHL 16. While there were plenty of kit options for people who dug into the game’s foreign leagues, like the Finnish Elite League and German Ice Hockey League, true customization options were sorely missed.

create the look you want

This time around, players will still have to select from a library of logos; NHL 17 doesn’t feature a layer-based logo editor like the one in MLB The Show’s Diamond Dynasty mode. But there are plenty of options beyond existing teams’ official insignias, and since the template for uniforms lets you customize individual parts of the fabric, you should be able to create the look you want.

Even more exciting is EASHL’s brand-new arena editor, which is a massive step up from last year, when the only things you could add to your team’s rink were championship banners if you won them. Your club will now make its way upward through five different arenas — a small community rink, a larger community rink, a Canadian Hockey League-size venue, an American Hockey League-size arena and an NHL arena — and you’ll be able to customize the last four venues in that progression.

An NHL-size arena in NHL 17
The final arena in NHL 17’s EA Sports Hockey League

The farther you go, the more customization options you’ll unlock. Basic choices like picking the colors for arena features such as walls, railings and blocks of seats are available. And you’ll eventually be able to choose the kind of jumbotron that sits above center ice, as well as your club’s entrance music and goal music. NHL 17 lets you get as specific as changing the color of the spotlight that shines on a goal scorer, and setting the colors and patterns of lights on the stanchions between the glass.

"We went really big" on customization, said Ramjagsingh during a hands-on demo of NHL 17 last week.

you can try to relocate your team

The arena creator also appears in NHL 17’s Franchise mode, which was formerly known as Be a GM. EA Vancouver decided to rebrand the mode because in addition to making personnel decisions for a team, players will now have to satisfy the expectations of their club’s owner. That includes managing finances for facility upgrades, ticket and concession prices, and promotional nights — as well as salaries for players and coaches. Owner expectations will be based on your team’s status, like whether you’re a playoff contender or in a rebuilding phase.

If you fail to meet your owner’s goals, you can try to relocate the team to one of nearly 20 cities around North America, including Quebec City, Quebec; Hartford, Connecticut; and Las Vegas. At that point, you’ll negotiate terms with your new hometown, and then design your team’s arena, logo and uniforms from scratch.

"The ability to have relocation, which is such a big part of hockey, having that reflected in Franchise mode — again, it just kind of speaks to the authenticity, the realism, kind of replicating what's happening in the real world of hockey," said Ramjagsingh during E3, the week before the NHL announced it was putting an expansion team in Las Vegas starting with the 2016-17 season.

Filling out the team

EA Vancouver’s efforts to match the real world extend to NHL 17’s World Cup of Hockey mode. The game launches Sept. 13, four days before the actual competition kicks off in Toronto. All the official jerseys and full rosters — including, for example, Russian athletes who aren’t active NHL players, such as the retired Pavel Datsyuk — will be available to play in NHL 17, along with the tournament in its exact round-robin format.

Another new mode is Draft Champions, which takes after well-received offerings featured in last year’s Madden and FIFA titles. You’re presented with a roster of mediocre players, and you have 12 draft rounds to replace a dozen of those scrubs with stars.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander in NHL 17

The need to fill four lines of forwards, plus defensemen and goalies, brings in a lot of strategy. Do you try to get by on offense alone, and play with low-skill athletes on defense and in net? Or do you take a more balanced approach? Once you put together your squad, you’ll play games and score rewards for Hockey Ultimate Team.

That mode has received an important upgrade with a "synergy" system that replaces the old chemistry element. While chemistry could hurt you if you didn’t pay attention to it, synergy is more of an optional mechanic. If you want to put together players who have a particular synergy trait, they’ll get a ratings boost, but you won’t be penalized if you ignore synergy.

The other main single-player mode in the series, Be a Pro, is doing more to highlight important moments in your athlete’s career this year. Through cutscenes, audio commentary and graphical overlays, NHL 17 will point out milestones like a player’s NHL debut and their first goal.

As for actually playing NHL 17, EA Vancouver is promising one major addition: the ability for attackers and defenders to jockey for position in front of the goalie. These net battles are a crucial part of hockey, and have been missing from EA’s NHL series for a long time.

The way they function in NHL 17 is primarily as a tool for defensemen. They can press the triangle or Y button to engage a forward in a battle, then hold the button to attempt to lift the opponent’s stick and prevent them from deflecting a shot. Big men can use their size to push forwards away from the net altogether. It’s also possible to play behind attackers, although of course, you risk screening your own goalie that way. On offense, players aren’t stuck in an interaction; they can skate toward open ice or curl off the tie-up and head to a different position.

"the goalie's now making different saves that he's never made before"
Vladimir Tarasenko and Kevan Miller fight for position in NHL 17
A net battle in NHL 17

The biggest gameplay change aside from net battles in NHL 17 is goalies. Until now, netminders in the game have made what EA Vancouver calls "reactionary" saves — significant movements of their limbs, glove and/or stick. In an effort to make goalies act more like their real-life counterparts, the studio is introducing "blocking" saves. With this new goaltender logic, you’ll see goalies make small movements like shrugging off a shot with a shoulder.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds small, but can have a domino effect on how the game plays.

"Because the puck is all physics-based, we're seeing different rebounds, we're seeing different goals going in on the goalie, just because the goalie's now making different saves that he's never made before," said Ramjagsingh.

Something to build on

NHL 17 is shaping up to be the kind of game that could bring the series back to its previous-generation heights. It took longer than fans expected, and surely longer than EA hoped, for the franchise to get to this point. But aside from major interruptions like a new console generation, annualized sports series grow in a manner not dissimilar to children.

The NHL franchise was dragged kicking and screaming onto new consoles with NHL 15. Last year, the developers got their footing back under themselves, and learned to walk. Now they’re hoping to take what they’ve built and run with it.

"It's probably, like, one of the biggest year-on-year leaps for us," said Ramjagsingh. "Now that we have that solid foundation of NHL 16 to build on, this [year] is, like, how can we go as big as possible in every area of the game with NHL 17?" Babykayak