NHL 17 review

Game Info
Platform PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer EA Vancouver
Release Date Sep 13, 2016

On the long road back to the glory days of EA Sports’ hockey series, NHL 17 makes a few major strides, but it can’t manage a giant leap.

There’s more to do in NHL 17 than in perhaps any previous entry in the franchise. Along with adding new modes, developer EA Vancouver has expanded on existing options in both breadth and depth; hockey fans of all stripes are likely to find something here that will pull them in. That’s a baseline expectation these days in simulation sports games, but NHL 17 goes above and beyond with features like a quick draft-based mode that’s inspired by similar offerings in Madden and FIFA.

At the same time, there’s nothing in NHL 17 that makes me want to sing its praises from the rooftops, like the debut of the On-Ice Trainer did last year. Despite a grand overhaul to the stagnant Be a GM mode and a major expansion to EA Sports Hockey League, NHL 17’s growth is held in check by a persistent staleness, as well as some frustrating issues both in and out of the rink.

nhl 17 EA Vancouver/Electronic Arts

The most notable and impactful change on the ice is the return of net battles, in which attackers and defenders can jockey for position in front of the goal. I still have to remind myself that the feature actually exists in NHL 17, since it’s been gone for three years, but it pays dividends in ways besides making the game look more like real hockey.

I let out a triumphant yelp the first time I evaded a defenseman just in time to deflect a teammate’s slap shot past the goalie. Regardless of whether you use net battles, the CPU certainly will — the AI is happy to tie up your forwards and lift their sticks, preventing them from receiving passes in scoring position. EA Vancouver never should have removed net battles, but in adding them back in, the developer has made the feature deeper, with options for both defenders and attackers.

Net battles combine with a refinement of goalie logic in NHL 17, which produces a notable shift in the kinds of goals that are scored — and in my own behavior. This year, new animations for saves allow netminders to stop the puck without making large movements. The result is a much lower incidence of exaggerated save animations; goalies generally make desperation saves only when those attempts are warranted. I still have to remind myself that net battles actually exist in NHL 17

Now that bigger forwards can use their size to their advantage and park themselves in front of the net, I saw many more deflected goals. Deflections always have an element of "right place, right time" to them, but in the past, those goals felt entirely random — a person happened to be in position when an outside shot came in. In NHL 17, I found myself taking slap shots from the point and attempting to aim them at an area where a teammate engaged in a net battle might be able to deflect the puck in.

The puck also feels more alive this year. On the higher difficulty levels in particular, maintaining possession is a challenge because opponents can easily knock the puck away. This seems to cause problems when it comes to picking up the puck, especially along the boards and after you’ve checked the puck carrier. I lost count of the number of times I laid a big hit on a guy but saw him get back up and regain possession before I could snatch the puck — an exasperating occurrence, and an issue that has plagued the NHL series for years.

NHL 17 - McDavid hat trick celebration 480

Just as some old gameplay problems remain present in NHL 17, the Be a Pro mode returns this year almost unchanged. The single-player career mode hasn’t received any notable upgrades this year. Be a Pro is due for an overhaul, especially considering the storytelling elements that competitors like NBA 2K and now FIFA are incorporating into their career modes.

For a start, it would be nice to see some more intelligent coaching AI. I started out with my major junior team on the first forward line, and quickly became the best player in the Western Hockey League. Yet my coach sometimes kept me on the bench for 10 minutes — half a period! — between shifts. And if you’re losing late in a close game, AI coaches may pull the goalie, but I’ve never seen one call a timeout. Smart hockey coaches take timeouts so their top line can catch its breath and get back on the ice for crunch time. But if I got tired late in the third period, I’d end up sitting out until the final horn.

It’s somewhat understandable for Be a Pro to have been neglected this year, considering the transformation of Be a GM into Franchise mode. The new name is justified by the introduction of managing finances beyond your players’ salaries. In addition to putting together a winning roster by dealing with personnel concerns like injuries, player morale and a minor league affiliate, you’ll have to keep your owner satisfied by turning a profit.

Each team’s owner has a different personality and level of expectations depending on the club’s current situation, like "rebuilding" or "contender." From there, the owner sets various goals that you’ll aim to meet in order to keep the executive happy. Your owner gives you a budget that you must allocate to salaries, advertising, promotional nights and arena maintenance. For instance, parts of the building will degrade over the course of the season and you’ll have to repair them periodically, lest the fans get unhappy with the state of, say, the bathrooms.

nhl 17

I wouldn’t ordinarily call out a game’s UI, but the layout of the menus in NHL 17’s Franchise is one of the mode’s greatest strengths. Since you’re making so many financial decisions — like setting prices for tickets, concessions and more — it’s great that the interface provides data to help you make those changes, such as fan feedback on the pricing and graphs of your team’s sales performance versus that of the entire league. I just wish it would notify you of situations that affect pricing, like the fact that you can (and should) raise ticket prices as your team advances through the playoffs.

Franchise’s "Fan Happiness" metric, which takes into account arena maintenance as well as your team’s performance, doesn’t work as well. In my first year as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres — a team classified as being in "rebuilding" mode, meaning that my owner didn’t expect the club to make the playoffs — I won the Stanley Cup. I spent my entire arena budget before the playoffs even began, so the restrooms and even the seats themselves were falling into disrepair by year’s end. But it makes little sense that the fans’ elation at their team winning the Cup would be dampened much by subpar stadium facilities.

If you’re tired of the fans’ nonsense, you can try relocating your team to one of more than two dozen North American cities. Aside from the inherent thrill of bringing an NHL club back to a town that formerly had one, like Quebec City, Quebec, or Hartford, Connecticut, the fun of relocation comes in building a rink from scratch using NHL 17’s robust arena creator. The only constraint to your imagination is, as always, your budget. I tend to spend most of my sports gaming time in career modes, but NHL 17’s Franchise is so good that I expect it’ll hold my interest more than Be a Pro this year.

nhl 17

The stadium editor also appears in EA Sports Hockey League, the series’ online team play setup. It’s a crucial expansion to EASHL, which returned to the NHL franchise last year in bare-bones fashion. You can now make your own team and create its arena and jerseys yourself, so if you have a regular group of friends to play with, you’ll feel like members of a true hockey club. And more importantly, a set of badges to earn as you play provides a much-needed progression hook to keep you going. My experience was soured, though, by an apparent bug in which I didn’t get credit — neither for the win nor my gaudy stats in the game — for completing an EASHL quick match.

I got less out of the two modes new to NHL 17, Draft Champions and the World Cup of Hockey. Draft Champions got on my bad side after lying to me: The mode claims that you can play it offline alone or online against a human opponent, but it turns out that even games against the CPU require a network connection (likely because the mode rewards you with Hockey Ultimate Team card packs). I discovered this the hard way. The premise of Draft Champions sounds fun: Put together a team through 12 rounds of randomized players. But the game’s compressed range of player ratings — another long-standing issue for the NHL series — means that unlike in Madden, you’re almost guaranteed to get a very good squad, which severely lowers the stakes.

As for the World Cup of Hockey, it’s nice to see EA Vancouver go to the lengths of recreating that real-life tournament in NHL 17. But it’s disappointing that the mode repurposes the Stanley Cup presentation from Franchise: I heard a commentator refer to "a bitter end to a season that held such promise" — which, of course, makes no sense for a two-week event — and the cutscene is identical, except with Frank Gehry’s trophy instead of Lord Stanley’s.

Wrap Up:

NHL 17’s most promising features are held back by its reuse of old elements

That reuse captures NHL 17 in a nutshell. In places like the revamped Franchise mode and the improved EA Sports Hockey League, the game is full of promising new elements that are held back by a number of nagging issues. In others, like Be a Pro, the lack of change is more pervasive.

Despite the major additions and upgrades in NHL 17, a sense of stagnation threatens the considerable progress that the series has made in three years on current consoles. Without an unqualified success in NHL 17, I felt that ever more keenly this year.

NHL 17 was reviewed using a final Xbox One download code and a retail PS4 copy provided by Electronic Arts. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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