EA Sports is now on its third installment of hockey for this generation of console gaming. While NHL 15 arrived on the PS4/XB1 platform after its other sports siblings, it lacked many critical features like online leagues, leading to a huge outcry. NHL 16 righted most of the wrongs fortunately and today comes NHL 17 to build on its shored up foundation. The question is have they done enough beyond a roster to warrant another buy?
Right away the first thing you’ll notice about NHL 17 is it has a much more responsive menu system than last year’s edition. Thank goodness, because all the pauses for loading in 15 and 16 got really annoying over the course of the season. What’s also nice, at least in my opinion, is the return of an actual soundtrack instead of the same generic song looping in the background. Anyways, jump into a game and most of the changes are in the smaller details. Goalie animations have more variation, particularly in their stances, which are made to try to mirror the style of their real life counterparts more accurately (i.e. some bend down lower and wider than others). Speaking of goalies, the mask art has finally been updated. It still doesn’t feature licensed art from the actual artists, but it’s an improvement. Battles in front of the net take place more often and are more realistic as well, though to be honest it doesn’t seem to change how goals are made very much, but that might be a consequence of the teams I typically play as, which tend to be undersized and less physical. When you do score a goal, the camera actually vibrates with the roar of the crowd now, which is a nice touch, particularly for playoff games. Teams now have their own horns and goal songs as well, adding to the updated authentic arenas that were introduced last year. Players have more celebration animations, both user controlled and in the default presentation, though some of the latter are a bit awkward and repeat themselves too often, breaking immersion. Looking at the whole picture gameplay wise not too much has changed. Many of the same tricks that worked in the past couple years still apply to 17, with the basics of shooting, passing, and hitting remaining intact. If you’re not familiar with how the game works, there’s plenty of tips and visual hints with this in game coaching options, though you can shut them off as well if you don’t need them or find them annoying.
Where the game has really improved is in the customization afforded throughout both the Franchise mode and the EASHL online league. In the former, you can finally control a team to the same level of detail as in Madden, which includes the ability to relocate and rebrand, upgrade your arena, make marketing decisions to increase revenue and your ability to spend, etc. EASHL takes advantage of some of these features as well, allowing you to unlock fun customizations for your team’s rink when playing online as well as for your uniforms and players. Another feature borrowed from Madden is Draft Champions, which takes Hockey Ultimate Team mode to another level by allowing you to draft all time greats as well as current players. Personally I’ve never been into HUT, but anything that gives it more depth is a good thing for those of you who do like it. Lastly, with the World Cup of Hockey back in action and just around the corner, EA has seen fit to include the teams and tournament into the game as well, which is a nice touch as we wait for the NHL to begin in earnest.
Beyond the few details I’ve brought up earlier in this review, nothing drastically has changed with the graphics of the game. The Ignite engine underpinning NHL 17 has matured into a stable product. My only complaint is that a significant number of players don’t have their faces mapped into the game and many of them just look plain wrong. It’d also be nice if the detail that went into motion capturing different goalie styles also found its way into the players skating strides and such. Audio wise I like the new music incorporated into the game but the commentary is starting to get stale with the third year of Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk in the booth and Ray Ferraro interjecting with analysis that has nothing to do with the replay you’re watching. Perhaps it’s a bit unavoidable given the costs of recording such talent, though.
Overall I’d say that NHL 17 is obviously a must buy if you’re looking to play online in the EASHL, but it also should satisfy Franchise junkies now that it’s more fully fleshed out than ever before. If you’re not a real video game hockey diehard and already have NHL 16, then it might rate a pass, but it’s miles ahead of the series’ first appearance on current gen so if you’re still kicking around 15, you owe it to yourself to upgrade.