Skating to victory.
It’s that time of year! NHL 17 hits the ice with a bevy of new modes and some classic hockey gameplay. While some upgrades to franchise mode and the addition of net battles amp up the intensity on the ice, some legacy problems and lackluster execution in other areas prevent this year’s game from living up to its all-star potential.
Game modes are pretty standard for a game in the genre. New this year is an expanded Franchise mode that takes the place of last year’s GM mode. The good news is players can now set prices and handle lots more financial transactions. It’s your standard franchise mode now, with all the regular trappings, an owner to please, fans to keep happy, and a team to make into a winner. If one decides they want a change of scenery (or if those fans were trying to run my loser of a team out of town) I could now relocate my team to a new city. This also gives players the opportunity to customize the team and arena as they see fit (within a budget of course). If you’re the type of sports fan that likes to control every aspect of a team, including who gets a commemorative bobblehead, then this NHL’s franchise mode certainly won’t let anyone down.
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), XB1
On the flip side, if players only want to take control of one player and guide him through his NHL career, they’ve got them covered with the Be a Pro mode. As has become standard, this mode allows players to create their player from the ground up and guide his career from draft to all-star. Unfortunately, the mode has some flaws that keep it from living up to its competitors in the genre.
For starters, the “coaching” in NHL falls way behind games like the NBA 2K series. On the ice, the coaching is divided into three main focuses and an overall rating. While this seems like a good idea on paper, in execution it creates some strange effects. For example, I could have a stellar offensive game and still not get all of the experience points if the line I was on had a bad defensive showing. I could hold the other team to a shut-out, but if I didn’t win enough face-offs as a center my coach may make the decision to bench me. At one point I had to look away from the TV for around 10 seconds and left my character just standing on the ice. Because I wasn’t moving the game gave me an F as a teammate. Despite having already scored a goal in the game, and scoring another before I came off the ice for my line change, I was immediately benched for the rest of the game and demoted a line. The game would feel a lot better with just one overall grade like NBA has versus trying to get an A in all three areas.
The other area that I was very disappointed in was the overall presentation of Be a Pro. Unlike the cutscenes and between game interactions present in other genre titles, NHL feels pretty bare bones. Players get things explained through a stock background image (of a black and white suit or the like) and written text. The game could definitely use some improvement in this area to catch up with the pack.
Also in the world of new game modes you have the addition of the World Cup of Hockey. This tournament would be a great new addition if there was much to it at all, but instead it’s just a round robin simulator with some additional presentation features. While a fun distraction, I wouldn’t expect it to last too long for most people. Multiplayer is served through the EASHL mode which offers league style play with plenty of customization. If you’re the type that enjoys the card collection modes that seem to dominate modern sports games, there’s plenty here with Hockey Ultimate Team. New this year is a fantasy draft style mode as well, but I found player ratings were so clustered together that my draft really didn’t make much of a difference.
The good news is that on-ice, the game play is as smooth as can be. The puck is lively and can easily be knocked loose, which not only places a lot of emphasis on clear lanes and clever skating but it also makes defense feel more exciting. The on-ice trainer is fantastic and does a great job of showing players not only what moves are possible, but which ones are the most useful at any given point. It’s also very adaptive, so it will give players the help they need. There are three different control styles ranging from complete use of the skill stick, a hybrid control scheme that combines the stick and buttons, and the NHL 94 scheme which boils it down to just shoot and pass. Each step down in control complexity also limits the moves players can do, so they need to be sure to pick a scheme that they are comfortable with but isn’t overly simplistic.
The biggest change on the gameplay front for this year are the net battles. This feature allows players to tie up opposing players in front of the net and do all kinds of other moves to give themselves an advantage right in front of the goalie (or stop the opponent from having one, stick lifts are great for that). This coupled with all new and improved goalie AI makes for a pretty thrilling time, especially late in close games. While players can ignore this feature and continuing firing off one timers every trip down the ice they certainly won’t be as successful, particularly on the higher difficulty levels.
In terms of presentation, the game does a pretty great job. Crowd noise sounds great and the commentary is solid if unspectacular. The visuals are nice and the NBC presentation adds a lot. My favorite part are the “live” shots of the host city at the beginning of a game. Things like that go a long way towards helping the immersion in a game like this. The menu system is also easy to navigate and slick looking.
If you’re a fan of hockey NHL does a good job of improving on several key areas from last year’s game without feeling like a completely fresh coat of paint. Even if you don’t have a lot of experience with the franchise, the on-ice trainer will help get you up and running quickly. If you’re coming solely for Be a Pro mode though be prepared for a lackluster experience, but with the new franchise mode fleshing out the experience there should be plenty for most sports gamers to like.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.