Back in form.
There’s something about the atmosphere at an ice hockey game. Sat in the stands watching the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center recently, I remember marveling at the array of colors that filled the arena. The intensity of the piercing white ice contrasting with the hypnotic light effects and the vast TV screen that pulsed away overhead.
The announcer’s voice excitedly punctuated the music that spewed through the sound system, welcoming the players onto the rink as the home crowd cheered the team and rhythmically stomped their feet in appreciation. It has to be said that NHL 17 goes some way to emulating that excitement. Certainly, this is as close as you can get to feeling that icy chill on your eyebrows and that sense of expectation as the Zamboni prepares the pre-game ice.
While the series perhaps hasn’t changed a great deal over the years, there’s still something magical about unleashing a well-timed slap shot and seeing a slab of vulcanized rubber tear through your opponent’s net.
"EA Sports’ seminal hockey series is firmly back on track after a pretty dismal outing a few years previously."
EA Sports’ seminal hockey series is firmly back on track after a pretty dismal outing a few years previously (NHL 2015, you know who you are!). Thankfully, after that temporary dip in form, EA’s team has gone all out to ensure NHL 17 game is as comprehensive as possible, with countless modes, customization and its usual classy gameplay.
Dive into a Quick Match and you can’t help but be impressed by the glossy presentation. From the real life presenters who open the proceedings and introduce the fixture, to the lights, music and combustible atmosphere that accompanies each game as the players face off. Hell, there are even mascots celebrating every breakaway!
In-game, it’s just as good looking, with no discernible slowdown despite the fast-paced action. It’s super smooth, with player movement animated nicely. It’s actually quite easy to get distracted mid-game as you look away from the action to marvel at the swirls and trackmarks on the ice, or the excellent lighting effects glancing off your players’ helmets! The sound effects and commentary are equally polished – the pundits providing some decent insight into each and every poke check, foul or Odd Man Rush.
As ever, each game is a frenetic affair. And such is the complexity of ice hockey – with the myriad rules, tactics, fouls and foibles – that you really need to keep your wits about you when playing. Accepting the recommended control and difficulty settings may prove a little tough for a novice as the learning curve is quite steep so it’s fortunate that there’s still the option to switch back to those halcyon days of NHL 94 and adopt the traditional two-button control system. It’s a nice way to ease into the action and avoids feeling daunted by the many skill moves and thumbstick controls.
The excellent onboard visual trainer proves invaluable for getting to grips with the game too, highlighting which areas and teammates to pass to, and the optimal times to hit the buttons. At the end of each period, ratings from your coaches also appear onscreen and provide valuable tips about how to improve your performance.
Everything from the menus to the gameplay is nicely honed and works well. Player movement is smooth, animations sublime, presentation top notch, the controls are sharp, and it’s easy to find and connect to matches online.
Besides the Quick Match option, there’s plenty more on offer too. The hugely popular card collection-based Ultimate Team is ready to eat into your time, as is Team Play, Be A Pro, and Season, Playoff and Practice modes. But there are three brand new options this time too.
"Everything from the menus to the gameplay is nicely honed and works well."
Draft Champions is a great addition – a kind of watered down Ultimate Team whereby you select one of 12 themes that determines the pick of players you’ll try to take to glory. You might only be able to choose from players based in Europe or Canada, for example, or just be able to select from Under 25s or Elite All Stars.
When that’s out the way, you’re gifted a base team and given the opportunity to cull the lower-rated players, replacing them with randomized players over 12 rounds of picks. Each round produces a choice of four to add to your roster, with your selection eliminating the weakest from a particular line.
It’s a fast paced and strangely addictive process that allows you to create a unique team very quickly. Then, with your chosen few, you enter a four-game competition – each victory earning greater rewards for use in Ultimate Team.
Another great inclusion this year is the debut of the World Cup of Hockey. It’s apparently a first in the long history of EA Sports’ NHL games that it’s made an appearance, putting you in the shirts of some of the greatest names in the sport. There are eight international giants to choose from… it’s just up to you to take control and lead them to glory.
Undoubtedly though, the headline act has got to be Franchise Mode – perfect if you’ve got a little more time on your hands and fancy more of a challenge. It’s a far meatier option, allowing you to not only play hockey with your favorite team but to control every microscopic aspect of the business.
This mode type is all about keeping the franchise owner happy and meeting their expectations for the season. This could mean having to upgrade the arena, beat rivals or keep within a strict budget. Careful though… depending on their level of patience, your career could come to abrupt halt if you don’t decide on the best kind of bathroom refurbishment or choose souvenir hoodies with the right type of logo emblazoned on them.
"NHL 17 is a behemoth of a game, crammed chock-full of options, game modes and players."
In fact, the whole “hockey playing” element takes a bit of a back seat here as an inordinate amount of time can be spent dwelling on menu screens and deciding how best to charge for tickets, parking, replica shirts or even a large soda. Keeping the paying customers happy is just as important as success on the rink, so promotional nights and a decent arena will prove essential.
The aim is to keep the punters coming back for more and grow a bigger and better fanbase. It’s kind of cool then that you can even relocate the whole franchise to a new city and completely customize everything to appeal to the masses.
Such an ambitious move could cost you your job if you don’t plan meticulously. Everything is customizable – from the design of the shirt and the stadium to the seat colors, spotlights and songs – and makes this mode so much more engrossing than simply mastering dekes and powerplays, and turning in a good performance on the ice. It’s a lot of fun and proves hugely addictive if you set aside enough time to fully immerse yourself.
NHL 17 is a behemoth of a game, crammed chock-full of options, game modes and players. Whether you’re after the occasional quick game or want to undertake a lengthy campaign, EA’s long-running series has once again returned to form. It may not be a huge leap in terms of innovation from last year’s edition but there are certainly enough worthwhile changes to justify a purchase.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Great looking and packed with plenty of varied game modes. Visual trainer works well. Draft Champions and Franchise mode particularly engrossing
Steep learning curve for newbies. Game is a vast improvement over a few years ago but not a major leap over last year’s outing
The best hockey series ever gets even better. More to see and more to do – and it’s all great fun thanks to solid gameplay and attention to detail