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It's been 23 years, but the departure of the North Stars from Minnesota still kind of hurts. They were my first hockey team; and while the Wild have since filled the hole in my heart, I still wince a little whenever I see them in Dallas. So that was the first item on my agenda when I fired up NHL 17: Move the Stars.
This is the first time I can think of that it's possible to relocate a team in NHL, bringing it roughly up to par with NBA 2K and Madden NFL. It is accompanied by a handful of enjoyable bells and whistles, including the ability to set your own goal song and spotlight effects. Sadly, I couldn't move the Stars back to Minnesota, but Seattle was available. Close enough.
The rest of NHL 17's additions are a tad spottier, but I'll get to those in due time. Here's what new players should expect from EA's venerable hockey sim.
For those who are new to the series
We're a long way from the days of NHL 94, which struck the sort of satisfying balance between arcade and simulation action that only 16-bit games could manage. These days, NHL is still fast and exciting, but it's also extremely complicated: One wrong move and you stand a decent chance of giving up a breakaway chance. So while the NHL 94 controls are still there if you want them, NHL really aspires to be more of a simulation at its core.
NHL 17 is a test of skill, reflexes, and quick decision-making, with players getting crushed by big hits if they are a second too slow in getting rid of the puck. The strategy is predicated less on patiently cycling the puck and looking for openings and more on foring madcap breakouts, taking big shots from the point, and dangling the puck around the goalie: Not necessarily true to the sport, but pretty fun for a videogame. And when you score a goal it's thrilling: As in real life, the goal horn blares, music plays, and the players hug and make out (I only made one of those things up).
In that, hockey is well-suited to gaming. Matches usually take only about 15 minutes; games are fast and action-packed, and the objective is simple: Put the puck in the back of the net. Oddly enough, though, NHL is probably the hardest sports sims to learn. EA Canada provides little in the way of tutorials; and unless you have at least a passing knowledge of hockey tactics, you are going to have a hard time scoring. The On-Ice Trainer - an overlay that shows you shot angles and offers control prompts - is a decent visual prompt, but it's not quite enough. The art of scoring on a one-timer, as well as the difference between the various formations, is apt to be lost on first-time players. But once you get past NHL's rather steep barrier to entry, it becomes markedly less frustrating.
NHL's strengths are best reflected in the EA Sports Hockey League - a team-based 6v6 mode in which each person takes on an individual role, whether it be center, winger, or goalie. Rather than controlling the entire team, you are responsible for your own positioning and movement; and once you get the hang of it, it starts to feel like an actual rec league hockey game. It's bolstered by a variety of class roles, including Sniper, Power Forward, and Playmaker - all with individual strengths and weaknesses. The EASHL has a dedicated fanbase, and that combined with a desire to make NHL an eSport (no, seriously) has earned the mode most of EA Canada's limited resources. If you can get a good group of friends together for it, the EASHL can really increase NHL's longevity.
The rest of the modes are functional if colorless. Be a GM, which I'll delve into further in a bit, doesn't have quite the staying power of other sports game franchise modes. Outside of trophy presentations, it doesn't do much to add excitement or narrative to the lengthy grind of the NHL season. Morale will rise and fall depending on what trades you make and whether or not you're winning, and you can have very short conversations with your players, but that's about the extent of the narrative. Ultimately, unless you're a hardcore NHL fan, it's hard to keep caring for 82 games plus the playoffs.
The same can be said for the player-based Be a Pro, which starts strong with a fun set of minor league evaluation games and decent goals, but flames out about halfway through the season. Meanwhile, Hockey Ultimate Team - a mode in which you collect cards to build a perfect team - is probably the worst such mode in any sports game right now. It lacks solo challenges, a large number of sets to complete (though it adds a few this year), or even basic quality-of-life features like the ability to generate a proper lineup. It's also hamstrung by a confusing interface that forces you to scroll through each line individually, which makes it hard to get a feel for your whole team.
One mode that I did find surprisingly enjoyable was the World Cup of Hockey: a new tournament mode that allows you to play in the forthcoming international tournament in Toronto. More than a simple tournament mode, the World Cup of Hockey gets its own presentation package and unique commentary while following the event's proper group-based format. As a sort of mini-franchise mode, I found it to be a pleasant change of pace, even if it's bound to be forgotten once the actual event is done and dusted.
In the grand scheme of things, NHL's modes are pretty good. What they lack in personality they make up for in breadth, with both Be a Pro and Be a GM including clubs from leagues like the OHL and WHL. They also move at a pretty good clip. They don't offer a lot of memorable moments, but they do their part to complement the gameplay. And beyond that, there's a fair amount that NHL 17 does right: Season Mode is nice to have, the NBC-based presentation is attractive (even if Mike Emerick sounds like a robot), and the games are pressure-filled and fun. But NHL is also clearly hamstrung in some ways by its limited budget, which affects its overall polish. If you're a hockey fan, NHL 17 is certainly better than nothing. But there's still a lot of room for improvement.
For returning fans
So let's talk a bit more about Dallas' move to Seattle.
My kneejerk reaction to owner mode was to hate it. Owner mode is pretty much the worst thing about Madden, requiring that you manipulate a lot of worthless numbers just so you can run out of money for free agency. The dirty secret of owner mode is that none of the choices you make outside of relocation actually matter. If you win, you will do well. End of story.
Happily, though, NHL 17's owner mode does have some merit. Unlike Madden, which features preset teams, NHL 17 lets you create a fully customized franchise when you relocate to another city. Once the move is approved, you can set about customizing your team's uniforms, your arena's music, and whether you want flames or smoke coming from the scoreboard when you get a goal. You can even pick a unique goal horn (I went with the Sharks horn because it's the best). This process made me much more invested in my newly-created Seattle North Stars, which was not something I was expecting (even if I wish it were possible to keep my old uniforms when moving).
If you're not interested in relocating, though, owner mode's benefits are a bit more nebulous. Budgeting isn't as onerous as it is in Madden, but it still feels like pointless busywork. Attendance is ostensibly realistic this year; but playing as the rudderless Arizona Coyotes in January, I didn't see an appreciable dip in attendance even against non-division rivals (though there were definitely a few empty seats).
The best that can be said about owner mode is that it gives Be a GM a bit more shape and structure. The owner asks you to do things like upgrade your arena's parking lot and win the opening game of the season; and if you do so, then they're happy and (probably) won't fire you. That's fine, but it's still hard to care about accumulating money when the benefits aren't really obvious outside of signing more free agents. Pre-release material made it seem as if I could customize my arena and maybe pick a new goal song, but the "Arena Customization" option appears inaccessible unless you move and get a new building. At least you can see the crowd all wearing the same shirt on t-shirt night.
(Don't get me started on the Wild having a one-star arena just because it's 17 years old now. One star? It's still one of the best arenas in the league).
Outside of owner mode, NHL 17 is more of an incremental improvement than last year. Hardcore fans will be most interested in the return of physical play in front of the net - a last-generation feature that's been sorely missed over the past couple entries - which has the effect of making the gameplay feel more kinetic. Battles in front of the net mean something again. It also forces you to think more than ever about how you set individual lines. I wound up going in and completely rebalancing my lines around finesse, power, and pure checking to account for the changes, which is definitely welcome in a hockey sim.
With this addition, NHL 17 is now about where it was with NHL 14 in terms of gameplay... which is kind of the problem. I'm sure EA Canada can point out lots of little improvements to player locomotion and AI, but the point is that it doesn't feel that different. The way players skate, interact with the puck, and take shots feels artificial to me - as if they're skating and stickhandling on air - and the players themselves only barely resemble their real-life counterparts. It's hard to put my finger on it, but it just doesn't feel quite right. And until NHL moves over to the Frostbite engine alongside FIFA, I don't think it's going to get any better.
More broadly, the series feels kind of rudderless to me right now. This year's feature set feels like a grab bag of random improvements: player chemistry for HUT, a threadbare Draft Champions mode in which you draft a team and try to win four games in a row, owner mode. Some of these improvements are welcome - physical play, team relocation, additional classes for the EASHL, and the World Cup of Hockey - but it all feels a bit haphazard to me. Most of these additions have been in other games for years now. If NHL can't compete with other sports games in terms of polish, it would at least be nice if it didn't always feel late to the party.
In the end, if competence is all EA Canada aspires to with NHL, then they've reached it. But in the competitive and fast-changing sports sim landscape, mere competence isn't necessarily enough. If NHL is going to compete with its paucity of resources, it needs to be bold and inventive: not a me-too sports sim living on ideas from the previous generation. I don't know where the series can go from here: Annual sports sims have a momentum to them that can be hard to reverse. But for the sake of the series, I hope EA figures it out soon.
InterfaceMenus and loading times can be pretty sluggish at times. Head-to-head play is really hurt by the inability to set team strategies ahead of time.
Lasting AppealEASHL is still the best thing NHL 17 has going for it. If you can get a group of friends together, it's a delight building up a team and steadily upgrading your arena. The rest of the modes are still a bit weak, though owner mode is ultimately a net positive.
SoundThe music, goal horns, and sound effects are all great. The commentary... is not so great. Actually, it's probably the worst commentary you'll find in a sports sim right now. Mike Emrick's repetitive and robotic commentary is more noticeable than ever in this version.
VisualsNHL 17 looks great when you're playing; but when the camera is in close, the players have an oddly misshapen look to them. The live footage intercuts make for a pleasingly realistic presentation, and it's fun to see the mascots in the crowd.
ConclusionNHL 17 has some real strengths, but it still feels like it hasn't quite made it out of the previous generation. The gameplay is strong but increasingly dated; the feature set feels haphazard, and there are lots of niggling quality-of-life issues. It feels more and more like the series is stuck in a rut, and it's hard to say where EA Canada should take it next. For now, NHL 17 is another decent outing, but the next step remains elusive.