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August 2018

NHL 17

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: Sept. 13, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


Xbox One Review - 'NHL 17'

by Brian Dumlao on Sept. 16, 2016 @ 1:30 a.m. PDT

Whether you compete online in a bid for glory, live out your ultimate hockey fantasy in single player modes, or simply lace up and jump over the boards for exciting and innovative hockey gameplay - NHL 17 gives you the chance to Shape Your Legacy on and off the ice.

Buy NHL 17

Many fans consider NHL 16 to be the real start of the sport on the current generation of consoles. The gameplay had some changes for veterans to dig into while still providing loads of information to ease newcomers into the sport. The presentation remained a highlight, as it surpassed a number of other sports titles in terms of matching its real-life broadcast counterpart. It also had the modes everyone was looking for, making it feel like a continuation of the long-running series instead of a game that chose to start over from scratch. Since the title did so much in one year, many fans expect NHL 17 to be nothing more than an incremental update. That's pretty much what it is, though the designation doesn't automatically mean we should dismiss the title.

If you've played the two previous games, then you'll know how this one starts off. You're playing the complete first game of the Stanley Cup finals. It's the San Jose Sharks playing against the Pittsburgh Penguins at their home rink. Mike Emrick and Eddie Olczyk are making the call for NBCSN. The only difference this time around is that you can set up a basic set of options from the beginning. That means being able to turn on or off the assists that guided you last time with contextual information, like where you're targeting your shot or when to hit the button to win the face-off. You can go with any controller configuration, whether it's making full use of the analog sticks, mixing it up with button presses for most actions, or even dialing back to a more basic NHL 94 scheme that trades out advanced moves for simpler controls. You can also choose your difficulty, including the new Semi-Pro difficulty, which lies somewhere between Rookie and Pro, relaxing the penalties while making sure the game is as fast as the sport's arcade iterations.

From this first match, you can tell that the developers are still trying to court newcomers as it comes up with several different ways to be accessible while still catering to the fan base that developed their skill level over the years. For the latter group, the changes in this year's title are minute. There's more nuance in the goalie's animations. The action near the net contains a few more changes to look more realistic. It's something you'll notice if you look for the details, but it doesn't affect the overall gameplay in a noticeable way. One thing you'll notice is that the game sometimes calls for reviews on goals when it looks like the puck goes in via questionable methods. You see this happen more recently in the Madden series, and having this in NHL 17 brings tension to a game that already plays rather fast. The other thing you'll notice is that the coach's evaluations after every period have been improved, so it becomes tailored to your play style instead of following one standard for every category. It can still be spotty at times, as good performances on the ice will sometimes net you an average grade, but it isn't as harsh as last year's iteration.

That's really the big takeaway from the overall gameplay. Even with so little changed in the past year, the gameplay remains fluid and tense. Possessions change at the drop of a hat, goals can sneak in if you're distracted for a second, and fast breaks to the net occur more often than a typical NBA game. It serves as a natural evolution for what people expect from their hockey games since the 16-bit days, and it does it in a way that's interesting for spectators and players alike.

Like last year's game, this year's version is bursting with a bevy of offline and online modes. The good news is that unlike last year's version, which had some pretty bad netcode for the first month or two, this iteration is pretty solid on that department. Granted, we only got access to the pool of players playing early via EA Access, but of the several games played in both player and ranked matches, none were plagued with lag or warping actions, nor were there any disconnects to invalidate the three periods of play. It remains to be seen if this stability holds up once the larger population gets its hands on it but so far, so good.

Most of the standard modes remain relatively unchanged, which is fine since they were already pretty perfect. The different hockey leagues from last year are still present and are now joined by the ECHL, so teams like the Quad City Mallards and the Orlando Solar Bears can now face off against the likes of the Bakersfield Condors and San Diego Gulls of the AHL. They're all available in Quick Play, Season and Playoff modes as well as the online and offline variants of Shootout mode, making this one of the few sports titles where there really are too many teams to choose from for the game modes.

Also relatively unchanged is the Be a Pro mode, which is still fun if you want to follow the journey of one player as he makes it all the way to the NHL and retires with plenty of accolades or is simply content with being a legend in the other hockey leagues. The coaching is the same as before, as are the options to create your own player. One change is the recognition of firsts and lasts for your player. Getting into your first pro game is treated with the same amount of reverence as your retirement game, and milestones like first goal and hat trick are big highlights.

Going along with the Create a Player mode is Create a Team, where you'll be able to make your own NHL expansion team. The building blocks are there, so you'll be able to form your squad from a pool of free agents, but you have an advantage since that group isn't mostly comprised of scrubs. What will really get fans giddy is the amount of customization you can put in beyond the roster. Logos and uniform colors are one thing, but you can change your arena, including entrance props, the lights and air horn used for goal scores, and the arena music for certain situations. The result of this hard work is impressive when you see it all for the first time.

Though the Create a Team mode is novel enough, it gets utilized more in this year's iteration of EASHL, especially since this mode unlocks more options for team and arena creation. It also unlocks more player customization features, so you can have your player dab after a goal, but quite a bit of grinding is needed to unlock anything for your team or individual player. There are a few changes to the mode, including a locker room that's designed for players who aren't already in clubs, since it gives them a chance to converse with random people they meet online to see if they want to team up. It's a nice sentiment, and it remains to be seen how often it's used once the game gets a wider public release. Also new to the mode are four player classes, like the Jumbo Playmaker, who's good for clearing lanes so others can drive to the net, and the Hitting Sniper, who can shoot just as well as he can dish out body checks.

Hockey Ultimate Team was one of the more exciting modes in the last few iterations of the series, and it remains that way this year. While the basic formula remains largely unchanged, there are a few tweaks to help with its few shortcomings. There's now a synergy system that grants bonuses to your line or team if you link certain players' play styles. It works similar to last year's Chemistry mechanic and helps you pay attention to more than just the overall rating for each player you obtain. The other big change to the mode is Dynamic Sets. Instead of selling off the extra cards you aren't using for coins, you're now encouraged to treat them like collectible cards and complete themed sets with them. The reward for doing this is often a high-level hero representing a legendary player for that team, so even if you aren't a fan of the Canucks, you'll want to get that whole squad anyway just to get Trevor Linden on your team.

Feeding into that mode is Draft Champions, a shorter but more focused version of Hockey Ultimate Team. You start off with a theme you want to play with, whether it's going completely international or using current veteran players. You then pull all high-level cards and take 12 rounds to fine-tune it until you have the team you want. From there, you take on a small series of four games against randomly drafted teams, and your performance determines the cards you'll be rewarded with for use in Hockey Ultimate Team. The short schedule and easy drafting makes this a more desirable variant of Hockey Ultimate Team, as it doesn't require a ton of micromanagement or a big time commitment to get the most out of it. However, the small amount of available themes makes it limiting, since you can only go through so many variations and tweaks before the idea starts to become stale.

Franchise mode takes a page from the Madden series and is a much more expanded version of last year's Be a GM. You now have a much finer control of how your team operates beyond performance. You'll still have to worry about team morale, but now you also have to worry about finances. You get complete control over the minor things, likes ticket and concession prices as well as handling promos, like bobblehead night for one of your star players. You can even choose to relocate a team, taking advantage of the Create a Team feature to give everything a fresh start. Aside from the fact that this type of business management is long overdue for the series, one of the more welcome aspect is how the game does a good job of explaining how each element affects one another. It may feel like common sense to know that team popularity provides some leeway in increasing ticket and merchandise prices, but it's nice to have it spelled out.

The final mode, the World Cup of Hockey, coincides with this year's tournament in Toronto and is more novelty than something essential. You're limited to playing with international teams, since they play each other to reach the world championships. Aside from the bumpers that remind you of the event and the change in theme music to mark the end of each period, it doesn't feel that special when compared to a regular game. Worse yet, you don't get a presentation video or fanfare if you win the whole thing. It makes for a mode that many fans will feel comfortable skipping altogether.

With all of these modes, it's interesting to note that NHL Moments Live is missing this time around. It is always disappointing to see a sports game remove a mode, especially one that can extend its shelf life with the addition of new content on a constant basis. Having said that, it really wasn't maintained that well in NHL 16, so it wouldn't be surprising if they exorcised the mode since no one bothered to update it.

The incremental updates in NHL 17 mean that the graphics have been untouched. Everything you've come to expect is present, from the ice spray as players skid to the wear and tear on the glass and ice. Players look close to their real-life counterparts due to the variable beards in play, and the animations are well done with some odd rotation animation or clipping here and there. It could also use some work for the particle effects, as the smoke and fire coming from the scoreboard during home goals and team intros look mediocre.

Much like the graphics, the sound has only seen very few changes in the last year. There's the addition of ECHL and national teams, but you'll be hard-pressed to tell any differences in the commentary from this year's iteration and last year's. The flow is still smooth, and the delivery used for different scenarios is still great, but you will find them repeating phrases in a short time span. The sound effects are still perfect, while the music is also good. Like before, the licensed stuff is relegated to in-between periods, stoppages, and menu navigation, and a wide variety of genres is represented, even if the actual selection of songs is pretty small. It would be nice to have more granular control over which songs are in rotation, but missing that option isn't a big enough deal when you don't hear the tunes that often in the first place.

Your decision to pick up NHL 17 will depend on your experience with the previous two titles. If you haven't picked up a NHL title this season or you stopped at NHL 15, you absolutely must purchase NHL 17. The game has been refined with loads of changes for both pros and novices, and the number of modes present, along with their depth, will ensure that this stays in rotation until the hockey season starts. If you already have NHL 16, then there isn't much of an impetus to grab the NHL 17 version. The extra modes are indeed nice, but you already have access to just about everything, so those additions might not feel that impressive. Either way, NHL 17 remains a solid game, and one hopes that the momentum continues into next year's title.

Score: 8.0/10

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