Have sports games plateaued? It seems more so than ever that people are criticising yearly sports titles as being nothing other than roster updates with them intent to focus on glitches and issues, which is their right to do so. As true innovation seems to be a thing of the past in the cyclical nature of sports games, incremental changes in the way things are done are more the order of the day, much to the chagrin of long-time franchise fans.
However, as someone approaching the world of simulated ice hockey for the first time since I had hairs on parts of my body other than my scalp, NHL 17 is a game that is difficult to lay into.
NHL 17’s biggest achievement is offering an easy route back into what had become something of a foreign sport to me, which is probably the case with plenty of others this year, too. My basic understanding before picking up the digital hockey stick was that I had to take that stick, hit the puck into the net, and occasionally punch people in the face. That’s all. After years spent away from the ice, the in-game trainer, telling you where to pass, how to pass, when your shot is good, was more than welcome. It didn’t take too long before I was catching the drift of Canada’s biggest sporting export once again.
Gameplay is smooth with each play transition and inch of ice covered feeling like a knife through warm butter to play. Passing upfield and nailing it precisely to send a teammate through on goal is arguably even more satisfying than landing a touchdown pass in Madden NFL 17, such is the seamlessness of your relationship with the puck. Passing backwards, however, doesn’t have the same sense of fluidity – often the puck will go wide of the receiver, meaning that you’re looking at a quick counter-attack from the opposition. A clearer teammate indicator would have been appreciated, but with enough practice and a couple of swear words out of the way, it’s something that can easily be remedied.
Shooting is an absolute dream, making each shot feel like a howitzer or a timid cat rolling a ball of yarn across the floor. The success of your shot depends on distance from goal and how you hit it more than pure luck, meaning that each attempt has to be measured and considered. The game gives you the option of previewing where your shot will land, assisting with the ambitious and the conservative in equal measure. Strafing across the defensive line before unleashing the puck into one of the corners never gets old.
NHL 17 has more than its fair share of modes, all presented in a minimalist way that’s a welcome reprise from the congested presentation of other EA Sport games. You know where everything is at once, with the most notable addition being Franchise mode. Allowing you to take control of a whole team and everything going on behind the scenes, Franchise is where most of your time should be spent. It’s the complete package of what ice hockey is, right down to the popcorn prices and how clean the toilets are.
Depth is the key to a successful season as it’s often a long and arduous one. Injuries happen, specific to key players, so dipping into the market and picking up roster additions is as important as it is in any sports game. Trying to keep the owner happy is almost an art – if they don’t see things your way, you might not have to wait long until they let you know. If you manage to stay on their good side, you can even request to change the location of the team, meaning that those at the bottom of the chain have a chance to reinvent themselves. Making Cinderella stories come true is just one of the many reasons why Franchise will soak up so much of your time.
Another new addition this year is Draft Champions, but it isn’t a fraction as charming as what else NHL 17 has to offer, especially when it’s little more than a front to earn extra coins for Ultimate Team, which is a mode in EA games that I have never held much love for. Starting things off with a team of average players, you’re then tasked to strengthen in every area across twelve rounds of drafting and who you pick defines your team. You can prioritise lines to be “souped” up or go across the whole roster with an even balance. Once you’re done with playing ice hockey God, it’s time to take them online and see what you can do. As for Ultimate Team, if you’ve played one version of it, you’ve played them all.
The World Cup of Hockey has been brought back in this year to coincide with the real thing, and it works superbly well. There’s a great sense of occasion to each match, in no small part thanks to the presentation tweaks and positively operatic score, Opting for Europe, I was swept aside 6-1 by Team USA in the first preliminary round before finding my feet and going on to win the whole thing with an “attack first, defend later” mantra. High-scoring, often ridiculous matches were had with the importance of each round growing as I went further and further into the competition, which made it more than slightly underwhelming to actually win the cup and be greeted by nothing to commemorate it. A terrible omission for a big selling point of the game.
With a broad selection of modes, captivating, sleek gameplay, and plenty going on beneath the surface of the ice, NHL 17 is the perfect game for anyone looking to introduce themselves to the sport. For long-time series fans, there’s a sense that it may not do much to appease. If you’re somewhere in the middle, NHL 17 is as close to the sport as you can get without having to lace up your skates.