For those not used to the sport, Ice Hockey can be an incredibly fast and difficult sport to follow. Skaters whizz around the rink at breakneck speed, the puck travels at a ridiculous pace at times and yet the players always seem in control, graceful in their ability to pass, move, shoot, tackle and slam each other into the walls. Translating such a relentless sport into a video game must be an incredibly difficult task, and yet EA’s Canadian division seem to manage to pull it out of the bag far more often than not, and with NHL 17 they’ve absolutely nailed it, giving a game with huge depth for hardcore fans, and plenty of accessibility for those who are a bit newer to the game.
The first thing worth noting is just how good NHL 17 feels to play. Bodychecks are meaty, firing off a huge shot only to see it (and hear it) ricochet off the post still feels immensely satisfying, and as for those shots from distance which zip into the roof of the net and send the keeper’s water bottle flying into the crowd? Can’t beat it. The range of control options also provides players of various skills levels and experience to still enjoy what the game has to offer, whether that’s the Mega Drive style 2-button setup, the manual control of the right stick with more combinations of buttons and movements than you can shake a (hockey) stick at, or a nice middle ground which offers some fancy moves without over complicating matters. Straight away you’ll be fizzing passes around the ice, carving open chances to score only to be thumped to the floor and be on the receiving end of a lightning quick counter attack. Learning the controls takes minutes, learning the game takes weeks.
But once you know what you’re doing there’s a huge range of cool stuff to be doing, with my favourite being the Draft Champions mode, a new option which has you choosing a theme for your draft picks (such as EU-born players or the best Canada can offer) and going through a 12-round draft process to build up your team. You’re given a fairly average starting team, and in each of the 12 rounds you can pick a player from a choice of four to add to your team, replacing the worst player in that position. Judge it right and you can end up with a couple of very strong lines in your team – get greedy and you might just end up with 5 top quality centres but no decent defenders and a lousy keeper. There are some classic players in the mix too which is pretty cool, and as you play through this mode you’re also unlocking players to use in the Hockey Ultimate Team, something which has also had some very decent additions.
Ultimate Team is something more often associated with FIFA, especially in the UK, but the NHL version certainly has a lot going for it. As well as the usual card based system of acquiring players, there’s a new system which rewards teams with similar players, offering perks to some players in order to give them a bit of a boost when playing with the right teammates. It means you get rewarded far more for putting a bit more thought into who’s playing with who; the route to the best team isn’t necessarily to get the biggest numbers.
Another new element is the Franchise mode, replacing the outgoing “Be a GM” mode and giving you a bewildering amount of control over your team. You can decide how much to charge for jerseys and tickets, work out when to set up giveaways, which players to trade and who will play in which lineups within the games. It’s an extremely deep and involved game mode, and one which a die hard fan will relish as they get their hands on their favourite team and either guide them to an expected Stanley Cup or drag them out of obscurity into the public eye as a top team. You can even relocate to another city, building your arena up as you like to give a genuinely unique feel to your new team. It’s a very cool feature.
It all comes together within the wrapping of EA’s customary presentation, which with NHL 17 is the very definition of perfection. NBC-branded coverage contains some incredibly smooth commentary, as well as picking out the individual achievements of players on the ice, such as a goal or points milestone, with the commentators and cameras picking the player out as they head over to their team for a round of high 5s and biscuits. Maybe not the biscuits actually.
So do we recommend NHL 17? Most definitely. Even if you’ve never played an NHL game before and want to see what it’s like, this is the most accessible and playable NHL game I’ve played for ages. The game modes will keep you going for ages, and while the tougher difficulty settings can feel a little cheesy in its tactics at times, everything else is on the money. Whether or not you’ll want to splash out if you’ve got NHL 16 is debatable, but you can’t ignore that this is a very, very impressive package.
Reviewed on PS4