NHL 17 for the PS4 reaffirms EA’s hold on the hockey genre – are the innovations worth the upgrade from last year’s version?
Over the past 10 years or so, EA has lost its top spot for basketball simulators, with 2K’s NBA games even forcing NBA Live out of the competition for the time being. They’re in an annual battle for soccer supremacy with Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer as well, but the Madden and NHL franchises have been dominant for over 20 years now. Of course American Football doesn’t have quite the global appeal that the other sports do, but EA did manage to fight off an attempt by 2K to conquer the hockey market as well. What’s EA’s secret there?
My guess… the passion that the developers have for the game. A few years ago, I met with them during a session at Gamescom, and came away having learned more about the sport’s subtleties in 30 minutes than I had in the 30 years prior to that. A lot of these nuances were previously lost due to a lack of computing power, but with the advent of today’s generation of consoles we’ve seen steady improvements year after year.
The paragraph above also says something about me. I mainly know hockey because of the video games that simulate it, as I only ever saw it on television about once every four years – during the Olympics. This, of course, skews my opinion and heavily impacts how I view an NHL game. I tend to play these games because I find the sport fun, not because I’m looking for an accurate simulation with tons of intricacies and tactical nuances. Lucky for me… the game caters to both audiences.
If you’re old enough to have played NHL back in the Sega Genesis days, then you’d be happy to know that a similar control method is still available today – with simplified controls for those who prefer them or who are just to overwhelmed by the ‘full experience’. Whichever way you choose to control the game, the experience is rock solid – passing, shooting and checking feel as smooth as they always have – although in a way that is also a point of criticism. NHL 17 doesn’t change its core gameplay too much from previous titles, and uses the same engine as last year’s version. Ironically, FIFA changed its engine from (NHL’s) Ignite to Frostbite this year, emphasizing a more physical kind of gameplay that would feel right at home in a hockey game.
NHL 17’s changes are largely on the surface. The World Cup of Hockey tournament, complete with all the (player) licenses, returns to the franchise – an international tournament that gives you the opportunity to take a break from playing with regular NHL teams and compete in something akin to a mini Olympics, with all the strongest teams in the world present and available to play with and against.
The other big change to the game comes in the form of team customization, where you get to be a team owner and direct many off-ice aspects of the game. You can relocate the team, rename them, play with different jerseys and even manage buildings and ticket sales. It’s an interesting take on what’s a relatively common practice in US sports, and a fascinating one for outsiders getting a look behind the scenes of an NHL team.
Is NHL 17 worth picking up? Definitely – it’s a great hockey game and a lot of fun to play, but how much you’re willing to spend on it will depend largely on whether or not you own last year’s edition already. Many of this year’s improvements don’t alter the main gameplay all too much, and standout modes like FIFA’s The Journey aren’t there. Of course the NHL 17 developer team isn’t given the same kind of budget, but we’d be happy if EA gave the team more room to invest in the franchise’s future – look at what that did for 2K’s NBA franchise. Nevertheless, NHL 17 is a wonderful hockey game for both casual (or videogame) hockey fans and those who enjoy the ins and outs of the sport.