EA's NHL franchise continues to sharpen its edges in an attempt to deliver the most complete hockey experience on a console.
Last year's effort was a commendable rebuilding, but for the 2016-17 season, EA's hockey sim looks like it's beginning to carve out a new identity -- even if a few blemishes from its legacy continue to show.
New for 2017 are a set of gameplay modes that incorporate the sport's real-life expansion like the World Cup of Hockey as well as a more fleshed out Be a GM experience, now called Franchise Mode. And for the fans who need even more fantasy hockey in their lives, there's Draft Champions mode.
Your personal feelings or politics as a hockey fan towards the World Cup of Hockey aside, the game does do a solid job of importing the tournament's brand to NHL 17. You can play in the eight-team international tournament, which feels a lot like a massive all-star team round-robin.
Be a Pro continues to be my favorite way to play NHL 17 when I'm not simulating a postseason run. There are a handful of new customization options in the player creation toolset, but for me, the best part is watching your player compete to get drafted and earn a spot on an NHL team's roster.
In the game's most popular mode, the online EA Sports Hockey League (or EASHL), a bevy of customizable options have been given to the player including, most notably, custom arenas. Along with Franchise Mode, EASHL players can build out their own team's arena essentially from the ground up -- right down to the scoreboard design, railings, paint and more.
The game's overall packaging has had a facelift, too. The menus look totally different and are, for the most part, zippier. It's a marked improvement over years past and much more painless experience navigating through the game's various options and settings. If you've ever felt handcuffed by stuff like that, you'll notice the bump right away.
So while all of these bullet points are great on paper, I'm much more concerned with how well NHL captures the game I love so much. If playing an NHL game doesn't feel like a live hockey game, then what's the point?
There's not much to complain about in the presentation department as the likenesses to a real life NBC broadcast are spot-on. Not much has evolved since the game adopted the NHL on NBC branding a few years ago, but it's still undeniably sound.
On the ice is more of a mixed bag. The most immediately noticeable improvement I was able to sniff out was puck pick-ups. Players don't stall while getting the puck to their stick as much as they used to, and it definitely speeds up the overall pace of the game.
Player positioning has also received a solid refinement too. I'm not noticing nearly as many passes to unmanned points or cycles to empty corners of the ice. For the most part, I'm finding the AI is more aware of team aspects of the game, which really helps me personally because I like playing NHL games the way hockey is supposed to be played -- and less like a video-game version of the sport, if that makes sense.
The on-ice trainer that debuted last year is back and deeper. It's a graphical overlay that guides you through the various controls at your disposal and aims to encourage you to try out different maneuvers too. I still found this feature to level off at a certain point, leaving me wanting more from it. I also wished it cycled through some controls a second time instead of just assuming I'll remember a certain button combination indefinitely. I still enjoy playing with the trainer turned on -- in fact, I can't imagine playing without it anymore, especially for passing assistance.
Every year I nitpick over puck physics and things that just don't feel "right" about the way the game does hockey. A handful of details still irk me about puck behavior, most of them linger around from last year. But here's the thing: NHL 17 is still a damn fine hockey game. It's also the only hockey video game you can play.
If you're like me -- and I guess you are, because you're reading a review of the only hockey game you can buy -- you're going to find a lot to like in NHL 17. Sure, perhaps the series isn't where it was five years ago, but it's encouraging to see it evolve, if only at an incremental year-over-year pace.