Last year's NHL 16 marked a return to form for EA's hockey franchise. It reinstated many of the series’ trademark modes that were removed in the transition to current-generation consoles and introduced an on-ice trainer that made the game much more enjoyable. NHL 17 offers modes with some new bells and whistles, but unfortunately, these few additions aren't significant enough to make NHL 17 stand out from the past.
Thankfully, the action on the ice still shines: handling the puck, skating down the ice, and taking that opportune shot is just as great as it was last year. You feel like you have just the right amount of control over the puck, and you're never left wondering why you lost possession, since taking the puck away from an opponent is also precise and fair. Playing goalie is very similar to last year as well, with intuitive controls that make it easy to drop into a butterfly stance, hug the posts, and move from one side of the crease to the other in an attempt to stop those tricky one-timers.
Gameplay can once again be accompanied by the augmented on-ice trainer--which displays information on the players and ice, such as face-off suggestions and shooting lanes--to help you learn all of NHL 17's tricks. It continues to be a fantastic tool for learning how to perform certain tasks, such as faceoffs and specific dekes, while also telling you why you succeeded or failed. If you went for the puck too early or late in a face-off, it'll let you know. If you lose a face-off that felt like it was a sure thing, the trainer will alert you as to why it happened and whether your player's skill was lower than his opponent's or it was just a toss-up. This information is indispensable. The in-game training system is also adaptive and will flip certain hints off as you learn new skills--and if you don't want to see the trainer, you can turn it off completely. As someone who last made their way through the trainer more than a year ago however, it quickly got me back up to speed and learning new skills in NHL 17.
The rest of the game's user interface has received some big improvements. The menus still look and feel like they’d work best with a touchscreen or a mouse, but navigation is now more responsive. Roster filters are now a lot more instantaneous, as opposed to the sluggish feeling of making your way through the team interface last year. The NHL games always have an immense number of modes and menus, so improvements in navigation are always appreciated.
One of this year's marquee single-player modes is Franchise, which replaces last year's Be a GM and adds a bunch of new numbers and menus to tinker with. In addition to cutting deals with free agents and trading for key players, you can raise and lower the price of your stadium's food, schedule promotional nights, and relocate your team to a new city. Changing the prices of popcorn or setting up bobblehead nights is a fun novelty at first, but not for long. Thankfully, NHL 17 allows a fair bit of customization across the game, and this carries into Franchise. Turning off specific elements of this mode allows you to focus on the aspects you want to get involved in, such as cutting a deal on a free agent or trading for a key player.
NHL 17 also reintroduces the World Cup of Hockey, which coincides with the tournament of the same name. The World Cup works just like any other mode, where you play as one team and compete against others in a number of games. The difference between this and the regular season or playoff modes is the presentation, with its majestic music and broadcast-worthy camera angles that are only marred by the in-game commentary repeating itself a bit too often. Unfortunately, this is where the presentation starts and ends--if you win the World Cup, you don't get to see your team awarded with the titular trophy. This is confusing and disappointing, since every other mode rewards players with a short video of your team hoisting the appropriate trophy.
Whereas most modes have you play as an entire team, Be a Pro narrows the focus to a single player. You create a skater from scratch and take him from the bottom to the top of the NHL by scoring important goals, making big hits, and setting up teammates. It's become a mainstay in the series, but unfortunately, Be a Pro hasn't improved year to year. It's nearly indistinguishable from the experience found in NHL 16 and includes the exact same problems. You can score multiple points a game, but if you don't play a strong defensive game, you could be punished and moved down a line. Scoring a hat trick and getting demoted after the same game is both baffling and frustrating.
Single-player modes fulfill a certain need, but hockey’s a team sport, and the EASHL sees you take a single player online to play with a group of other players. This mode lets you take to the ice in any position, as you play hockey, level up, and unlock new customization options for your player and club arena. The unlockable items are a good target to aim for when gaining experience, since your player and arena will look considerably more awesome as you acquire better-looking gear.
Hockey Ultimate Team makes a return, and it remains an engaging experience. You open card packs, which contain players of different skill levels depending upon the type of pack you purchase--these can be bought with both in-game currency or real money. You then take these cards and make a roster before taking them into games against real or AI opponents. It's a rewarding experience when you get cards that complement your roster nicely, but spending actual money on a pack and not getting a single usable player is infuriating. It makes you feel like you shouldn't spend money at all--you can rely exclusively on the in-game currency you can grind out by playing the game.
Draft Champions is a new addition to the NHL series, and it’s used mainly for earning Hockey Ultimate Team currency. The goal? Win four games in a row against online opponents or the AI with a team you draft from a specific theme, which might focus on players who are from Canada, have won the Stanley Cup, or are relatively new to the NHL. You start with a roster of 20 low-skilled players, and you get 12 rounds to replace them with the best possible skaters. It’s fun to experiment with the strategy of how to draft your team. Do you want to make sure all your bases are covered, or would you prefer to frontload your offense? On top of that, it’s gratifying to actually win with the team you threw together, but online’s the only way to go with this mode. Offline solo play is available, but playing against AI-controlled teams that don't take part in their own draft--and have eight lower-skilled players--is a boring, frustrating experience.
NHL 17 is a great game of hockey, but unlike last year, there isn't a standout mode or feature that makes this game substantially better than its predecessor. It rides off a lot of what NHL 16 did, and the new additions don't add anything crucial to the experience. It's still a lot of fun to trade players in Franchise, build a formidable roster in Hockey Ultimate Team, and actually play matches, but if you were hoping NHL 17 would be a significant step forward for the series, you're out of luck.