When I was in the fourth grade, “NHL 97” for the Super Nintendo was my favorite game.
I played it religiously. Sometimes, the younger boy at the end of the block – Marcus, I think his name was – would come over to go head-to-head. We would play actual street hockey, too, but the pixelated version was the only thing available when it rained or got too dark.
My love for Electronic Arts’ hockey brand may have peaked early in life, but I considered the franchise a must-buy or at least must-rent-for-three-months for nearly two decades. And then the PlayStation 4 version of “NHL 15” came out.
“NHL 15” was so bad that I told my two sets of bosses at two different publications that I could not review it. That still is the only time I have done that in three years of writing about games. I eventually wrote a column about how it was so incomplete and shoddy that it may kill not only the franchise but the sports gaming genre. It was so bad I didn’t even bother playing a second of “NHL 16,”
Thankfully, that did not happen. This year’s sports gaming crop has been exceptional so far, and “NHL 17” fits perfectly into the mix. It is the polar opposite of game-who-shall-not-be-named. Right away I was struck by the number of ways to hit the ice. There are a dozen different game modes. This is a robust, truly impressive hockey experience.
25The EA Sports NHL franchise turned 25 this year. The redundantly named “NHL Hockey” first debuted in 1991.
“NHL 17” added two new modes: Draft Champions and World Cup. Draft Champions allows multiple players to participate in an all-time fantasy draft, picking your dream squad of 12 players from a pool of current and former stars. World Cup allows you to play the NHL-sanctioned World Cup of Hockey, which is in its third year. Neither are anything special.
The title’s true strengths are found in the three new-age modes: Be a Pro, EASHL and Ultimate Team.
I love, L-O-V-E, LOVE, Be a Pro. Hockey and basketball are the two best sports for the create one character and guide him to immortality modes because of their fast pace and smaller scale. Being one of six players on the ice allows me to make a much larger impact than being one of 11 in a football game. Players also take breaks in hockey, meaning the games progress much faster than say, baseball. You can make real progress and do it quickly.
The same strengths are funneled into EASHL, which is essentially an online version of Be a Pro. I control my guy, and up to five other players can insert their guys to form a team. You can even create a logo, uniforms and a team name to compete in leagues. EA’s “FIFA” franchise has a similar mode, but it works a little better in “NHL 17” because you only need five friends – not 10.
Ultimate team is the basic create a team, earn better players and crush your opponents in online play mode. One thing that differentiates the NHL version from its “Madden” cousin is that it starts you off with better players, which makes for a better experience. The Ultimate Team you start out with in “Madden 17” is trash, and some of the players look ridiculous out there with Tom Brady. That’s not the case here.
“NHL 17” also debuted a very helpful on-ice training feature.
If you read my column regularly, you realize that this is the point in the review where I nitpick. And I won’t disappoint you. Through the course of my play this week, I found a few issues.
The first and most painful is probably the loading times. Whirlwind hockey is held back by sluggish loading times. Perhaps as an unwanted byproduct of creating so many modes, just loading the menu screen can take over a minute. Selecting your mode and loading your saved game is even worse, as it can sometimes mean a two-minute wait. Not a huge flaw in the long run, but it adds up.
The player depictions are also a little below the high standards set by “Madden” and the “NBA 2K” franchises. Characters in those games look like real people, whereas “NHL 17” players are a bit cartoony.
I also had two game-breaking crashes. That’s not terrible by modern standards, but I had zero when I reviewed “Madden 17” last week, so a clean release is possible. I am sure those will get cleaned up in subsequent patches. Bugs are always noteworthy, but they aren’t uncommon in the first week of even the best games.
Overall, I was impressed and relieved by “NHL 17.” It has re-established the franchise as a must-buy for all hockey fans and most sports enthusiasts and created a wealth of possibilities that – with a little fine tuning – could improve the game even further as the year progresses.
Video Game Review
▪ Rated everyone
▪ Developer: EA Canada
▪ Publisher: EA Sports
▪ Out now for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One