After the NHL lockout in 2005, I began to lose some interest in what used to be my favorite sport and started to watch it less often. Now over 10 years later, I haven’t been to a professional hockey game in years, and only really pay attention to the playoffs. I might be lapsed (because it used to be better), but I always remember why I fell in love with the sport whenever I play an NHL video game.
The thrill of getting a breakaway, and tricking a goalie into leaving one side of the net open is still awesome. It’s something I experienced in my first match of NHL 17, and it was a great reminder of why I spent hundreds of hours playing NHL 2K2 as a kid. Hockey’s fast pace and demand for precision play makes it a perfect fit for games, and that’s exactly why NHL 94 is regarded as one of the best sports games ever made. It puts all of that action-filled drama into a package that anyone can play, and requires skill on each end of the rink.
That balance of speed and skill is the key to a great hockey game, but it’s also where NHL 17 falters. One issue that I ran into early on and never went away was that it’s infuriating trying to switch players on defense. I never actually had control as to who I was switching to, as anytime I would press the switch button (either the right trigger or the cross button depending on what control scheme you use) it would guess what player I wanted to be controlling. Typically in a sports game, like Madden, I could simply tilt my analog stick in the direction of who I wanted to control and it would let me use that character. That isn’t the case here as I would often be holding the analog stick down and it would switch to a character above me.
This may seem like a small complaint, but it impacts every single defensive moment of the game. Hockey is built around fast breaks, and selecting the wrong defender often led to me getting out of position. This led to me giving up a ton of goals since the opposing forward had nobody to check him. I initially thought I would get used to predicting who NHL 17 would assign me after I pressed the switch players button, but that never happened. I’m still often left surprised by who I’m switching to and giving up goals I shouldn’t have.
What makes this issue even more frustrating is that the rest of NHL 17 feels fantastic. Using the right analog stick to take slapshots feels natural (there are other control schemes if you prefer a more traditional game), and skating around on the ice is highly enjoyable. It was just that every time I would start to really enjoy the game, I would be reminded that playing defense felt more like a chore due to the randomness of the switching. I’m not sure why there isn’t button switching similar to NBA games, as that would have eliminated the entire issue.
Thankfully, there is one mode that is free from the player switching debacle and that is the “Be a Pro” career mode. This mode puts the player in the shoes of a rookie who is just stepping onto the NHL ice for the first time. I never particularly loved these modes in the past (since I like having the freedom to switch players), but ended up playing this mode the most since I was restricted to only using one character. This restriction ends up being a bonus, as it eliminates the game’s biggest flaw.
The coolest part about Be a Pro is how your young skater improves his skills. This largely happens on the ice and is affected by your own performance. At any moment in the game, I could pause the game and get advice from my coach in several different categories (ranging from offense to teamwork). It would helpfully give me tips on how to improve my play, and I ended up learning a lot of the more nuanced gameplay elements thanks to it.
Sadly, it’s also the only real way to learn these gameplay elements since there isn’t a proper skills trainer like in Madden or FIFA. Instead, there is a special on-screen HUD that can be turned on to help teach players the basics, but it’s not very helpful at first since little context is given. For example, I lost my first dozen face-offs since I didn’t realize I had to hold the right analog stick to the right or left before I swiped away once the puck was drop. A simple tutorial would’ve avoided that confusion, but hockey is pretty simple to learn.
Since I spent so much time playing as one character, I began to notice that the game’s teammate AI pretty much sucks. Often times a puck would become free due to players colliding and my teammates would skate away from the puck instead of trying to gain possession of it. Granted, I was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes so I wasn’t expecting top-notch play, but still this was worse than watching the CHL. Granted, the AI seems solid elsewhere, but I really don’t understand how they react so poorly in such a key situation.
While the core gameplay let me down in NHL 17, I can’t deny that Electronic Arts have put out a content-filled package. There is a ton of fun modes to play as, including a new tournament based off the NHL’s World Cup of Hockey. This tourney starts off with national team group play, and ends with the two best regions going at it in a best-of-three series. It’s a nice addition, even if I don’t think I’ll ever play it more than once.
Other modes include series staples such as franchise mode (which has been revamped to mirror NBA 2K‘s Dynasty mode where you have to deal with chemistry and morale), and the suite of Ultimate Team modes. I’ve never been a fan of the Ultimate Team modes in any of EA’s games, but I did have some fun with the Draft Champions mode that allowed me to draft a team and use them for five games.
What really made me enjoy this mode is that it includes players from past eras (when I was more of a fan), so I absolutely loved getting to play as Joe Sakic, who is my all-time favorite player, again. While this trip through memory lane was a lot of fun, it kind of bummed me out that superstars like Sakic and Mike Modano couldn’t be used in other modes besides the card-based ones. If there is a way, I couldn’t find it by going through the game’s rosters.
NHL 17 is only held back by a few issues, but they rear their ugly head during every single match. Both player selection and poor teammate AI could be improved by patches, but right now they make every match become frustrating in spots. It’s incredibly disappointing to see a game that gets so much right also proceed to get a few important things dead wrong. There is still fun to be had, especially in the Be A Pro mode, but the action on the ice isn’t nearly as satisfying as it should be.
Review code for NHL 17 provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.