Even before the San Jose Sharks valiantly fell to the Pittsburgh Penguins during the last Stanley Cup Final, I was already resigned to never seeing a Sharks championship in my lifetime. In their 25 years of existence, they’ve made the playoffs in over half of those seasons! At least there are games like NHL 17 that allow me to play out a fictional scenario where Thornton, Pavelski, and Couture finally raise the cup.
When looking at EA Sports franchises over the span of a console generation, NHL is surely one of the most reliable. You see it in its overall production values, clean menus, and realistic player animations. Sure, the NBC-brand graphics could be smoother, and the player likenesses could be a touch more accurate, but the game manages to capture the pace and intensity of its real-life counterpart. A bit of jankiness won’t take that away.
Much of the realism is tied to its mostly smooth framerate, which does a better job than Madden and NBA Live in emulating broadcast TV quality. The default vertical camera orientation is the most practical viewing method, but toggling over to the True Broadcast setting is always mesmerizing. Even the post-goal replays use the same camera angles as the NBC version, with the same blur effect.
The deeper I explored the game, the more I suspect that its NHL license holders are more laid back than the NFL is with the Madden series. Why else would the NHL allow other hockey organizations like the AHL and the ECHL to join the mix when you consider career options, whether it’s a lauded team like the New York Rangers or the lesser known Wheeling Nailers.
You can now create your own rise-to-glory career path without the need of a prefabricated narrative. It’s a game of firsts, spotlighted by the inclusion of the World Cup of Hockey international tournament. Much like the NHL regular season, you can play out the various rounds through simulation, should you not have time to play every game. It’s a welcome touch.
Attention this year has been focused on the all-important goalie. No two goalies’ stances are the same, and it was pleasing to see 41 possible poses for your custom goaltender, myriad post-goal reactions of disappointment, and new save animations that make watching replays worthwhile. There’s also a greater emphasis on net battles this time around, which might explain why most of my matches were decided by just one goal.
The new Franchise Mode functions as this installment’s general manager mode. As usual, it’s about pleasing the owner, making fans happy, and priming your team for playoff contention. Like other games with managerial modes, it allows you to try your hand at armchair business administration. It also lets you realize your personal vision of what your dream franchise would look like, right down to the arena paint schemes and type of jumbotron.
The quest for the perfect NHL game still continues, though.
The trade-off for having better control of the pokecheck is a feature that feels overpowered at times. A legacy issue concerning glitched goals during online play still exists, specifically when an opponent fires a shot opposite his skating direction after crossing the blue line.
And for as much as the NHL series borrows modes from Madden and other sports titles, it’s surprising that NHL 17 doesn’t feature a mode that let’s you reenact highlights or key games from the 2015-2016 season.
Despite these shortcomings, there’s enough new substantial new content that warrants a purchase, even if NHL 16 still hasn’t left your console since its release.