NHL 17 Xbox One Review: Neutral Zone Trap

NHL 17 Xbox One Review: Neutral Zone Trap

EA's hockey sim finds itself in a bit of a creative rut with this year's entry.

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It's been 23 years, but the departure of the North Stars from Minnesota still kind of hurts. They were my first hockey team; and while the Wild have since filled the hole in my heart, I still wince a little whenever I see them in Dallas. So that was the first item on my agenda when I fired up NHL 17: Move the Stars.

This is the first time I can think of that it's possible to relocate a team in NHL, bringing it roughly up to par with NBA 2K and Madden NFL. It is accompanied by a handful of enjoyable bells and whistles, including the ability to set your own goal song and spotlight effects. Sadly, I couldn't move the Stars back to Minnesota, but Seattle was available. Close enough.

The rest of NHL 17's additions are a tad spottier, but I'll get to those in due time. Here's what new players should expect from EA's venerable hockey sim.

For those who are new to the series

We're a long way from the days of NHL 94, which struck the sort of satisfying balance between arcade and simulation action that only 16-bit games could manage. These days, NHL is still fast and exciting, but it's also extremely complicated: One wrong move and you stand a decent chance of giving up a breakaway chance. So while the NHL 94 controls are still there if you want them, NHL really aspires to be more of a simulation at its core.

NHL 17 is a test of skill, reflexes, and quick decision-making, with players getting crushed by big hits if they are a second too slow in getting rid of the puck. The strategy is predicated less on patiently cycling the puck and looking for openings and more on foring madcap breakouts, taking big shots from the point, and dangling the puck around the goalie: Not necessarily true to the sport, but pretty fun for a videogame. And when you score a goal it's thrilling: As in real life, the goal horn blares, music plays, and the players hug and make out (I only made one of those things up).

In that, hockey is well-suited to gaming. Matches usually take only about 15 minutes; games are fast and action-packed, and the objective is simple: Put the puck in the back of the net. Oddly enough, though, NHL is probably the hardest sports sims to learn. EA Canada provides little in the way of tutorials; and unless you have at least a passing knowledge of hockey tactics, you are going to have a hard time scoring. The On-Ice Trainer - an overlay that shows you shot angles and offers control prompts - is a decent visual prompt, but it's not quite enough. The art of scoring on a one-timer, as well as the difference between the various formations, is apt to be lost on first-time players. But once you get past NHL's rather steep barrier to entry, it becomes markedly less frustrating.

NHL's strengths are best reflected in the EA Sports Hockey League - a team-based 6v6 mode in which each person takes on an individual role, whether it be center, winger, or goalie. Rather than controlling the entire team, you are responsible for your own positioning and movement; and once you get the hang of it, it starts to feel like an actual rec league hockey game. It's bolstered by a variety of class roles, including Sniper, Power Forward, and Playmaker - all with individual strengths and weaknesses. The EASHL has a dedicated fanbase, and that combined with a desire to make NHL an eSport (no, seriously) has earned the mode most of EA Canada's limited resources. If you can get a good group of friends together for it, the EASHL can really increase NHL's longevity.

The rest of the modes are functional if colorless. Be a GM, which I'll delve into further in a bit, doesn't have quite the staying power of other sports game franchise modes. Outside of trophy presentations, it doesn't do much to add excitement or narrative to the lengthy grind of the NHL season. Morale will rise and fall depending on what trades you make and whether or not you're winning, and you can have very short conversations with your players, but that's about the extent of the narrative. Ultimately, unless you're a hardcore NHL fan, it's hard to keep caring for 82 games plus the playoffs.

The same can be said for the player-based Be a Pro, which starts strong with a fun set of minor league evaluation games and decent goals, but flames out about halfway through the season. Meanwhile, Hockey Ultimate Team - a mode in which you collect cards to build a perfect team - is probably the worst such mode in any sports game right now. It lacks solo challenges, a large number of sets to complete (though it adds a few this year), or even basic quality-of-life features like the ability to generate a proper lineup. It's also hamstrung by a confusing interface that forces you to scroll through each line individually, which makes it hard to get a feel for your whole team.

One mode that I did find surprisingly enjoyable was the World Cup of Hockey: a new tournament mode that allows you to play in the forthcoming international tournament in Toronto. More than a simple tournament mode, the World Cup of Hockey gets its own presentation package and unique commentary while following the event's proper group-based format. As a sort of mini-franchise mode, I found it to be a pleasant change of pace, even if it's bound to be forgotten once the actual event is done and dusted.

In the grand scheme of things, NHL's modes are pretty good. What they lack in personality they make up for in breadth, with both Be a Pro and Be a GM including clubs from leagues like the OHL and WHL. They also move at a pretty good clip. They don't offer a lot of memorable moments, but they do their part to complement the gameplay. And beyond that, there's a fair amount that NHL 17 does right: Season Mode is nice to have, the NBC-based presentation is attractive (even if Mike Emerick sounds like a robot), and the games are pressure-filled and fun. But NHL is also clearly hamstrung in some ways by its limited budget, which affects its overall polish. If you're a hockey fan, NHL 17 is certainly better than nothing. But there's still a lot of room for improvement.

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