I swear I need to learn the little wraparound goal trick in NHL. I've been victimized over and over again over the years by players who make it looks easy; and yet when I try it, the puck just banks harmlessly off the goalies knee pad.
That's been pretty much my life over the past weekend as I've indulged in the NHL 17 beta, which dropped this past week. This year, in addition to the now-customary EASHL beta, the demo includes online ranked play with all 32 NHL teams, a basic Hockey Ultimate Team mode, and a glimpse at the customization options that are being built into the final version. It's less a beta and more a full-blown advertisement for the final game.
Based on NHL's performance over the past couple years, this is a smart move for the series. While it has retained a devoted fanbase, its rocky transition to the current generation has led to the perception that it's lagging behind other sports sims - a perception that's not entirely unfounded. When I did my end of the year sports game power rankings last year, I had NHL below pretty much every major sports sim outside of NBA Live and WWE 2K owing to its poor career modes and other issues.
If the beta is anything to by, this year will in some ways be a big improvement, and in others more of the same. Here are some of my observations from the beta, which I'll break down into the good and the bad for the sake of expediency.
Good: It Feels Much More Physical
NHL 17 brings back battles in front of the net - a key last-generation feature that got lost in the transition to the current generation. The difference is immediate and noticeable. A team like the San Jose Sharks can bully opposing defenses out of the crease and bank in redirected goals with their killer defense, while smaller teams will get muscled out of the way. You can feel the difference elsewhere as well. Defenders will nudge, grab, and otherwise make life difficult for puck carriers, and checks feel powerful and satisfying.
Actually, defense as a whole seems much-improved this year. Both poke checks and stick lifts feel easier to pull off, and the increased physicality makes it harder for opposing players to dance through multiple players and bank the puck into the goal. The difference is noticeable now when you're controlling a really good defensive team, particularly when they're big and can hit.
Bad: Some old issues still rear their ugly head
Controlling the puck can be such a pain in NHL. I can't count the number of times that I had a player skate right over a loose puck. Watching me play, my girlfriend - who players rec hockey - joked that the players looked like they belonged in her league. It feels like a deliberate choice on the part of the designers to keep you from screaming around the rink at full speed, but it gets comical at times.
Goaltending can be frustrating as well. Goalies can be godlike figures in this game, turning away even the dreaded bank past their skate, but they can also let in the stupidest goals. It's not a great feeling when the goalie flails a puck into the net even when you score.
Good: Customization is much better this year
NHL has had the same set of faces and hairstyles for years now, so it's great to see a bunch more options, with even the long neglected female models getting some more options. With the EASHL driving so much of NHL's appeal these days, it's nice to be able to distinguish your player a bit more, even if it's not all that easy to see them beneath their helmet. NHL 17 also gets a thumbs up for its raft of team and arena creation options. I'm guessing that the NFL wouldn't allow it, but it would sure be nice to see something similar in Madden.
Bad: Hockey Ultimate Team's interface is still pretty bad
Hockey Ultimate Team introduces synergies this year - a move that at first blush seems to be a knockoff of the mechanic of the same name in FIFA, but is actually totally different. In NHL, having players will particular traits will unlock team wide skills, which seems smarter than a generic stat boost. Smart as it is, though, it gets lost in the painful team-building interface, which exchanges FIFA's intuitive top-down view for a clumsier line-by-line view that robs you of an overall sense of your team's strength. It's also impossible to automatically generate a fresh lineup, making swapping cards in and out to explore synergies a serious chore. Here's hoping that this is just the beta version and not the final interface; because if it's not, I can't see myself spending much time with HUT this year.
Good: The EASHL is still NHL's biggest selling point
Outside of the fact that it's a hockey sim, there's no bigger selling point for NHL than the EASHL. Full six-on-six hockey is fantastically fun, and the NHL team has done an impressive job of making all six positions (even goalie!) fun to play. This year they've added even more classes, lending the metagame additional nuance in the way that it encourages players to roll with a particular strategy. Ranked quick match isn't as efficient as it could be - matches often take a long time as you wait for both teams to fill out - but it's a serviceable way to play. Much more fun is getting a group of five together and climbing the ranks together. Outside of the new classes, I'm not perceiving a ton of improvement to the EASHL, but this is probably the mode in need of the least amount of work.
Bad: The rest of NHL suffers by comparison
I wish the rest of NHL were as fun to play as the EASHL. The fact of the matter is that when you're controlling a full team, NHL just doesn't feel like real hockey. So much of NHL is built around end-to-end rushes, with aggressive attempts to force breakaways rarely being punished. The constant aggression makes it extremely difficult to actually setup and cycle the puck, and most goals still seem to be scored on the familiar wrap past the goalie's knee pad. Out of all the major sports sims on the market right now, NHL's core game still feels the least faithful to the sport that it's meant to represent. The positive side of all this is that NHL is fast, fun, and rewards high level skill; but as I've said before, it doesn't feel like the gameplay has really advanced from the last generation. If anything, it still feels like NHL is trying to get back to where the series was with NHL 13 and 14. And unfortunately, EASHL aside, that means the series is apt to be left in the dust once again by the rest of the year's sports releases.