I grew up watching hockey, and the earliest NHL game I remember playing was '96, back when Peter Bondra and Dale Hunter tore up the rink. Before that, I was fiddling with Blades of Steel on the NES, listening to those funky collision sounds. So in a way, you could say hockey is ingrained in my digital past, though the sport has sort of fallen out of favor in my household. In an attempt to get back in the game, so to speak, I took the chance to cover the latest offering from EA Sports, NHL 17, and as it turns out I picked a good year.
It's almost like developer EA Canada knew I was rusty, too. Upon booting up NHL 17, I was greeted with a litany of controller options, from the most advanced fine-tuned freeform shot system to an old school "NHL '94" two-button scheme. Now I wasn't that rusty as I checked in from time to time (every other year or so), so I opted for the middle of the road controls -- which worked out perfectly. That's partially because the game kicks off with a great tutorial that babysits you every step of the way without feeling annoying. It's a real exhibition match against the CPU that you can easily lose, but helpful tooltips hover above to teach you everything from passing to shooting.
In no time, my old skills returned. Movement feels sublime at this point, and I have a lot of love for the physics of the gliding effect after sprinting, which is something clearly unique to the sport. Picking up advanced maneuvers bit by bit like fake shots, saucer passes, and re-learning the finesse of a slap versus a wrist shot was a joy, as were the aggressive poke and body checks and subsequent fights. Many sports games end up feeling unnatural even with modern hardware to bolster their physics engines, but hockey games just translate so well as a whole.
NHL 17 is the best offering yet from a visual perspective, possibly of any sports game to date -- a point that seems so obvious because it is the latest version after all -- but the presentation itself is fine-tuned with a certain level of care I didn't notice from some past iterations. The injection of real life footage, the NBC logo subliminally hovering in the corner of the screen – all of it draws you into the world of the league itself and its narrative, not just a fantasy digital realm where people happen to play hockey. Commentary is just as advanced, with so many statistics, player nuances, and play-by-play options available to draw from its giant voice clip bank.
Despite EA's claims to the contrary, the crew still repeats a ton of lines (if I have to hear about how invaluable it is that child hockey players "practiced butterfly style" one more time!), but it's easy to forgive it when it does happen. Because really, EA Canada made the core experience so much fun to play. The thrill of scoring a goal and competing in the playoffs is real, and just for reference I went back to compare the atmosphere to NHL 16. Yep, still better.
There's also a host of game types to go with your typical quickmatch, including a Franchise mode that lets you play as a GM, and the Be a Pro player fantasy mode, in addition to the classic season, online, and offline play. Yet, Be a Pro isn't as immersive as you'd think, because while there's a lot of customization options out of the gate the lack of a compelling narrative hurts it. Franchise is a little more fun, but it's packed with features we've all seen for over a decade or so, even dating back to early PlayStation-era EA Sports games. Tweaking meters like ticket prices and watching numbers go up when you have a winning season is neat the first few times, and can even teach non-sports fans little tidbits like basic salary cap issues, but you can get the same experience in nearly any other NHL game.
What you can't get though is the impressive marriage of current-gen advancements and content, which NHL 17 delivers. Even with the light issues, the actual affair of playing hockey is more exciting than it's been in years. This will be my gateway back into the world of the NHL and the glorious Stanley Cup. EA Canada has a lot to be proud about -- let's just hope they carry over that same mentality next year in this capricious world of annual sports iterations.