This past week EA put out ‘NHL 17 Beta’ so hockey gamers could test what is essentially the new NHL game coming out in early September.  You could only play a couple of online modes but it was enough of a taste to satisfy the mid-summer hockey appetite.

But before I dive into my generic NHL 17 Beta review I’d like to give a little background into my NHL gaming experience.

I’ve been an NHL Hockey gamer since 1992 on the Sega Genesis.  I can still remember the groundbreaking feeling of using real NHL teams and their stars as video game technology graduated from Nintendo’s “Blades of Steel” and “Ice Hockey”.  It was a pretty damn cool time to be an 11-year-old kid.

EA’s hockey franchise first started out as “Electronic Arts NHL Hockey”:

Then next year evolved into NHLPA Hockey ’93:

And although NHL ’94 has been heralded as the best hockey video game of the EA series as it introduced the one-timer, I’ll always have a soft spot for ’93.  It was the only game in the franchise’s history to have blood.  The cross-ice fights that could go from the benches to the penalty box, and bone crunching hits, could leave a player twitching on the ice (no joke) with blood pouring from their skulls:

The real NHL didn’t take too kindly to that feature and blood was eliminated from the series forever.  I even still have my old Sega in working order with all of those original game cartridges that launched the NHL series. Combine that experience with my years as a junior and NCAA hockey player, now a coach, and I’ve always enjoyed the NHL fantasy of playing the games over the years.

Today there is no technological comparison to the old days.  The graphics are far superior, there’s more gaming modes, and the online experience can make modern video games mind bogglingly impressive.  It’s amazing how far it’s come.

But it’s also bred a new, often overwhelmingly annoying culture of gaming.  Scrutiny is at an all-time high in the sports sim industry.  Either make the game as true of a simulation as possible or feel the wrath of many hiding behind keyboards in gaming forums everywhere ripping the product to shreds.  NHL Hockey used to be just a side piece of 16-bit entertainment for us kids, offline, when we couldn’t play street hockey because it was raining.  And those primitive games still cost $50 back in the day.  Now it’s a multi-billion dollar industry where some people actually take gaming very seriously.  And the NHL series’ gaming community is no different.

As far as the series goes, it has stumbled mightily in recent years and has earned it’s criticism.  Once the dominant sports game for EA, NHL fell hard.  The game became clunky.  Skaters became hard to control as animations overrode what you really wanted to do.  The clipping became atrocious, rendering physics irrelevant for defenders as skaters and pucks simply passed through physical objects trying to stop them.  What made it worse was EA botched (GM connected interface) or removed great game concepts (EASHL) while making the micro-gazillion-dollar-making-transaction scam mode HUT, a mode I refuse to support, it’s priority over gameplay.  Yet other EA franchises have had simple and properly working features (roster share, online franchise) that NHL is still waiting for.  The fact that the 12-year-old Madden 2004 on PS2 still has a deeper and better franchise mode than the current NHL series does is telling.

Overall, the NHL series just hasn’t taken advantage of new gaming consoles capabilities to produce a product that can keep up with other games.

And even though I’m a guy that has bought NHL every year since ’92 regardless because, well, I love hockey and really it’s just a stupid video game, it’s still safe to say that this years edition is a make or break one for the franchise as games like NBA2K continue to embarrass the NHL series with its incredible attention to detail in its gameplay and depth.

So, without further rambling here is my very basic broad stroke gameplay review from the perspective of “I don’t care if you’re good or bad at the game, but I do expect a great hockey sim product for all of us who spend our hard earned money”:

The Good:

  • Probably the biggest complaint from NHL gamers in recent years outside of lag is that you couldn’t control your skater very well.  You constantly fight animations the game wanted you to do rather than getting your player to do what you want.  You couldn’t even face the puck without a struggle.  Instead your evenings were filled with spinning in circles trying to get into position with or without the puck, rather than just simple, quick and responsive stops and starts facing the puck (ie: like real hockey).  That issue has been vastly improved.  I did not try out goalie, but from the moment I started my first beta game I felt far more in control of what my skater did than ever before.  I could make minor movements easier and it immediately felt much more fluid and enjoyable.
  • Passing was much less of a battle.  When I aimed my pass it was more accurate than before.  This was also partly because I could actually control my skater better and my positioning before making the pass was better.
  • Input lag was gone for me.  When I pushed a button the action would happen immediately.  In NHL 16 I’d often hit the pass button 2-3 times before it’d happen and by then it was too late.  The beta responded much better.
  • Although not in all areas, basic AI got a welcomed boost.  It’ll always have flaws but I, like the majority of gamers, don’t have time to schedule and play 6’s exclusively.  I’m either playing GM mode or playing EASHL games when I can as a way to “hang” with a couple friends that no longer live close by.  Thus, AI is important to the vast majority of gamers.  And in the beta it seems the d-zone AI improved.  The breakout provided quick ups, quicker decisions, and less headache.  There were infinitely less “self board pins” and getting stuck behind the net.  The weak side D also covered the front of the net much better and these minor improvements led to a better pace and tempo in gameplay.
  • Hitting is a lot of fun now and it actually works as a defensive tool.  Poke checks work better and angling a player off into the boards helps separate the player from the puck easier.  NHL 16 was full of guys hanging onto the puck at will with the A-button puck shield.  Or they’d get knocked down by a huge hit, but get up and still keep the puck, then get hit again and retain the puck again, over and over.  Now you can largely avoid that frustration.  And that brings a skill gap back to the game.  Now weaker players won’t catch as many breaks (like literally carrying the puck right through physical objects like bodies/sticks and continuing to control of the puck).  I really hope EA stays with this feel of easier puck separation rather than nerfing it to the forwards benefit.  It forces more passing and creative team play in a game that has already been offensively dominant enough as it is.
  • There were more blowouts and commanding wins from better teams in games I played.  In NHL 16 it seemed most games regardless of skill were 1-2 goal games with many in overtime.  In the beta it seemed if you were better there was a more noticeable skill gap on the scoreboard.  They weren’t always blowouts but you didn’t have to fear a superhuman goalie bailing out a bad team as much.
  • Cycling works now.  You can have a lot of fun wheeling it around down low and working to get open or use the points.  In NHL 16 the boards were your enemy.
  • I liked the EASHL hub where you selected your preference (F, D, or Goalie) for drop-ins and the redone matchmaking layout was nice.
  • Customization is great.  I won’t list the items but basically you can make your player and franchise for online play as customizable as you want.  From jerseys to arenas to goal celebrations, it can all be how you want it.  It’ll be a lot of fun to unlock those extras along your teams journey.
  • The graphics are crisper and had a truer feel to the look than NHL 16.  Although not a drastic change, the shading, the detail, and the texture all feels a bit more organic and real.

The Bad:

  • We still don’t know if the EA servers will ruin the online experience.  I know it’s been a big issue but it’s still an unknown even though the beta streamed well.
  • Unfortunately board play was not touched and remains the same.
  • Online glitch goals still rule the day just as Jeremy Roenick did offline in NHL ’94.  Exactly as in NHL 16, if you cut across the high slot with a right shot and the puck out on your forehand just watch the goalie as your skating pattern should auto-trigger him to move too far to his glove side.  Then fire back against the grain stick side and it’ll go in.  There were a few newer and more organic goals scored, mostly on rebounds, but in general it’s the same patterns that remind you sometimes you’re not playing hockey, you’re mastering or defending preset patterns like Pac-Man in the 80’s.  If allowed, one could shoot the same shot all game and the goalie and defenseman giving you the space won’t recognize or adjust after the first attempt.  Which leads me to…
  • One major AI flaw still in the game is the CPU defensemen backing in on top of the goalie on the rush, thus encouraging the glitch attempts.  Backchecking remains the most important form of defense when playing with AI because defensemen playing the puck carrier don’t get gap control or stepping up.  Especially when you correctly run the pattern that triggers the goalie to give you stick side.  I wouldn’t mind the game having high percentage shot areas (as there are those areas in real hockey) if it were a reward for having battled and skill-sticked a way into that position by beating a defender, be it AI or human.  Instead, you’ll find the game still enabling those same goals from NHL 16 at an absurd rate by having the AI defender programmed to happily back in and give up the space.  That kind of D should only exist in the offline beginner level of gameplay.
  • There are still no right handed shooters in EASHL when any player is AI.  Every single CPU player is lefty.  And all goalies are lefties as well.  Meaning passes going to the right almost always land on the backhand.  It’s like we’re playing bubble hockey.  Not sure why this is, but there needs to be righties patched in.  Just that small change alone would instantly improve all passing, breakouts, offensive zone entry, D-to-D play, and cycling.
  • A forward winning a foot race with the defender for a loose puck is a unicorn.  I still haven’t seen one.  It makes playing a boring trap more prominent than the speed dumping the puck can bring to gameplay.  Even when you poke it loose from the point it rarely turns into a breakaway the other way.  Lack of speed variation leads to defense always getting back to lose pucks first.  Always.
  • Playing defense at times can still be a chore.  You’ll find controlling your movement is still easier with the puck than without.  It’s improved some but there’s still the struggle to maintain proper positioning as it feels like your battling against the controller/skating mechanics more than battling the opponent.  I simply just want to press the trigger and just face the puck.  That’s it.
  • New stick and net front tie-ups don’t engage very well leading to penalties even if you push the buttons while in good positioning.  They should be simpler to execute like the traditional stick lift and poke check.
  • Puck pickups are still random.  A lot of times when a puck comes loose you can skate right over of it rather than collect it.  I have no explanation for it but it’s not clean and unpredictable.
  • Although I like the EASHL hub, and the menus in general move quicker, it still seems like the game could be stream lined a hell of a lot more to get from point A to B.  There are way too many menus to click through (try editing a line mid-game) as you have to go deeper and deeper to get to where you want.  Like rule #1 of using the internet: if you have to click more than two times to see or get where you want (like click-bait sites that use slides for articles) then you designed it wrong.  Menus may be more responsive than last year, but there are still layers of non-user friendly ones to get through and navigate.
  • You still can’t save EASHL team strategies so they’re always how you want.  You have to redo them every… single… game.

Now I’m sure I missed some good and bad things as well, but these are the ones that stood out for me as I primarily looked for improvements from NHL 16.  I’d say the one surprise about the beta was that I expected a much different feel to the gameplay than NHL 16.  I mean, there was a lot broken in NHL 16.  At times it felt borderline unplayable.  So even with the beta being quite different in many minor ways than NHL 16, I thought those changes would make for a vastly different game as well.  When in reality it didn’t make it vastly different, but it definitely made it much better.  You could argue NHL 17 is just a patched/tuned NHL 16 rather than a completely new game and I wouldn’t disagree.  That’s proven by a lot of the same code (pattern goals, foot races, CPU all being lefties) from NHL 16 still kept in the game when they’re probably a few of the first things they should have patched or removed.

Without a direct competitor like a 2K Sports and only having a one year cycle to put out the next edition this is largely what you’ll see going forward.  Less innovation and more modification.  But I can live with NHL 17 being a patched NHL 16 because after playing the beta the overall result is a superior and refined game.  Just try going back to NHL 16 after playing the beta and you’ll wish you never did.  It shows EA did put effort into improving gameplay mechanics rather than just improving mascots and cut scenes we all mash the ‘A’ button through after the first 3 days of playing.  I just figured a series like NHL that has been on life support in the sport gaming world would have opted to develop completely new gameplay rather than tweak a broken game.  Luckily for them the tweaks they made worked.

A couple random suggestions I thought of while playing that’d make for ease of use going forward:

  • NHL has always had a “Best Lines” option but they should allowing the gamer to save their own “best lines”.  That way, after a player returns from injury you could select “Best Lines” and they would be set to how you saved your go-to lines, not set to overall ratings.
  • Much like you can roam the back field pre-snap with a linebacker in Madden, allow the same on faceoffs for players who aren’t center.  Free up the wingers to adjust how they want around the circle and let the defenseman be able to stand where they want on the blue.  Encourage creativity.
  • If EA can’t make a GM connected interface that works at least add roster share and the ability to control multiple teams at anytime in franchise mode.  The NHL series historically is the worst of all sports games with their roster updates and accuracy.  Give the ability to completely customize rosters to the gamers who always do a better job at it than EA ever has.  Controlling multiple GM teams also allows gamers to make the big trades (ie: NHL trade deadline day) that happen in real life in their currently saved franchise mode without having to start a new one.
  • Add a 3rd forward PK unit
  • Just like how you select your captains, use the same concept to select your starting goalies rather than just going by overall ratings.  Overalls are misleading and flawed in the game.
  • Be able to “Save” whatever mode your playing from any screen rather than having to thumb through the millions of menus to just to save.

I think how important gaming is to you will most likely determine your attitude toward NHL 17.  If you’re really serious (“only 6’s should play EASHL!) or are like the guy in every men’s league who wants it bad and annoys everyone then you’ll find many ways to rip this game apart.  If you’re a casual gamer familiar with recent editions of the NHL series who just wants some entertainment I think you’ll really like the improvements in NHL 17.  And if you’re in the middle like me, a knowledgeable hockey fan with significant real hockey experience who although does expect a top notch hockey simulation but doesn’t need it, you’ll also enjoy the hell out of it.  If the beta is what the true release will be then they seem to have now found a stable foundation to build off of.  It’s not perfect but the pure entertainment value you get from the improvement of NHL 17 Beta over NHL 16 is clearly evident from the test.  Now I’m looking forward to the official release after wondering if the series could even survive.