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NHL 17 – bigger and better than ever

Following my positive experience with NHL 17’s local Versus mode at E3, recently I had a chance to participate in an NHL 17 preview to explore additional modes and get a more intimate understanding of the huge gameplay changes arriving with this year’s edition. Even at this early stage, the vast number of improvements is evident: more customization options, improved presentation, tighter gameplay, better A.I., and deeper modes. Let’s take a closer look at what EA Sports’ latest rendition of Canada’s favourite sport will offer.

EA Sports Hockey League (EASHL)

The first, and main mode I played during the preview was this year’s revamped EA Sports Hockey League. I was really excited to check out the latest developments of this very popular mode given that EASHL made its grand return in last year’s edition, following its complete absence in NHL 15. This online team play experience allows you to create your own customized player, join a club, and win games to advance through divisions in online seasons.

I noticed right away when creating my player that this year’s edition features many more customization options, all the way from extra base faces to choose from, to new hairstyles, to extra helmet, gloves, and shoulder pad equipment options. The bigger changes though are found in the arena customizations for your club where you now start out playing in a barebones, generic community ice rink, and as your club progresses, you’ll eventually move up to bigger and better facilities that begin to resemble full-sized NHL arenas. Numerous club customizations can be tweaked along the way, including your team’s logo and team uniform, along your arena’s base architecture, scoreboard, boards and glass, netting colour, and so on.

NHL_1The “Player Classes” system introduced in last year’s edition returns in NHL 17, this time with three new forward classes, and one new defensive class, you can assume the role of. In EASHL, each member of your 6-person team will choose a specific class, each one focusing on different elements of offensive/defensive play like skate speed, passing, playmaking, physical play, puck control, and so on. The four new classes seem like interesting additions, but more time will be needed for me to completely explore all the ins-and-outs of each to gauge the impact they will make over the course of a season. First I tried the Hitting Sniper, a forward class that loses a bit of shooting accuracy in exchange for a more physical presence. Next, the Two Way Dangler is great for those who like to cut deep inside the attacking zone with more puck control. The third, and final new offensive class is the Jumbo Playmaker, who has less physical dominance than Enforcers and Power Forwards, but can set-up nice pass plays and handle some opposition aggression without losing control of the puck.

10440682_6The best new class this year though is the new defensive Puck Moving Defensman who exhibits deft passing skills and accurate shooting, at the expense of physical strength—both their ability to deliver and absorb hits. This class is especially useful at gaining possession around congested crease areas and quickly passing the puck to forwards for clean breakaway opportunities.

Your overall player and club progression in EASHL can be quickly viewed individually at a glance, and winning games or earning milestones will unlock badges that level you up even quicker. Thus far it seems like progression in EASHL will move along at a nice pace, as during my playtime (roughly 20 games total) I was able to unlock a bunch of new customization options for my player and club

NHLHockey Ultimate Team (HUT)

I also had the chance to try out this year’s Hockey Ultimate Team, a mode lets you build dream teams using a trading card system. The overall presentation of HUT has seen improvements this year, including flashy new visuals and sounds when you open up new card packs, but the more important change this year is the introduction of “Synergy.” This feature presents a whole new dynamic to team-building as players who mesh together well can unlock special perks across your entire lineup. You’ll need to make sure you have the right players, and right number of players to gain the perks, which will then benefit your team—including potentially your goalie as well. This new strategic element could dramatically alter how you create teams, as you work to unlock and maximize perks to gain the competitive advantage on the ice.

10440682_9Online Versus

The final mode I tried was NHL 17‘s Online Versus. This pure action mode gave me ample time to focus on the gameplay and graphical changes introduced in this year’s version. The game once again runs on EA’s proprietary Ignite Engine, but there are noticeable, subtle improvements like better arena details, more authentic jersey textures, and a crisper sheen to the ice that make this already highly realistic-looking sports game look even more so.

The best change this year is the improvement in A.I. teammates. I found the A.I. to be much smarter this year, with your teammates taking greater risks and being more aggressive when the time calls for it. I saw my computer-controller partners perform sharp wrap-around shots, provide better defense in front of the crease (while being mindful of the goalie’s vision), and dart towards the boards to retrieve loose pucks then take quick shots from the point. It’s nice to know that when find yourself in need of A.I. teammates, now you’ll find helpful, resourceful bots that make a world of difference on the ice.

Overall impressions

While still an early build of the game, what I played showed great promise for what lies ahead in NHL 17. Already I’m enjoying the expanded customization options, enhanced presentation of the menus, players and arenas, and Synergy in HUT is fresh and exciting. There are still a bunch of modes I haven’t tried yet, like the beefed up Franchise Mode, and new Draft Champions and International Tournament modes, so stay tuned for a more detailed look once I get my hands on the final game.

NHL 17 releases on September 13, 2016, for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. For more information or to pre-order the game, be sure to check out BestBuy.ca’s dedicated NHL 17 game hub page.