We've spent the past several days bag skating through the NHL 17 beta. After touring the online versus, EASHL, and Hockey Ultimate Team offerings, we have some key takeaways the direction the game seems to be heading in advance of its September 13 release date on Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
If you haven't been keeping up with the news on NHL 17, you can dive deep here before you get to our beta impressions.
New Classes Give More Variety To EASHL
With the return of the EASHL last year, EA stripped away the player-controlled rating progression and introduced classes in hopes of creating a more balanced play experience. That new approach largely worked, but the limited variety of play styles wasn’t representative of the diversity of players found in the NHL. This year, NHL 17 brings four new classes into the fold, and we went hands on to check them out.
In our limited time with the beta, all three new forward classes feel like interesting additions. The jumbo playmaker isn’t as physically dominant as the power forward, but demonstrates some deft passing and the ability to absorb some contact without immediately losing the puck. The hitting sniper sacrifices a little shooting accuracy fin exchange for being able to lay the wood on the opposition. The two-way dangler is a nice alternative to those who traditionally skate with a two-way forward or grinder but want a little more puck control.
The new defensive class – the puck moving defenseman – was our favorite of the bunch. The class has fantastic passing and better shooting accuracy with wristers than we expected, considering it is called out as a deficiency. The trade-off comes with a limited suite of defensive skills. Both stick skills and hitting are middling, so positioning is key to proper defending.
The Revamped EASHL Progression and Customization Are Welcome, But Shallow
The NHL 17 Beta gives us our first glimpse how player and team customization fit into the EASHL experience this year. While we’re glad EA chose to go this route, right now the options are limited.
As you improve your player and team you gain access to new hairstyles, celebrations, equipment, jersey customization options, and arena enhancements. The leveling drip feels good, but we wish there were more options. The EASHL is a great place for players and teams to show off their creativity and personality, and we wish EA would tap further into hockey’s history to offer some classic looks and equipment. Letting us go helmet-less to show off our crazy flow, giving us more old time hockey equipment, and adding some fun flourishes like the Hanson brothers thick-framed glasses or putting on the foil underneath the gloves would be a lot of fun.
On the team side, the jersey customization options are deep, but our the logo choices are shallow. You can recolor existing NHL logos, and the generic logos from NHL games past return, but the variety and creativity would be greatly enhanced with user-created logos like we see in the NBA 2K series.
EASHL A.I. Teammates Are Improved
You can’t always get six players together for a game with your EASHL club, so it’s nice to know that when you step on the ice the A.I. replacement players aren't going to be a liability. While we still saw some defensive breakdowns – particularly in one-on-one situations with zealous stickhandlers – the A.I. companions seemed to be much more on top of their game in the NHL 17 beta.
Forwards made aggressive moves to the net, weren’t afraid to pull the trigger, and even passed to other A.I. players in advantageous positions when the opportunities presented themselves. The defenders provided better puck support along the boards and also weren’t bashful about shooting from the point.
Gameplay Feels Largely Familiar, Worts And All
The NHL 17 trailers strung together a list of many gameplay enhancements coming this year. If the beta is any indication, the game doesn’t feel too much different than last year. Passing, skating, shooting, and defending all have incremental changes, but nothing that you can’t get used to after a handful of games.
Stick lifts and poke checks feel less useful while chasing puck carriers than in past games; instead, users are rewarded for staying in front of their mark and using these defensive moves when maintaining smart gap control.
EA proposed several tweaks to checking, including factoring momentum more into the equation and separating the player from the puck earlier in the animation cycle when contact occurs. We saw several instances where the player was checked one way and the puck naturally went another, freeing it up for a turnover. That said, we still experienced a few frustrating moments where the puck stayed right by the downed player and he retrieved it before the defense had a chance to gain possession. These instances occurred less frequently than in NHL 16, but the problem isn't completely eradicated. The effectiveness of standing checks are also toned down, resulting in a shove instead of a crushing blow. Overall, the hitting has improved, but EA still has some tuning to do.
Despite EA's work on puck pickups, they still proved problematic; we saw several instances where players would circle the puck like sharks unable to gain possession. Expect to see the same short-side and weak point shot cheese goals as in previous editions, as well. In general we noticed EASHL teams cycling the puck and taking more shots from the blue line; the minor skating tweaks to make it easier for defenders to keep the puck on the right side of the line seem to have paid off. Just be ready to bail if a turnover happens – a quick passes often leaves you exposed for an odd-man rush.
Net Battles Aren't A Difference-Making Feature...Yet
One of the new game mechanics we were most interested in seeing in action was the net battles. When a forward camps in front of the net, the defender can either push them out of the space to deny the goaltender screen or tie up their stick to prevent both one-timers and deflections. If the beta is an indication, don’t expect this to play too critical a role in your NHL 17 games.
Similar to the frequency of player being pinned to the boards, in our experience the net battles didn’t happen very often – even if a power forward was setting up shop at the top of the goal crease. We’re not sure which conditions need to be met to initiate the jostling, so we’ll have to experiment with the mechanic more before we have a true sense of how it affects gameplay.
HUT Team Building Is Much More Interesting
Hockey Ultimate Team has used the same basic player chemistry system for years, but is thankfully transitioning to a new synergy-focused approach that challenges team owners to pair similarly skilled players to maximize their best traits. Each player is given a unique synergy skill like relentless forecheck, speedsters, offensive juggernauts, wicked wristers, etc. Should you place a certain number of players with the same synergy into our lineup, either those specific players or the entire team will be granted a suite of skill boosts. This dynamic brings a new element of strategy to team building that players need to consider while targeting acquisitions.
Too Many Players Still Have Generic Faces
EA Canada doesn’t have the budget or time to fly to each team headquarters and perform facial capture on every NHL player, so it often has to make due with the access it gets in Vancouver or at league events for rookies and all-stars. This unfortunate reality is readily apparent when you take a club out for a spin in the NHL 17 beta. Yet again, most players on the vast majority of teams have generic faces that look nothing like their real-world counterparts. We hope EA makes this a priority in coming years, because these android faces are only going to look worse once players start adopting the 4K consoles and televisions.
Have you been playing the beta as well? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Be sure to check out this week's version of the Sports Desk for a deeper discussion of the NHL 17 beta.