'NHL 17' is a good game, but single player feels stagnant
EA Sports' focus on its most hardcore online gamers has increasingly made its NHL franchise less appealing to those who prefer to play alone.
EA Sports wants you to play NHL 17 online. There's a bevy of modes included in the latest version of the premier hockey game, but it's clear from the moment you boot it up on Xbox One or PlayStation 4 where the developers put their focus.
Now, mind you, NHL 17 isn't bad. In its best moments, the game captures the unique speed and chaos of high-level hockey in a way that's pretty special. And if you've enjoyed playing the franchise since its transition to present-gen consoles, there are some real, noticeable improvements to the on-ice gameplay this year. Goalie movement feels much more realistic, for example. Just on those terms, EA Canada has turned in a pretty impressive product.
But if you're largely a gamer who prefers to play alone, and not in the heat of competition with 13-year-olds screaming at you to pass to them, then things are starting to feel pretty stagnant. Because while NHL 17 offers a variety of single-player modes, there's little doubt that the developers REALLY want you to play Hockey Ultimate Team or EA Sports Hockey League.
And as one of those people who tends to prefer playing games all on my own, I can't help but wonder whether EA plans to leave players like me behind.
* * *
The lack of quality single-player modes in NHL dates back to 2014, when the developers first released their game on the newest consoles. Getting an extra year of next-gen development compared to their peers making Madden and FIFA -- EA's two real sports game powerhouses -- expectations were high for NHL 15. Instead, the game was so bare bones that basic features were still being patched in months after the release. As someone who was keenly looking forward to playing an NHL game on my new, fancy machine, I felt pretty stupid spending $60 on a game that clearly wasn't finished.
Over the past two years, EA has done an admirable job of turning around that disaster, as NHL 16 was a marked improvement and NHL 17 continues that pattern. The new game is deeper, plays better and won't require big patches in subsequent weeks just to meet basic expectations.
But if you're someone who doesn't want to spend all of their time playing video games competitively, it can be hard to get excited about the NHL franchise. Adding bobblehead nights to franchise mode is such a boring, surface level addition that I find it hilarious how much it's been advertised. It's almost like the developers realized their single-player modes weren't very easy to sell.
The trouble is, it doesn't seem like EA cares too much about those modes when it can put resources into a money maker like HUT. In 2015, EA made more than twice as much money from DLC (like HUT packs) as it did from selling fully priced games. The reality is that HUT makes an outrageous amount of money for EA compared to the base game, and as a result, it's getting a proportional amount of attention during the development process. Unfortunately, for a team with limited manpower and technological resources, that means putting less love into other parts of the game.
And when you play franchise mode in NHL compared to other AAA sports games like Madden, FIFA, MLB The Show and NBA 2K, that lack of attention becomes apparent. NHL's franchise mode isn't completely terrible, but it lacks the personality and detailed touch that some of the other big sports games have. New features like unique owners, relocation and promotional nights don't do much to move the needle. The rating and trade value systems still make no damn sense, when that could be a legitimate game-changer. Also, don't get me started on Be A Pro, which pales in comparison to NBA's absurdly robust My Player and likely FIFA's new story mode, too. There's not enough done to make these single-player modes feel special.
Part of that is simply the nature of NHL being a smaller game with a smaller audience -- according to NPD data, Madden NFL 2016, NBA 2K16 and FIFA 16 were all among the top-8 selling games of 2015 -- but it's also reflective of the developers' aggressive focus on online modes like HUT and EASHL. And while I completely understand why EA does it from a business perspective -- there are HUT players who spend hundreds on packs -- I can't help but be disappointed as a long-term player of the franchise.
NHL is still my favorite sports game, and I'm still having a lot of fun playing most of the modes, including EASHL. (I once again learned that HUT wasn't for me after my opponent had Tyler Seguin and Johnny Gaudreau on his top line in my first try. My No. 1 center was Andrew Desjardins. C'mon guys.) But a big part of the video game world is moving toward competitive online modes that let publishers sell DLC, and NHL is fully on board that train. I just wish it didn't feel like that's at the expense of the rest of the game.
Review done using digital copy of 'NHL 17' on Xbox One via EA Access trial