I'm old. I played NHL 94. In 1993. It was on the Sega Genesis in a second floor dorm room in all male Dobson Hall on the campus of Northeast Missouri State University. Times change. Dobson is co-ed (and coincidentally smells a lot better), Northeast is now Truman State. And the Sega Genesis makes a good doorstop compared to what the PS4 and Xbox One can now do.
Next month, EA Sports' NHL 17 will hit store shelves and be available for download. You may have heard that Vladimir Tarasenko is on the cover of the game. That might be why we were asked if we wanted to try the Beta version of the game and call in to a roundtable discussion with one of the makers of the game. Or they think Game Time is a bastion of journalism. But we embraced this head on.
First, the game is beautiful. Even if you didn't play the Stone Age version of the game in the early 1990s, you can appreciate how this newest version is downright sexy. Yeah, I said it. A hockey video game is sexy. NHL 17 is silky smooth, polished and just damn pretty. And it's the little things.
For instance, you can sometimes tell a goalie based on his stance in the net, like how Henrik Lundqvist holds his ass in the air with his face out front or how Ben Bishop looks like you could drive a VW Bug through his pads before he closes it down. Well goalies have always got the secondary treatment, basically looking all alike in video games. Not this year. EA Sports decided to capture the stance of every goaltender and put them in the game.
"We have put a focus on authentic goaltenders — how they play and the visuals," said Ben Ross, NHL 17 Gameplay producer. "We put in a new save system. In previous versions of the game, making the save was totally up to agility. Now they can throw a shoulder up, which cuts down on short-side goals.
"It's been really big for us with game balance and more authenticity with how the game is played in real life."
The player control is super realistic. Now if you've played video game hockey long enough, you know the best players historically have been the ones who can gather the puck in their own end, skate circles around the pylons on defense and make a move to beat the goalie one-on-one. Not this version, brother.
Before talking about the Beta, let's talk about what that means. EA Sports knows that when this game comes out in a little more than a month, millions of players will be jumping in feet first. The Beta allows real players to test the servers, the game play and some of the features of the game. And then EA looks for feedback. Ross told me if they hear too much about a facet of the game, it could be tweaked by release in an update when you play the game the first time. For instance, if poke checks are too powerful, too effective, then they might dial that back. They learn that from players playing the Beta of the game.
I mention poke checks because that was the No. 1 thing that jumped out at me. It's damn near impossible to carry the puck in traffic unscathed. And Ross said that was on purpose, especially in the EASHL mode for the game. If you haven't played or you have the version of the game without that mode (it was brought back last year after a brief hiatus), it's the game mode where you play online and make a team of friends. And you each play just one on-ice player at one position. So you can't just switch to the guy closest the puck on defense, you have to know what your responsibilities are with your position. It's about as realistic as video game hockey gets. And they want you to pass the puck instead of skating the length of the ice.
"This year we really focused on moving the puck around and playing a team-based game," Ross said. "Players away from the puck are really important as well." He reiterated that defensive positioning is important and being responsible for your area of the ice.
In playing the Beta, I was in the EASHL mode. I was a power forward and playing center. Sure, I probably should have chosen playmaker as my player type, but I look more like a power forward in real life. Passing the puck created scoring chances. Trying to carry the puck in traffic created scoring chances for the other team.
But here's how very detailed this game gets. It has deflection goals. You can win a net front battle and get position to screen the goalie. If you carry the puck into traffic and it's incidental contact instead of a poke check, suddenly a 50-50 battle for the puck can happen. In other words, realistic hockey situations happen in the game all the time.
The game comes out at almost the same time as the World Cup of Hockey, so like EA Sports says, if it's in the game...it's in the game. There's also a few different modes. In Draft Champions, you pick your players. That's a lot like Hockey Ultimate Team where you build your roster, but the Draft Champion mode allows you to get all-star caliber players from the outset instead of working up toward acquiring them over time in HUT. Also this year the Franchise Mode allows you to be not just the GM of the team but also the owner. You have to worry about your club's bottom line as well as its place in the standings.
And after listening to Ross and playing the Beta, it's obvious the EA team put a lot of time instilling personality into the game. There are customizable goal celebrations. Some modes allow you to start in a community ice rink and then you build a new one with your own bells and whistles. You can even relocate your team...say to Las Vegas. And then you can build your team there.
The game modes and the customization available, it's almost too much. Unless you're obsessed with hockey. Then it's probably all about the right amount. And if you've read this far, you probably are obsessed and want to know everything about the game before you invest your money. Ask some questions in the comments and I'll try to answer as many as I can.
Bottom line: when you think the yearly EA Sports NHL game can't get any better, it does. How much is probably up to your personal preferences. And if you're comparing it to NHL 94, it's almost like they're not related.