The NHL franchise in EA's care has become one of the many money-printers that have made the company a mainstay in sports games. While some initial stumbles in bringing their games to the new generation of consoles ensued, the franchise is back on the right track with improvements made every subsequent generation.
Of course, that doesn't mean there isn't more room to improve.
Here are three things I would like to see improved or re-entered for fans' interest as we close in on the Beta of NHL 17:
1. Improved Behind-The-Net physics and AI
NHL 16 did a lot of things right when it comes to replicating the feel of your players and teams actually physically playing the sport of hockey. It's sometimes a bit sloppy, shots can come from absolutely nowhere, and you can be blindsided if you're not paying attention, both in score and in getting dumped on your head.
The AI has similarly adapted. In the previous generation, the game often felt a bit routine and robotic after a certain point given the level of mind-boggling control you have over it. Players move like real players do. Shots can be daggers to your goalie's SV% or some wild nonsense that goes nowhere. The goalie AI has also improved to a point where you do have your moments of incredible saves and boneheaded misses. It's actually quite entertaining. Turning up the AI past 11 and letting it fight itself between two teams is something I have done in the past and the results have never not been entertaining.
One thing however...hasn't quite caught up with the game's impressive engine. Playing around the net. More specifically, behind it.
I don't know what specifically happened to the AI in this game but it feels like, once the puck reaches a certain point, usually right just behind the goalpost, both goalie, forward and defenseman freeze and...nothing happens. Some of the best players in the world and suddenly they are all just toddling around like morons. Nobody actively searches for the puck. What's worse, given the hit detection is based on a number of different factors, it might take you seconds at a time to finally fish it out. Even worse? It might get knocked off your stick as you have to pivot away from the net and...goal against. All because you, the game, and the puck were all deciding to have an imaginary stand-off.
Fixing this would go a long way to making sure the game's action remains as fluid and as fast-paced as it can be.
2. Consistent goaltending based on how goaltenders actually goaltend.
This was addressed in an extended Q&A session in the hockey writers was largely about goaltending, and it was something I tended to notice about the game as it stood. Goaltending in the previous games, while very realistic, could be weird sometimes. This was due to the way the system actually worked.
See, the goaltender was effectively a virtual doll that had one job; flail limbs and make saves.Due to the way the games played in the past it seemed to make sense. However as the NHL games moved onto more nuanced looks at the ice surface, your goaltender would do some spectacularly dumb things as they flailed impotently at the puck, sometimes the "panic" save from behind the back would have the goalie throw it into his own net, because the body was only considered for really bad saves.
And as the shooting got more nuanced and the puck gained better in-game physics, you couldn't always count on a goalie to be good for any regular game. Some nights the best goaltender in the league would be the worst thing to play hockey. The next the backup on the Oilers would have a shutout. On top of that, it meant more skilled players learned how to, eventually, always know how to score against any goalie since they could juke them out of their own skin.
Fixing this will add a depth of challenge that had been otherwise taken out by the limitations of the previous years' goaltending.
3. Fix cross-ice passes.
A successful cross-ice pass in the NHL is one of those little, slightly rare things that makes great goals even better. The passing player gets to neutralize the defense, catches the goaltender off-guard, and lets his linemate pot home a tremendous opportunity. Matt Beleskey and Brad Marchand are stellar examples of players on Boston who have been able to take advantage of this particular quirk in opposing defenses and create stellar scoring chances from it. However, successful cross-ice passing is so fun because it's so rarely completed. It's one of those things that takes a LOT of work and luck to get right.
In NHL 16, however. that was basically the way you came back from any defecit.
It wouldn't exactly be the worst thing in the world, except that, if you were playing with a player with a high enough speed, you could effectively have the defense chasing you and you could just pass at your leisure. It stopped being a simple but really pretty crapshoot and became a cheap tactic. Combine with goaltending's quirks in-game and you have a ludicrous amount of games that can be won on cross-ice passing to an open man. The goaltender will never have a chance.
Fixing how infrequent this strategy works, or hey, maybe even adjusting opponent AI, might help players learn to play the game in different, more varied ways.
4. Add-a-logo feature. Gimme.
In games that give me the foolish ability to create my own things are things that give me life. I want to make all the terrible things that pop into my head and make NHL franchises play the Woonsocket Woons or the Houston Harambes or the Cataraqui Koalas. I am cursed with an imagination that demands good things come from moments of terribly dumb ideas. And they will look beautiful.
The game's customization features already look fantastic: a far cry from the bare bones, bare minimum stuff they handed out for NHL 16. What's missing? The ability to make a franchise mode involving some of the dumbest things I can come up with and placing some of the best hockey players in the world in that sweater.
Give me this power, EA. I want to use it for evil.
Of course, those are some improvements I'd like to see, but I'm sure you all have more, so please let me know some of the things you want to see in the new game in the comments so that I can reference them for a post-beta review!