A year removed from continuing to roll out reworked gameplay and going off the deep end in customization, NHL 20 from EA Sports has some high expectations to match.
NHL 20 doesn't have that one big-ticket item for the back of the box to sell players on this time out. Those talking points were established in the prior two releases, and this year's feels like a large quantity of minutia that works to enhance the whole.
Boasting new presentation, some important tweaks to gameplay and an almost overwhelming number of modes, NHL 20 doesn't flinch at the task.
A year ago, Real Player Motion one-upped the game's removal of randomness when shooting the puck. This year, it's all about making the game feel faster and more authentic.
What the developers call RPM Tech has now been infused into animations involving the puck, and it makes the game feel like it has a faster pace. Players react better to the puck on the ice and transition more fluidly into passes and shots.
Granted, this has to work well within the confines of the greater game and A.I. too, as passing now feels more difficult. But balancing that as player feedback rolls in shouldn't be a tall ask, and, generally, it's nice to have a faster-feeling game without unrealistic acrobatics happening.
The chase for authenticity extends to Signature shots, which is exactly what they sound like. Players have asked for superstars of the sport to stand out, which seems like a fair request. Thanks to some notable wrinkles, the booming shot of a P.K. Subban is now a unique aspect of the game.
Overall, the tech changes mean better shots in context of the situation, as more animations have been added. This means more variety, a more realistic feel and player choice. While shooting has been made more accurate and responsive in the past, sometimes players would roll into unexpected shot stances that weren't right for the situation. That is greatly reduced here, thankfully.
Passing still feels a little off. It doesn't detract from the experience, but with the game moving faster now, there are times when what should be a very fast shot lame ducks its way across the ice.
Hitting is a plus area, though. It feels like hitting occurs more often and has more weight behind it. Ultimate Team players might be a little concerned this means opponents will always choose the biggest guys, but for the normal game, it's nice for these big athletes moving so fast over ice to collide and have it matter.
Netminders are another big plus, as they seem more responsive not only in how they adjust to different types of shots, but in how they automatically redirect the puck by taking into account the surroundings on the ice besides the initial shooter.
There is quite a bit going on at the controller here with so many buttons assigned to actions, so the ability to sift between different settings based on skill is nice. This game is weighty but fast, with no bit of motion seemingly going to waste. It feels great and has come a long way, with individuality of stars and improvements to things like goaltending really standing out.
Graphics and Presentation
NHL 20 didn't need to do much after the looker its predecessor was.
But alterations to presentation sure don't hurt. It is clear a lot of energy and resources went into this area in an effort to seek out the big-game feel. The new commentary duo of James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro bring much-needed energy, and the reworked scoreboards and graphics have the feel of a real broadcast.
The presentation really gets funky with some of the camera work and replays that are new to the experience. There is an awesome point-of-view angle that comes up sometimes that really provides some scope to how big these arenas are.
Replays are a big innovation point too, with the game clearly taking some inspiration from shooters via a player-of-the-game replay after periods and games. New perspectives and highlights really expand on the experience and throws in a sense of bragging rights.
Sound design is again immersive, with crowds breaking out into chants and the bone-crunching hits really coming through.
Unfortunately, the crowd is still a sour point. They react to action well enough, but the quality fails as soon as the camera gets closer. Coaches and players look great, but it doesn't take long to notice duplicate non-playable characters in the stands behind them merely wearing different attire. Those players and coaches, for the most part, don't stand out as much as other sports games.
The surrounding environment is always gorgeous, though, as each arena looks recreated faithfully and grand in scale.
This is a section of NHL 20 that might prove polarising to players. A new announce team isn't always going to be universally accepted, and the attention of detail here is good yet wasn't overly lacking in the first place.
Franchise, Features and More
Franchise and GM modes have finally seen some in-depth additions.
First, there is a trade block. Coaches have six-graded areas that influence roster development and other factors. Players also have to juggle line chemistry, as each roster member is graded based on how they mesh with the coach's scheme and approach.
Fog of War is a big net win for the experience, as managing scouting responsibilities to unlock details about a player is a good time. And while this isn't new to sports games outright, players can juggle things like market budget and arena upgrades.
World of CHEL was a big add last year, and NHL 20 leans hard into it again. New CHEL Challenges open up rare rewards for players who grind out all of them in a given week.
It still seems like it will take a long time to get all the rewards given the sheer quantity of unlockables in the game. Every little detail can now be customizable, which is a good and bad thing—the latter if players don't feel like engaging in the grind.
One new mode available is dubbed Eliminator, which takes elements of the ever-popular battle royale genre and infuses it into hockey. It asks players to suit up in NHL ONES or NHL THREES pools. This is merely souped-up matchmaking with an interesting twist via a tournament bracket of sorts, but it isn't an unwelcome one.
It is also worth noting ONES is now available in local multiplayer. It sounds like a weird thing to throw out for a game in 2019 but it isn't unwelcome. There is a fun, arcade-style allure to plopping down on the couch and throwing down with someone else in this mode.
In Ultimate Team, or HUT, finding reasons to grind is again the name of the game. Squad Battles seemingly inspired by FIFA have arrived. We'll see how they play out in the coming weeks and months, but challenging squads composed of athletes, singers and whatever else the developers come up with should be a good time.
By now, longstanding players know a few of the modes that haven't received attention yet. Be A Pro is lost in the mess of other updates elsewhere in the game. Little changes on this front, and it feels almost archaic in the face of the big storytelling-movie presentation of create-a-player modes found in Madden and NBA 2K these days.
EASHL didn't get a ton of love either despite its popularity. As always, this is an annual release with a limited developmental cycle, so not everything is going to get a pass each year. This year the omissions seem more notable than usual, but it is something would-be players need to understand going into the experience.
There is no shortage of ways to play NHL 20, just like with its predecessor. Simulation players who want to control a franchise can do just that. Arcade players who want an NBA Street-esque experience can do that, too, to name just a couple of the options here.
This is more in line with a typical annual sports game release.
NHL 20 hits on plenty of small items within a bigger, well-rounded package. Franchise and GM players got some love. Those who prefer arcade-style games did, too. If players want to gear up a collection or throw seemingly endless gear on players in CHEL, that's available.
There is a list of things that didn't make it into the game, ranging from improvements to faceoffs, an uptick in visual player likeness and an overhaul to the player ratings systems.
But the gameplay feels good, and the surrounding packages continue to get steady bumps. The open-arms approach for new and returning players, as well as sim-seekers and casual players, tops off a diverse underdog sort of annual sports release that keeps improving by the year.