Whereas some of EA Sports’ franchises are merely following a blueprint with very minimal improvement – sorry, Madden NFL 20, but I’m looking at you – NHL continues to be its knight in shining armor. There was something about how NHL 19 changed so much last year, but continued to be the refined hockey gaming experience we’ve been waiting to see.
And I’m happy to report that NHL 20 continues that trend. Its changes over last year’s game are minimal, but still worthwhile – and dedicated – enough to make this the king of the EA Sports crop. FIFA 20 still has a chance to take that crown, but there’s a lot to beat here.
The first thing players will notice about the game is how responsive – and inventive – the controls can be. Beforehand, nailing a one-timer for a potential goal and getting into a game of catch-up with a defensive man felt great enough as it is. But the developers added subtle little animations to actually make the game somehow feel even better, mainly due to transitions. That means every check has a bit more sense of realism, and the puck motion is second to none. What’s more, you can still play around with control options, just in case you need something easier.
The shots are more worthwhile as well, whether it’s a quick jab close to the net, or going for something more long range. And if you have a star player, you have a chance to gaining a “Signature Shot,” depending on whom you go with. That doesn’t mean the goalie will give you a break – they’ve been tweaked as well, and are sharper than ever, provided you don’t lower their difficulty down to dunderhead level.
NHL 20 balances both offense and defensive play so that they’re equally vital to your success, and no matter which one you go with, you’ll find very few flaws with execution. If anything, there will be a missed pass or even a puck that slips past your goalie, but that’s just the general nature of the game.
The general simulation is good fun, but NHL 20 goes beyond that, trying to cater to the “arcade” crowd that may remember the days of something like Wayne Gretzky’s 3D Hockey. It doesn’t quite go that arcade-y, mind you, but the variety is good stuff.
Pond hockey, which was a big hit last year, returns with a number of new locales, which you can play with a friend. And then there’s Threes, which is still as wild as ever, with a fast-paced approach and the kind of over-the-top commentary you’d normally expect from a less serious sport. Not quite WWE, but sort of there.
For those that prefer the opposite way for hockey – taking everything as devotedly as you can – there’s World of CHEL. It’s back with the introduction of a new “Eliminator” mode, which has you fighting at it in a tournament, where you either win or you’re taken out of the equation. There can be some gambles here, sure, and it’s kind of like the sporting equivalent of Battle Royale, but without the bloodshed. But it’s a neat mode that will truly test your skills, no matter which way you choose to play it. For good measure, you can also put together your own dream (or nightmare) player to finish the job.
Other modes are good too. While there’s very little that’s changed to Franchise overall, it does have a better flow when it comes to smaller things, such as helping you manage a team to glory. Be a Pro is a worthwhile mode to return to, though most of the experience stays the same. And then there’s Ultimate Team, which once again packs a number of cards to pick up, which you can then craft into the best squad you can make it. Again, this is familiar territory, but it worked well in last year’s game…so why fix it?
That brings us to NHL 20’s visuals. And though some things are a little stiff here – particularly with player models and some crowd reactions (are they twins?!) – the overall look of the game is smooth for the most part. The new TV-style presentation shows some pizzazz in places that last year’s game lacked, and the smooth animations are off-the-charts good, especially when you leave a player wincing on the ground. (Sorry in advance.) The slow-motion enabled highlights are also a delight, and it’s great to see recaps of the game at the end, so you can be reminded of key moments – and, potentially, mistakes.
But the real exciting thing here is the commentary. Yes, it’s better than ever, thanks to a little bit of change-up. Canada’s own James Cybulski and analyst Ray Ferraro provide a charge of excitement with their talk, as they really know what they’re saying when it comes to hockey. There is repetition, sure; but that’s common for most sports games. These guys execute it with flair and, more importantly, facts that you may not want to skip over right away. It’s an interesting change from the old duo of Olczyk and Emerick, but a welcome one. Indulge, hockey fans.
The rest of the audio’s good too, with authentic sound effects, good arena music (some interesting song choices, but they fit well enough) and other little things (that organ music!) that make you feel like you’re right in the arena. Hardly any complaints here.
Where NHL 19 created a foundation that hockey fans could appreciate and enjoy, NHL 20 goes a little bit higher. Sure, some of the core modes and features are the same, but the gameplay has improvements; the presentation takes a huge leap forward with a fun new commentary team and detailed animations; and the modes, both online and off, will keep you occupied for some time. It’s truly an evolution in how sports video games should be, and I hope EA gives it the same level of love as it would Madden and FIFA. They’ve got something special here, and I hope it continues onward with next year’s NHL 21.
But that’s next year. Enjoy this hockey treat in the meantime!