A new National Hockey League season will soon be upon us, as the NHL’s thirty-one current teams battle it out to be the next to raise the coveted Stanley Cup. Last year, the St. Louis Blues surprised everyone by going from last to first before all was said and done, cementing their first victory since becoming a franchise in the last ’60s. Will they repeat, or will we have a new champ for the 2019-2020 season? We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m personally hoping for the latter, because I want few things more than to see my team win one.
With training camps getting underway today, and the preseason just several days away, the focus has shifted from off-season management to full on preparation. As such, it’s only fitting that EA Sports’ Canadian studio has released the next iteration in its long running video game adaptation. One they call NHL 20.
Taking over for P.K. Subban as this year’s cover athlete is none other than Toronto Maple Leafs superstar, and potential captain, Auston Matthews. The California born and Arizona raised phenom marks the first Leafs player to appear on the cover of one of these games since Mats Sundin did with 2K Sports’ NHL 2K6. That is, if you don’t count regional, event or promotional covers, which were not made widely available. For example, James van Riemsdyk apparently appeared on an alternative cover for one of the earlier titles while with the Blue and White, while William Nylander was Sweden’s cover star for last year’s iteration.
Some likely won’t feel the same way, but I’m glad to finally see a Leafs player on the cover of an EA Sports hockey game. It’s been too long. They are, after all, the League’s most valuable team, and probably its most popular as well. Only the Montreal Canadiens really rival that.
This time around, the biggest and most notable change comes from the presentation department, where the NBC broadcasting deal has ended, giving way to a somewhat new tandem of announcers. TSN’s Ray Ferraro (who is quite possibly the best in the business in real life) returns, and resumes his duties between the digital benches. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, James Cybulski joins Ray as the play-by-play guy to his colour commentator. This surprised me, because I never even thought about Cybulski as an option to replace Doc Emrick, having kind of forgotten about him since his earlier days at TSN. He’s apparently done some work for TSN 1050, and is now involved with Sportsnet’s highlights shows.
In previous review(s), I mentioned that I felt the NBC team were getting kind of long in the tooth. Their commentary was getting old hat, and a good portion of it was recycled. Things improved slightly from year to year, but not enough to make it stand out or sound fresh. Then again, I’ve never been a huge fan of their broadcasts, and always have preferred TSN’s, and even some of Sportsnet’s. So, I was pretty happy when I heard that a change was incoming. I’m still happy that the change was made, but I remain unsure of whether James Cybulski was the best choice. He’s quite loud, and I’ll admit that I didn’t like listening to him during the first couple of games I played. He’s started to grow on me, though.
This altered commentary duo has also brought with it updated visual presentation, including an all-new scoreboard that takes up the bottom of the screen. It’s a nice change, and one that makes the game look a lot more modern, especially given its ability to display the image of each goal scorer after the fact. The player’s image comes out of the bottom of the screen, and it all looks quite sharp. The same is true of the colours they used, as well as the powerplay and penalty killing indicators. The new camera angles (shown during replays) are pretty impressive, too.
Thanks to the above, the entire experience feels fresher than it had the last couple of years, although that’s not to say that NHL 20 is a massive upgrade from its predecessor. The new RPM Tech-powered gameplay and signature player shots helps to add extra weight to the experience, along with some added realism and authenticity, but this isn’t a huge step up from the last game. Then again, it’s unwise to expect that from an annual sports series, especially one that has the smallest development team of all of the major EA Sports titles. Some nice touches have been added, though, like the Hurricanes’ celebrations that earned them the nickname ‘A Bunch of Jerks.’
All of the established modes have returned, meaning that there’s still something for every hockey fan to be found within NHL 20. Those who prefer a more isolated and simulation-like experience can change the presets so that the gameplay is as true to life as possible, and can enjoy the in-depth franchise mode, which now features line chemistry, dialogue between coaches and the ability to hire and fire members of your NHL and AHL coaching staffs. Those who like to build, collect and improve their own teams in other ways can continue to do so in the popular Hockey Ultimate Team mode, as well, while folks who prefer to take one player from rookie to superstar can continue to do so through Be a Pro. Going further, the multiplayer preferring crowd has lots of options at its fingertips, including an updated EA Sports Hockey League (complete with new Squad Battles), Ones, Threes online and World of CHEL. The latter continues to offer challenges with and against current NHL players, as well as weekly rewards, unlockable gear and a system that allows fans to level up their created pond hockey players.
Ones, which began life as a pick up and play experience, now features an eliminator tournament comprised of up to 81 players. Through it, more challenge, incentive and tension are all on offer, in what is a higher stakes experience. The base gameplay is still pretty open and relaxed, not to mention arcade-based, with just three human players vying for control of the puck and attempting to score the most goals on a single goalie. Even better, it now supports local multiplayer, meaning that you can play with a friend who’s sitting on the same couch as you.
Online play continues to be the biggest draw, it seems, although I’ve always been more of a solo player, who’s preferred Franchise Mode and Be a Pro to playing with others. Hopping online to play against a friend, or even a random person in Online Versus, still draws me every so often though, as does World of CHEL. I particularly enjoy Ones, which was one of the highlights of NHL 19. Earning new loot and leveling up can become addicting, but thankfully microtransactions are not required.
The whole World of CHEL experience has gotten bigger and better, and the same is true of its locations. There’s something soothing and inviting about playing pick-up hockey on a frozen pond bordered by barns, even if it’s digital. According to the review guide, four new locations have been added, but I’ve yet to see them all.
Other returning, and available, modes include Fantasy Draft, Champions Hockey League, Play Now (aka. Exhibition), Playoffs and the (offline) NHL Threes circuit. Through these modes, fans can play as superstars, icons and heroes, and can get different sides of the hockey experience. Not just the NHL, but the Champions League and CHL (which can play a big role in Be A Pro) too.
Threes unfortunately hasn’t changed much, and what was once fresh and new has gone a bit stale over the last couple of years. It can still be fun to play, and is apparently the focus of some of the game’s eSports activities, but it gets boring after a while. The action may be harder, faster and more arcade-based, but the Circuit gets really repetitive. It doesn’t seem like the Eastern and Western Conference circuits (which act as the game’s campaign of sorts) have had much done to them in-between NHL 19 and NHL 20, which is disappointing. I’m sure I’ll still play through both, but I was hoping for more than just the player specialties that I don’t remember being a part of the Threes experience found in last year’s outing.
The base gameplay has been adjusted and updated, but it still plays a lot like it did last year. The new RPM tech stuff is nice, as are the signature shots, but if you bought the last one you may not find this to be enough of a change. Goalies have been updated, though, to make them more aggressive, and to add to their defensive recognition capabilities. What I’ve noticed is that they’ll make tougher saves than ever before, and will hold onto the puck more than they used to. I’m the type of player who always calls for the puck in the defensive zone during Be a Pro, and the goalie has been unwilling (or unable) to move it more often than I ever remember happening before. These changes may not be enough for some, but as someone who’s played this series since NHLPA ’93 (which I bought used at the local mall), I’m enjoying myself and can see this becoming my most played game for another year.
Are there bugs? Yes. You’ll see the odd one, but I haven’t come across anything major. There was one time where Be a Pro failed to sim the rest of a game after I’d been kicked out, but that was the only time I ever had anything like a crash and had to reload the game. Every other anomaly I experienced happened to be pretty minor, and none of them were too common. That is, outside of the lag in Online Versus, which is still there after years. It’s something I’ve noticed for a while now, and brought up in previous reviews. I wondered if it was just me, but I’ve been told that it’s not.
The lag isn’t terrible, but it causes the gameplay to pause briefly every so often. Maybe just a few times a game, but enough to affect the experience.
The soundtrack? Well, it’s definitely better than it has been in some of the more recent games. As is always the case, your mileage will vary based on the genre(s) you enjoy and your overall preferences. I found a few songs to be pretty good, but the overall soundtrack isn’t something I’d ever listen to on Spotify or anything like that. Surprisingly, some of their chosen songs include a decent amount of profanity, all of which has been censored. When that has to be done, what’s the point of including that song over something else? I may not agree with censorship, but given that this is an all ages game I understand it and wonder if they would’ve maybe been better swapping those tracks out for something else.
At the end of the day, NHL 20 is a sports game, and we all know how much flack they tend to get for releasing every year. Some will be happy with the changes, while others will say it’s not enough, and for some people it never is. Although this isn’t a huge jump from NHL 19, enough has been done to make it feel fresh and to improve the interactive, on-ice product that it’s all based around. I can easily see myself spending tens of hours with this thing over the course of the next year.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. It was played using our site’s Xbox One X review unit.
- Impressive new visual presentation
- Solid commentary duo takes over for NBC's team, although Ferraro is much better than Cybulski
- Continues to be a lot of fun to play, and is aided in that department by new gameplay options
- James Cybulski's play-by-play takes some time to get used to
- There continues to be a bit of lag in Online Versus
- This isn't a huge jump up from NHL 19, but we didn't expect that