EA Vancouver has long been one of Electronic Arts’ most reliable studios having put out everything from the later Fight Night games to the entire SSX series and NBA Street, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that NHL 20 is yet another swell hockey game. That was pretty much a known commodity due to the developer’s pedigree, so the real question becomes if this is worth upgrading from NHL 19 to this new entry. Usually that is a yes or no question, but this year it is a pretty difficult query to answer due to the lack of meaningful new modes with the gameplay on the ice getting further polished instead.
Outside of having a bullet point to sell consumers on, it’s pretty hard to argue that NHL 20 needs more modes as it is already packed with content. The main menu is so bloated (there are over 18 modes, several of which aren’t even accessible from the menu) that players are invited to pin the ones they’ll use as if it was the Xbox One’s launch dashboard. The only notable thing that is missing is a story mode, which is something that EA has shown highly capable of doing with FIFA‘s “The Journey,” and Madden‘s “Longshot.” Instead, there is just a standard Be a Pro mode, which has plenty of depth in its own right, and was how I spent most of my time.
Nothing is that notably new to the Be a Pro mode this year, but it is where it is easiest to feel the on-ice improvements that EA Vancouver made. This mostly comes in the form of the studio further implementing what it calls “real player movement,” which was introduced in NHL 19 and is further refined this year. The biggest difference you’ll see while playing is that hockey’s biggest stars all feel much more intimidating since they have their proper shooting styles in-game. Hockey isn’t always the most superstar-driven sport, but having Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby actually shoot like they do in real life helps adds a layer of getting starstruck when your rookie has to stare them down during the face-off. Other than that, it’s a lot of small things such as slightly nicer animations (which have always been rather lifelike anyhow), better production, showing the play of the game, and goaltenders changing how they play due to what the offense is doing. All of these sit on top of the strong gameplay fundamentals the series has had for quite some time.
NHL 20 Review | Are you ready to enter the world of CHEL?
Since there isn’t a new marquee addition, the awfully named CHEL is once again “featured” on the top of the main menu, which means it is permanently pinned even if you don’t care about it. The multiplayer shell encompasses four modes this time around: NHL ProAm, Ones Eliminator, Threes Eliminator, and the online staple that is EASHL. Thankfully, these modes are all pretty cool, so players will probably spend some time in it and getting sucked into trying to unlock new gear for their customizable character. ProAm is essentially a series of challenges that have players playing Threes without any of the power-ups or exaggerated gameplay. It’s a nice change of pace, and the only mode of the four that are against the computer rather than the creations of others. That is actually quite the appealing feature, as I mostly faced off online in other modes against skaters with names like “Smoke Weed” and “Gimme Dome.” Hockey fans are, at the very least, creative.
Ones Eliminator has confusingly been likened to a battle royale by EA, but sadly it’s not hockey with assault rifles (maybe next year EA can get that Smith and Wesson sponsorship). Instead, it’s the same mode as last year that has three players competing to score goals against a single goalie, and the winner of the match gets to an advance in an 81-man tourney. It’s actually a lot of fun as whoever doesn’t have the puck has to team up to knock the active skater silly, but also be willing to immediately turn on their impromptu partner. It’s rare to have to think both offensively and defensively at the same time, but that’s the challenge that it poses. If the thought of losing to players with Naruto-inspired usernames makes you anxious, then you’ll be glad to know that there’s an offline equivalent now, which allows players to play as pros and even some of the mascots. Threes Eliminator is essentially the same deal with the same strengths, but with teams of threes facing off in a large tournament.
NHL 20 Review | Striving to be great
One new addition that should be a highlight, but might turn into a frustration depending on what teams you have an affinity for, is the introduction of all-time teams. As the name suggests, the goal is to celebrate hockey’s storied past. A lot of defunct teams make an appearance here, so that’s great news if you want to represent the Minnesota North Stars or the Quebec Nordiques, but there are some baffling exclusions once you start digging into the teams. For example, the legendary Eric Lindros isn’t on the Flyers’ roster and neither is Eric Desjardins. These are sort of a necessary evil considering these deals have to be hashed out with players or their estates individually, but it definitely kills some of the appeal. Still, it’s a solid addition even if it isn’t remotely perfect, and it’s exciting to be able to play have Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Patrick Roy all on the same team again.
One aspect that has to be celebrated is the great accessibility options featured in NHL 20. Just like Madden, Electronic Arts continues to be an industry leader when it comes to making their games playable by all. Not only are there great options for those that struggle to see the puck on-screen, but there are text to speech and menu narration options as well.
NHL 20 is an enjoyable hockey game with great core fundamentals and new player movement to fall back on, but it’s definitely not a must-buy entry if you are currently happy with the version you own. There are a lot of small tweaks that make the experience more fun as EA Vancouver has made Ones and Threes better and the core gameplay is a bit smoother, but there isn’t anything that can be pointed to as a game-changing feature. Something like Madden‘s story mode or superstar X-factor abilities aren’t necessarily needed, but it would at least be the selling point this game sorely lacks. Its strong foundation means it has some solid ice to skate on, even if its unwillingness to properly evolve makes that ice a little thinner than it should be.