Time is everything in fast-paced sports like hockey. A split second can determine whether a goalie makes a game-changing save, a player scores a career-altering goal, or a defender locks up that threat before they have a chance to get off the shot. For many years, EA’s NHL series felt too slow and unresponsive to be a difference maker, but that’s starting to change. Last year’s dramatically overhauled skating made the players feel dangerous on their skates again, and NHL 20 adds stick speed, making one-timers as effective as they were when first introduced in way back in NHL ‘94. This innovation takes the on-ice action forward, but at the same time, EA’s stubborn refusal to improve and refresh some of its most popular modes keeps NHL 20 from really breaking away from the pack.
For the past several years, even the most skilled hockey superstars had a hard time executing one-timers in NHL unless the passes were perfectly placed at their feet and their sticks were perfectly aligned. Even then, the lumbering shot animation often resulted in a groan-inducing whiff. NHL 20 fixes this with a welcome assortment of new animations that allow skaters in scoring positions to unleash shots from a wider degree of angles. The change had its intended effect; competitors in early matches seem more interested in trying to score goals with one-timers than fishing for goal-scoring exploits. Simply put, NHL 20 looks and plays a little more like real hockey.
Goalies may not always make it across the crease for the save, but they are much more aware of the threats on the ice on the higher difficulty settings and do a better job of deflecting pucks into corners away from danger (and not into the crowd like we saw way too frequently during the beta). Sudden shots that require quick reactions often leave juicy rebounds at the crease, creating frantic scrambles for possession. Occasionally, pucks drop right beneath the goalie and they don’t have the awareness to cover it in a timely fashion, resulting in weak goals that go off their skates. EA, if you’re listening, please clean this up with the first patch.
EA also needs to address physicality, an area of NHL 20 that currently has no nuance. Too often when players collide, a giant check leaves the recipient on the ice – or they just glance off. NHL would benefit greatly from a FIFA-style jostling system that allowed stronger players to dislodge the puck from smaller and weaker players without completely knocking them off their skates.
If one-timers are the signature feature of NHL 20, the assist goes to the reworked presentation. Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk may be a legendary broadcast team in real life, but their commentary in previous NHLs never captured their dynamism. This year, EA replaces them with the energetic play-by-play voice James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro, who moves from between the benches into the color commentary role. The duo delivers much livelier vibeole, though Ferraro doesn’t feel as integrated into the broadcast as he should be. And while EA says it captured many more hours of play-by-play than it typically does, the duo has way too many dead-mic moments, like when a rookie is sent out for a warm-up skate on his own or a player heads down the tunnel with a serious injury. Some Ferraro lines are repurposed from last year as well; in one instance he even references being down on the ice instead of in the booth.
The commentary pairs well with the reworked broadcast package. Each period ends with a highlight showcasing a smartly chosen big moment, and the slo-mo dynamic cameras do a much better job of capturing the play than the previous system. I hope EA adds some variety soon, though, because even though these highlights look much better, the sound effect and panning camera get tiresome after repetition. Showing player photos after goals is a nice touch as well, though it further drives home the long-held complaint that EA doesn’t do enough to improve player likenesses. Seeing what a player looks like in real life next to his clearly inadequate in-game model highlights how little work has gone into making this part of NHL 20 feel authentic.
You can watch a full match of the 1v1v1 multiplayer mode below:
Speaking of inadequacy, EA also made the questionable decision to leave the popular EASHL competitive online mode largely untouched. Little has been done to enhance the loadout system after it was introduced last year, and the terrible A.I. makes the mode downright unenjoyable when you don’t have enough friends online to fill out an entire roster. The defenders still join the rush with wild abandon, leaving your goalie exposed to breakaways at every turn.
Instead, EA invested in fleshing out the arcade-focused World of Chel modes like Ones and Threes modes, which now feature new outdoor rinks, longer-form tournaments, and a wider selection of cosmetic rewards. The new weekly challenges tease enticing items like rare jerseys, but the rigid system forces you to play uninteresting modes like Pro Am rather than playing those that interest you the most. Placing the hardcore EASHL in the same space as with the arcade-focused modes is a curious decision in this regard.
NHL 20 may not offer EASHL fans much to chew on, but it continues the long-overdue franchise mode revamp with a new coaching system that affects team building in a big way by giving each organization eight coaches whom you can hire and fire at will. Like in real life, each coach has his or her own philosophy of how the team should play, and this affects which players fit into their scheme, how their careers progress, and the line chemistry among teammates. The complex system takes time to wrap your head around and has the potential to be something special, but right now it’s still a confusing work in progress. Strangely, you can’t hire coaches from other teams, which is the primary way the coaching carousel works in the NHL. You also need to overpay way too frequently to get coaches to sign on, and once you bring them in all your information about how players fit into your scheme is out of date. Having to re-scout every free agent to see how they mesh with your new coach robs you of that critical early window where a new coach brings in players.
The coaching system needs work, but franchise mode also benefits from many nice quality-of-life improvements. Player ratings and contract demands fluctuate based on their performance, you can trade expiring contracts, and the sim engine is much faster this year. The new trade finder helps find takers for players you plan to shop. Teams seem much more interesting in trading overall, though the trade finder rarely works when you want to know what assets it will take to pry a desired player from another team. The trade deadline also isn’t as active as it is in the real NHL, though offseason movement feels on par. The scouting system introduced last year is also harder to exploit this year, too.
Check out a full period of NHL 20 gameplay in the video below:
Those who prefer to build their teams in Hockey Ultimate Team won’t find much new in NHL 20 outside of a new card-opening animation, new legendary players, and the Squad Battles mode first introduced in FIFA that lets you compete against other people’s teams in offline matches for unique rewards. The improvements are nice, but HUT still lacks depth found in Madden and FIFA.
The same can be said for Be A Pro, NHL’s career mode. EA added nothing of note, even though it’s desperately begging for a revamp.
Online Versus fans have alumni teams for each current franchise and a few defunct ones like the North Stars, though these rosters seem hastily thrown together without much forethought. Many great players are missing due to licensing, which is an unfortunate reality, but the rosters have bigger issues. Jason Spezza was an elite player for the Ottawa Senators, but only has his current 80 overall rating. The Minnesota Wild roster curiously lacks franchise leading scorers Marian Gaborik and Mikko Koivu, even though both are in the game. Ron Hextall is on the Nordiques alumni team, but he wears his Flyers helmet in games. These seem like easy fixes.