Sports games have a tendency to change incrementally year-to-year. This applies to the bigger sports franchises, let alone the smaller ones, which is what NHL 20 falls under. NHL 19 was an absolute disaster of a product, underwhelming in almost every way possible, so it's with optimism that we say this is a step forward, though probably not as large a step as you hope it is.
Right out of the gate things are a little faster. The menu navigation, which in years past took an eternity to complete even basic tasks, finally feels acceptable. Menu navigation is by no means speedy, but it’s better. On the subject of things that are better, the general presentation is slicker. Skater animations, which were one of the few steps forward in NHL 19, have improved yet again. Picking the puck up on the fly in particular looks good, and shots off of rebounds now look dynamic, rather than just a canned animation. Goalies too have a few more animations with which to cover the puck and stop play. The downside is the goalie AI remains woefully inept. They rarely challenge realistically on breakaways, if at all, and their angles and approach to behind-the-net play range from frustrating to very frustrating.
The lack of improvement in goalies is made even worse by the return of the dreaded cross crease pass. This was a mechanic that never went away per se, but NHL 19 at least made it harder to accomplish. Making the perfect pass to just tap in a free goal became something of a rarity, as it was much harder to pull off, which is much more in line with real hockey. Unfortunately these changes seem to have been backtracked somewhat, as the cross-crease is again extremely easy to pull off.
The biggest, most obvious changes though, are the new commentary and scoreboard. The NBC Sports broadcasting contract that was being used this generation is over, so gone is Doc Emrick. In his place is James Cybulski, and while it’d be hard to say it’s a downgrade, it just feels less authentic. The dialogue is executed a bit more smoothly now, so it’s harder to hear the plug and play nature of sports dialogue this time out. The banter between Cybulski and on-ice correspondent Ray Ferraro is surprisingly smooth and varied as well. The problem is Cybulski’s commentary just sounds more arcadey. This would be just fine if it were the old NHL Hitz titles, but as the only hockey game on the market, we would prefer there be a bit more authenticity to the whole affair.
While not as impactful as the new commentary, the scoreboard has been redesigned as well. While initially we found it to be very jarring, we’ve mostly come around on it. It takes up a narrow horizontal strip across the bottom of the picture now. While it was awkward to get used to, we’re going to consider this an improvement. The old scoreboard had a tendency to interfere with gameplay, especially if you were playing goalie.
As for entirely brand new features, there’s not much, and even then, it depends on your definition of “new”. Franchise mode finally adds a coaching staff for you to manage, which brings with it a shot at the coveted Jack Adams trophy. It is worth noting however that no actual NHL coaches are in the game. This is almost certainly down to licensing, but it honestly might have been worth holding off until that was squared away. Opening up the Colorado Avalanche coaching staff to see a bunch of random names, none of which were Jared Bednar – the current head coach of the Avalanche – was a very strange thing to see. The other notable new feature for the game is “signature shots”, which while it sounds impressive, underwhelms. Players with unique releases when shooting are supposed to now have animations that match. This is most obvious with the more prolific shooters in the league: Ovechkin, Boeser, Mackinnon, and the like. However, there only appears to be a handful actually implemented. EA has mentioned they hope to add more as the season moves along, so hopefully this feature shifts from an interesting footnote to something of substance.
Apart from that, there’s only really one new mode, and calling it “new” is probably a bit of an overstatement. The two arcade modes the game has – Threes and Ones – have been revamped and rebranded as Battle Royale modes. You heard correctly, NHL 20 does in fact feature Battle Royale. It takes the pre-existing Threes and Ones modes, and adds a couple additional menus that just mean you play consecutive games rather than one at a time. Frankly, it all feels a bit half-baked, and just seems like a change for the sake of it.
The World of CHEL, the game’s online, club-based mode, remains mostly unchanged. The menus have been streamlined a bit, and there are now even more items to get from loot packs, but that’s about it. The actual rewards from the loot packs – called bags in-game – also seem to be scaled back from last year. While you already almost exclusively unlocked rubbish, the rewards somehow feel even less gratifying now. Whether this is down to the items per bag having shrunk, or just that even more nonsense was crammed into the game is hard to gauge.
Finally, despite the rapacious microtransactions that have been getting ever-bolder in other sports titles – like a certain NBA 2K20 – NHL 20’s Hockey Ultimate Team is more or less at the same point it’s been for years now. If you are reticent to spend money on the mode, you’ll, mercifully, find that you can still have fun. The option is obviously designed to encourage you to spend your hard-earned dollars on it, but you can absolutely get away with not doing so. The bottom line though is that HUT probably makes just enough money for EA to be content with letting the NHL franchise waste away in mediocrity. In our NHL 19 review, we said that “the series often feels restrained by a teensy budget and small team” and this is more or less true now.
NHL 20 sees Franchise mode take a welcome step forward, while other areas have either remained the same or actually gone backwards. The new commentary makes it clear that different does not mean better, and all the slick new animations in the world can’t hide poor AI. We feel like a broken record saying this, but the NHL series is in sore need of a comprehensive revamp.