EA's NHL franchise hasn't exactly had the best console generation. After skipping the first year of the PlayStation 4 altogether, NHL 15 tripped out of the gate with a pretty weak effort. This in and of itself is pretty normal for sports games, but they tend to improve drastically as the generation rolls on. Unfortunately, that never really happened for NHL. NHL 19 is more or less the same game as NHL 15, with a few new bells and whistles sprinkled throughout. The problem is that the groundwork laid by 15 wasn’t particularly good. This is why it’s so shocking that NHL 20 seems like it’s poised to take a huge leap forwards.
With the NHL 20 beta going live last weekend – and running through 31st July – it’s finally time to get your hands on EA’s newest hockey title, and the results are actually quite impressive. The presentation has seen a bigger overhaul than in the past, with tweaked arenas, some new UI changes, and even a fresh commentary package.
The UI changes, while jarring, seem fine. The relocation of the scoreboard and stats will just take muscle memory to get used to, while the arena rework makes the atmosphere of the games much livelier. The same cannot be said for the new commentary, though. Gone are the dulcet tones of Doc Emrick replaced by James Cybulski. One positive for the commentary is that it feels less choppy. As good as Emrick’s commentary was, the previous games struggled to mask when different sentences were being spliced together on the fly. In NHL 20 everything feels much smoother, but at the cost of some authenticity. Emrick and the NBC package that NHL 15-19 sported did an incredible job of making a game feel like an actual broadcast. This time out, the EA branding is much more prevalent, and something about Cybulski’s commentary makes the game sound more arcadey. It made us much more aware that we were playing a hockey game, rather than watching one.
While the presentation is important, ultimately the gameplay is what matters most, and this is shockingly the strongest facet of NHL 20. This is easily the biggest leap forward the series has taken in improving minute-to-minute gameplay this generation. Goalie AI is much more impressive, too. They no longer take an eternity to cover the puck during a scramble, and their general positioning feels more believable. Skating down the centre of the ice and snapping a wrister across your body still seems to work far more frequently than it should, but it’s a definite step forward. Moreover, the skaters show improvement. Picking up the puck on the fly and navigating around the other team are both exponentially more believable than they were with NHL 19’s miserable skating.
The online 'World of CHEL' returns as well, showing off more of the “Ones” mode introduced in 19. All the game types that fell under the World of CHEL were a bright spot for 19, so seeing this return more or less intact is good. One new addition is the – stop us if you’ve heard this one before – Battle Royale mode: Eliminators. Utilising the pond hockey facet of the title, you can go it solo, or in groups of three in an elimination mode that whittles away the competition until only the strongest remain. If like us, you’re sick of Battle Royale modes, this won’t be the one to win you over, but it’s an interesting curio if you just want to dip your toes in.
There’s regular online play available as well, with each of the NHL’s 31 teams available, though they don’t have updated rosters. This is the best way to get a feel for what to expect from the full game when it launches on September 13th, but it’s still just a small slice.
Frankly, we came away impressed with NHL 20. More than we were expecting. The overhauls made to the actual gameplay are impressive, and have been sorely needed for close to half a decade – if not more. NHL 20 has a legitimate shot at being the best output of the series in a very long time.
Do you think NHL 20 is shaping up to be pucking awesome? Did you try out the beta, and if so what were your thoughts? Take some pot shots in the comments section below.