NHL 20 preview: The (Un)Lonely End of the Rink

EA Sports
EA Sports /

With a better understanding of their own engine advances and improving last year’s steps forward, NHL 20 feels like a fully-realized update from NHL 19.

When I previewed the predecessor to NHL 20 last year, I felt confident that EA Vancouver would be successful with their bold steps forward with the World of Chel. That ended up being true once the game was released, as it seemed like the team struck gold with its multiplayer offerings. This year’s game aspires more for perfection rather than innovation, improving upon what worked as we await the next generation of consoles.

Yesterday, I got the chance to sit down with the EA Access First Play build of NHL 20, all while creative director William Ho guided me through the numerous changes and updates to the game. Specifically, I played both the new Ones Now and an exhibition game against another member of the press, showcasing the highlights of the new broadcasting package.

While I’ll get to the new improvements with the RPM technology afforded by EA Sports’ engine efforts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the rebuild of the game’s presentation. No longer does the franchise model itself upon the NBC Sports hockey package but one of EA Vancouver’s own. They’ve kept things very local this year, going with TSN Vancouver radio guy James “C-Balls” Cybulski on play-by-play with Ray Ferraro moving up to the booth as color commentary.

It’s a bold move to replace Doc and Eddie, but it’s even bolder to change up the visual style dramatically. The score bug no longer replicates the US sports package, as the team reportedly wanted to create their own upon recognizing many fans of the franchise don’t watch the US broadcast. Their replacement looks more like a ticker, with stats and other information popping up in the bottom chyron.

Specific highlights and stats shown on the ice reflect the player on the team or the player in HUT. Whether you’re playing Auston Matthews on the Toronto Maple Leafs or on Jimmy Newfoundland’s HUT team on a rental, the digitally-imposed effect surrounding his in-game stat boxes reflect the primary color scheme of your team. It’s a nice touch that, alongside a sleeker menuing system (still box-oriented on the front page), tightens up what you’ve come to expect.

Now when you take an awkward wrister in a burst of panic, the backhand will look natural in contrast to the unnatural shot selection!

Speaking of Matthews, the cover athlete is one of close to two-dozen players with their own Signature Shots. If you play as one of these core players, you’ll get the unique shooting animations of their famous moves, including P.K. Subban’s winding one-time slapper or Auston Matthews’ toe-drag wrister.

It’s a testament to the number of animations rendered and added to NHL 20 as part of the RPM technology updates, as the development team has made the transitions between gathering the puck, passing, turning, and shooting much more natural. Now when you take an awkward wrister in a burst of panic, the backhand will look natural in contrast to the unnatural shot selection! When you do score, you get a more cinematic slo-mo camera, and EASHL and HUT periods will feature “Play of the Period”-esque highlight packages.

Even as inexperienced of an online player I am, the difference in how the players shot the puck between last year’s game and NHL 20 felt night and day. Sure, you can cheat for the one-timer and dumping off lead passes, and your player will swat and dive out to reach for the shots with full extension if you find yourself flat-footed. Your skill level is reflected accurately with the gameplay.

C-Balls and Ferraro are pretty fantastic as a broadcasting duo (the weekly recording sessions in development providing hundreds of conversational dialogue helps), but I’m still a fan of the Ones announcer. Thankfully, there are plenty of new ways to explore Ones and Threes in NHL 20’s World of Chel, including an offline mode for Ones and a shootout-style dynamic tournament called Eliminator.

Though it’s been billed as a battle royale-lite mode, in reality, it’s a Ones match where the winner moves on, and the losers repeat Round One. Winning four-straight matches and you win the tournament, knocking down from 81 to 27 to 9 to 3. As with all the other Ones modes, it’s part of the character customization loop, as there are an estimated 2,200 different pieces of gear available to be earned through completing weekly challenges across the World of Chel modes.

NHL 20 Laine one-timer
EA Sports /

I enjoyed my time with NHL 20, and it’s hard not to appreciate the work down between the margins to improve the flow of hockey across its modes. However, it’s hard not to see the lack of new features and major gameplay modes without feeling like the franchise is in a holding pattern until we get the PlayStation 5, Xbox Two or whatever comes next.

The shiny new packaging does little to hide the fact that you’re getting NHL 19, but new and improved. That may be more than enough for you seeing how last year’s version pushed the franchise forward in a significant way, and I never had the opportunity to try out the new HUT squads or franchise mode’s fog of war and coaching archetypes.

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NHL 20 will arrive for the PS4 and Xbox One on September 13, with pre-ordered Deluxe and better editions coming to players three days earlier.