NHL 20 review: All around me are familiar faces

EA Sports
EA Sports /

It’d be impossible for NHL 20 to top the feature advances seen in last year’s edition. Instead, EA Vancouver refined past innovations with small additions.

Title: NHL 20
Developer: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA Sports
Platforms: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: September 13, 2019

As someone who first appreciated poker due to the programming changes born out of the 2004-2005 NHL lockout (poker television programming filled NHL spots in Canadian sports channels), I can rationalize making moves based on expected value.

In NHL 20 terms, EA Vancouver is making the small adjustments to a great step forward produced in last year’s edition in the hopes that the huge leaps have been enough to sustain interest in this year’s product. There’s more of what we loved last year, although when it comes to functional presentation changes, there remains a fair bit to be desired.

Upon launch, you’re reminded right away of the biggest change to the game’s presentation; TSN’s James Cybulski is the booming voice of NHL 20, permeating from the game’s menuing selections down to the major stadium ice gameplay modes.

The decision to bring ol’ C-Balls and Ray Ferraro together to keep the play-by-play and color commentary dynamic was a smart one, as they often had a conversational aspect seen in Madden. Because they will be updating commentary throughout the season, as well as having celebrity guests in the booth from update to update, you will get some early repeat lines. Such is life when you ditch years of dialogue lines from the previous team.

NHL 20 2019 NHL Awards reveal
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images /

With audio changes coming to NHL 20, visual updates were quick to follow. There’s a new score bug placed at the bottom of the screen, as well as more visually explosive, glitch-styled stat boxes. The replay goal videos take advantage of a more cinematic style, and when you play online modes such as HUT, there are even “Play of the Game” stylized replays.

Though I liked the idea of a slender, sleek visual style, there’s a real unfortunate impracticality when it comes to playing defense on the bottom boards. It’s easier to lose the puck when you can’t find it as easily behind the scoreboard, which makes a key part of gameplay unnecessarily harder.

Changes I liked both in theory and in practice were those to the physics of the game. NHL 20 has vastly improved multiple facets of player movements, with adaptable animations for shooting, passing and stretching out in considerably better ways. One-timers are especially more logical, as players aren’t going to snap 180° around and fire a laser as if they had a separate top-half and bottom-half.

Franchise Mode enthusiasts are in for a treat, as well. With added depth to coaching styles, the scouting system and an added option of a Fog of War for prospects in which you don’t scout, there are added layers of complexity that make for a rewarding experience. You can sense the amount of effort poured into getting this right.

I loved the introduction of the World of CHEL last year, and the addition of new offline modes and challenges create additional options for multiple configurations of play. Want to get some actual couch competitive multiplayer? Hop into NHL Ones to play some 1v1v1. Want to test your might and earn epic-tier bags containing some of over 2,000 customizable items? Play in Eliminator for Ones and Threes and beat out others in shootout-style tournaments to advance and dominate the competition.

The main takeaway on NHL 20 should be about them optimizing the expectation of what you can do and how you play what the franchise has already provided. With the exception of passes being a bit weaker as well as hits, the offsets of improvements to gameplay in terms of options, functions, animations and logic, as well as overhauls in presentation, should get the most hardcore fans excited.

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks. During my dozen-plus hours of gameplay, there would be inevitable hitches in AI pathing (both on my team and against). Players near the boards still wind up and boom slapshots with a full stick wind-up, even if it means clipping through the boards.

On a more technical level, AI players often engage in weird jittery movements that have them wiggle about. One player on the opposing team was behind the net and instead of passing it out, spasmed left and right towards the goalie and almost poked it into their own net. Those kinds of hesitation moments are sporadic but happen enough times to be noticeable.

NHL 20 Auston Matthews Signature Shot
EA Sports /

I’m a huge career mode player and Be a Pro continues to be stuck in the mud. Whether it’s football, basketball, baseball or even soccer, the advances in the single-player career are drastically better than the same old thing in NHL 20, let alone what the franchise has done for years and years in past editions.

The elephant in the room continues to be the aggressive monetization of Hockey Ultimate Team. With early access available during the late stage of my review, there were some people who already had teams that would necessitate hundreds of dollars (maybe even four digits) spent just to facilitate the in-game resources.

While HUT Squads do allow for additional ways to earn coins, it’s bafflingly appalling to see how much can (and should) be spent on one gameplay mode just to compete at a reasonable level of play. Those core online modes offer startlingly light numbers of new customization options, as the focus seems to be decidedly towards the World of CHEL.

NHL 20 is what you make of it. If you’re the kind of person who has to get a new hockey game every year, you’ll get an arguably better package overall thanks to the technological and presentation changes. However, the lack of innovation is palpable, and it’s hard not to feel as though the true greatness lies ahead in future generational leaps.

7. If video games were cars, NHL 20 would be a modest update to last year’s model that looks shinier while functioning and operating better as a whole. Video games are not cars, however, and the lack of new gameplay modes, as well as core functions remaining sadly untouched, hold it back from greatness.. EA Vancouver. . NHL 20

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.