What do you mean the start of NHL season is only a month away?! It feels like just yesterday that I turned over my glowing review for NHL 19. At the time it felt like the biggest breath of fresh air that sports gaming had received in recent memory. Can the 2020 installment build on that promise or will it whiff on this ever-critical shorthanded opportunity? The answer to that question likely hinges upon the length of your memory.
Hitting the Rink
As we skate onto the freshly resurfaced ice, it’s hard to shake the feeling that NHL 20 suffers from a serious case of déjà vu. Fortunately, this sensation doesn’t necessarily apply to the gameplay itself, which has received a couple of notable enhancements to the RPM technology that redefined the feel of the franchise last year. Countless new animations have been added to the repertoire, which greatly helps sustain the flow of attack, especially when attempting the much-maligned (and arguably, previously neglected) one-timer.
Players animate more smoothly when transitioning from full motion to shooting, which aggressive offensemen can take advantage of to great effect. Though it may not sound like much on paper, in execution, this helps open up the scoring opportunities on the offensive side of the puck, dramatically. Last year, attempting to hit a streaking player within the very limited frame window handcuffed fast breaks. Thankfully, this is now a thing of the past. The frenetic action remains consistent while driving down the ice, instead of forcing players to stay further back from the blue line, in order to prevent from outskating potential shooting lanes.
Improvements to the shooting mechanics are easily the biggest step forward this year, but that isn’t the only moves that have been made to make the action feel more authentic. Once again, the RPM technology takes center stage, by allowing the action to move faster than ever before. However, on the opposite side of the coin, this means that you will still need the reflexes of a cat in order to take full advantage. The notion of faster action doesn’t just apply on offense. Just as quickly as an attack can come together, without proper timing and pacing it will fall apart. Because of this, being able to play effective transitional defense has never been more critical.
Aside from these rather garden variety—though absolutely essential—advancements, the moment-to-moment gameplay of NHL 20 will feel fairly familiar when compared its predecessor. Fortunately, coming off of last year’s rock-solid leap forward, the on-ice action was already feeling pretty damn solid to begin with. The overall lack of game-changing features also carried over to the numerous alternate ways to engage with the sport.
A Whole (Not So) New World
When it comes to a vast majority of modes this season, the name of the game is refinement. World of CHEL (N-H-Chel… get it?) was a relative newcomer in NHL 19, so there wasn’t really any reason to try and reinvent the proverbial wheel this time around. There are plenty pieces of new, exclusive gear waiting to be unlocked via a variety of different avenues and a handful of new outdoor locations, but the “new hotness” aspect of CHEL has worn off a bit. New weekly challenges boost the opportunities to randomly dip into the well of over 2000 pieces of customizable gear and accessories, but even that isn’t enough to keep things from going stale.
In order to combat complete malaise, the inescapable allure of the battle royale phenomenon has now made its way to CHEL, in the form of the new “Eliminator” mechanics. Mercifully for everyone involved, we aren’t suddenly taking to the ice with an AK-47. In this case, the elimination element is a relatively straightforward tournament structure, consisting of as many as 81 players, going head-to-head in an elimination bracket. Four consecutive wins will result in a tournament championship, while the losers will be disbanded after every loss and reassigned to new brackets.
Though primarily playable through the “Threes” mode, you can also take a whack at Eliminator in my personal favorite gametype, “Ones.” There’s just something about the mass chaos of playing 1v1v1 that is taken to the next level by adding more of a winner-takes-all feel to the outcome. The stakes have never been higher, regardless of how you chose to engage in these ad-hoc tournaments. My only minor gripe is the extended time I spent in lobbies post-loss, waiting to be assigned to a new bracket. Hopefully once the game is in the hands of the general population the time between a loss and being thrown into another matchup will be more akin to the restart/respawn rate you’d find in a game like Fortnite or Apex Legends.
The one other area where EA attempted to make improvements was the overall presentation. Similar to what Madden attempted to do a few seasons back, there has been a concerted effort applied towards making the gameplay experience more like what you’d see on a television broadcast. This transition is met with somewhat mixed results.
One of the biggest positives of this initiative is the recasting of the broadcast team. Mike Emerick and Eddie Olczyk have been shown the door, with only their bench analyst Ray Ferraro surviving the purge. In fact, Ferraro gets a promotion to full-time analyst, while being paired with franchise newcomer James Cybulski. The two meld well together and bring a fresh new level of excitement and camaraderie that has been absent since the series’ 2015 rebirth. Their playfully antagonistic banter sets a decidedly different tone from prior outings, and just feels like it better suits the type of experience that competitive gamers would expect.
While there was quite a bit of work applied to the verbal side of the experience, they’ve also tried to bring the visual presentation more in line with a standard television broadcast. Instant replays are more liberally scattered throughout the action, making use of recent notable clips, as opposed to just the most recent play that lead into the stoppage. Once again, though it may sound like a small thing, this goes miles towards building the authenticity. Adding in actual player images to replays also drives home this tectonic shift. As long as you can get past the extremely irritating score and time ribbon which cuts off the entirety of the bottom of the screen, there’s plenty to love about this seemingly fresh coat of paint.
As I’ve attempted to pound home several times at this point, none of these enhancements should really be classified as true game-changers. If you made the plunge last year and you’re looking for NHL 20’s one marquee feature that makes this a must-buy, there really isn’t an overarching reason to upgrade. Pure and simple. That said, this year’s outing has plenty of incremental improvements that deliver a superior experience to what you would’ve played twelve months ago. Allow your level of fandom to dictate if this purchase is right for you. Ultimately, regardless of where you land, you won’t be disappointed.
NHL 20 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.