NHL 20 suffers from feature overload but there is great hockey to be had, despite online modes that focus more on quantity over substance.
When NHL 20 hits its annual release date, you know that a new season of hockey is just around the corner. No matter what team you favor, or even what kind of hockey you prefer to play as part of your gaming hobby, it signals the return of an annual tradition.
This year, NHL 20 offers a little bit of something new, a few improvements to something old, and overall a gratifying experience for anyone. It just depends on what you prefer, and those preferences will greatly dictate which of the many game modes you’ll likely spend your time in.
Modes Upon Modes Upon Modes
NHL 20 has grown in scope over the past decade or so. The main mode selection screen now offers a total of 14 choices, many of which have yet more choices underneath them. World of CHEL, EA’s catalog of online game modes is one such example. I’ll discuss my love-hate relationship with World of CHEL in the next section.
The new Ones Now mode lets players experience last year’s addition on the couch instead of online. This is honestly where this mode belongs. It’s arcade-y, over the top, and best enjoyed with a few pals on the couch and some tasty beverages nearby. It makes for a far superior experience when compared to playing it online.
All the classic modes, such as Franchise Mode, Hockey Ultimate Team, and Be A Pro Career are also present, but only a few of them have gotten any sort of upgrade over the previous years. Franchise Mode has a few new GM options, improved trade mechanics, and a more advanced scouting model. This will be welcomed by anyone who prefers their NHL 20 experience to be more of a simulation. Hockey Ultimate Team offers a few new weekly challenges and several new options for players to earn card packs without having to compete online. For those players used to spending real money in HUT, this trend will likely continue, however, as getting the best version of your team will require more than just a bit of luck and a lot of time to grind.
Quite frankly, NHL 20 is starting to suffer from game mode bloat. Some modes, such as Season Mode and Online Versus have better variants in other modes, and then there’s Champion Hockey League and Draft Champions, which make me wonder what their purpose really is. I’d love to see EA Sports trim this list down to a few of the most popular modes and really focus on improving those over the next few years.
Clearly, World of CHEL Isn’t for Me
Let’s talk about the World of CHEL first. This is by far my least favorite area of NHL 20, and this isn’t new. It’s also likely not entirely EA’s fault, but they do have a part to play here. I love the concept of CHEL. You’ve got your own personalized skater, you earn new gear and cosmetics, and you compete with other players online to be the best of the best. In theory, this sounds like something right up my alley. In practice, however, most of it is poorly implemented and nearly all the game modes devolve into a parade of cheesy goals, players dropping out, and experiences I generally don’t have time for.
World of CHEL breaks down into a few different areas. There’s the EASHL, EA’s online league, that is the most intriguing and longest-standing mode. It’s here that you join teams made up of other real players and compete in seasons and cup competitions. If you have a dedicated group of friends who enjoy NHL 20, this is a great place to have some fun. It’s a competitive setting but it remains mostly true to my traditional definition of hockey.
Drop-in sessions and the Threes mode should make for a bit of quick fun, but far too often these experiences end in routs caused by poor matchmaking and players leaving when things aren’t going well. I don’t really blame them. Who’s got time to sit through a beating while your teammates abandon you and players of far higher level have mastered guaranteed ways to score. Yes, cheese goals are still as present in CHEL as they ever were. Clearly, EA needs to spend a lot more time trying to stamp these out, but I understand the constraints of a yearly publishing cycle, demand for new contents, and the likely high difficulty in addressing these. In short, I’m not optimistic that online modes will ever not suffer from cheese goals. Frankly, I do place a significant amount of blame on the players participating here. If you intend to go online with the intention of playing actual hockey and participate in anything but the structured EASHL modes, you’ll be disappointed.
New this year is the Ones Eliminator mode, which is essentially a battle-royal 1v1v1 mode. If you win, you move onto the next level and compete against other players who also won. If you lose, you stay at the bottom level. The higher you progress, the better the rewards will be. This, again, sounds intriguing in theory, but in practice it turns into a test of your cheesing ability. The AI-controlled goalies are absolutely brutal in this mode as well, and other players seem to have little to no comprehension of how to smartly cooperate in this mode, given the right scenario.
On a less important, though not to be forgotten note, World of CHEL suffers from some poor UI design. While the general snappiness of the menus seems to have improved (on my SSD-modded PS4 Pro), the logic of navigation options is lacking. Far too many menu entries require you to navigate deep into submenus, only to be left to back out, one painful click at a time. Seemingly simple tasks, such as equipping that fancy new hoodie you pulled from one of the hockey bags (cosmetic rewards), will take so many steps that I’ve forgotten what I’m even looking for. Why can’t I just equip it right from the rewards screen? Even the UI in Hockey Ultimate Team allows for quick selections and tasks after opening card packs. Again, this seems like an area where EA simply doesn’t have the time to properly polish things up.
Overall, I wish I could enjoy World of CHEL more, but I just don’t. I love the idea of being able to unlock cosmetics and personalizations for my skater, but I experience nothing but frustrations, so I just stay away. If you enjoyed the online modes in NHL 19, you will probably enjoy them in NHL 20. I don’t understand you as a person, but that’s ok. If you didn’t enjoy the online experience last year, you won’t be won over this year either.
The Hockey is so, so Good
Reading my opinions of NHL 20‘s online features might make you think that I dislike this year’s offering. That’s not true. In fact, the actual hockey experience has taken yet another huge leap forward over the past year. In NHL 19, EA introduced new skating animations and better hitting mechanics. This year, they’ve doubled down on those, improved on puck-pickups, added far more realistic shooting animations, and given the goalkeepers some much needed love. If you spend any time at all in a Franchise or Be a Pro mode, you’ll quickly notice that NHL 20 features some of the most authentic hockey experiences of the series.
Not only are there signature shots for some of the game’s biggest stars, but even simple shots from the point will often result in a much more realistic result than in previous years. Goalkeepers are far less likely to gobble up a shot and instead produce a lot more rebounds. Many of these are smartly controlled and steered into the corners, all thanks to improved animations that allow the goalies to make smaller adjustments to react to a greater variety of shots. One of the first goals I scored came from a shot past a defenseman that bounced off the goalie’s blocker and then off the other defenseman’s butt before slowly trickling into the net. It’s a garbage goal, but those happen all the time in real hockey, and having these in NHL 20 makes me so happy.
Skating without the puck feels a lot smoother and quicker than in previous years. EA spent a fair amount of time working on tweaking puck-pickup mechanics and I’ve experienced a lot less scenarios where I’m circling a loose puck wondering why my superstar skater won’t just move his stick over to grab it. All of these tweaks lead to a far more enjoyable and authentic hockey experience. It also proves that given the resources and focus, EA can do great things in improving existing content in the NHL series. It’s another reason why I wish they would cut down on new, flashy game modes, and focus on perfecting what’s there.
It wouldn’t be an authentic NHL 20 experience without spending a significant amount of time tweaking the game’s settings using the multitude of provided gameplay sliders. For whatever reason, moving your stick anywhere in the vicinity of an opposing skater will result in a tripping call about 13 out of 10 times. Things get much more reasonable when tripping calls are turned down from its default 50% setting to somewhere between 0-10%. Why that can’t be the default, I’m not entirely clear on. This has been an issue for years, and one that I know EA is aware of. I shudder to think about what happens when those calls get turned up to 100%.
Fortunately, the sliders let you tweak just about any setting in the game and if you spend enough time perfecting them, you’ll get exactly the kind of hockey experience you want. I just wish that a few of these tweaks made it into the default settings so that we wouldn’t have to go through the annual ritual of tuning everything.
I’ve talked a lot about how I wish EA would polish the existing game modes. Another argument for this is that NHL 20 is starting to lag far behind the flexibility and game mode choices that EA’s other sports games offer. Both FIFA and Madden have grown far more in the areas of allowing players to tailor their Franchise or Be a Pro experience. I would love to see a built-in method that lets you play a franchise in a quicker format. 82 games per season can drag on, and part of the fun of a franchise mode is going through various off-seasons and seeing your team grow over time. Be a Pro is similarly time-consuming and given today’s busy gaming schedule, there are ways to help players get more out of these modes. Perhaps we’ll see some of these improvements in the future. Oh, and how about letting me play a franchise online with a friend? I’ve been wanting that for about 15 years now.
Goodbye, NBC, Hello EA Sports!
On the surface, NHL 20 looks very similar to last year’s version. Players’ faces are reasonably well-rendered and you’ll recognize your favorite stars quite easily. Notable this year is that EA’s contract with NBC expired, allowing the team to create its own media package surrounding the entire game. EA has done a marvelous job of creating a presentation package that looks modern, focuses on what’s important, and really highlights the players and their exciting actions on the ice. Graphically, this new branding is far superior to what we’ve had the past few years, and I am incredibly happy to be rid of the NBC logo.
On the audio front, NHL 20 features a brand new play-by-play package. EA has hired local radio talent James Cybulski and promoted Ray Ferraro out from between the benches to color-commentary duty. While it’s clear that this is their first year of taking over the reins, they provide a fresh of breath air to games. The fact that they are local to EA Sports’ Burnaby studio also means that EA can much more quickly improve and expand the audio commentary going forward.
With the new graphics package and commentary team, NHL 20 feels more like a new hockey game than most previous versions and if you’ve been holding off on buying a new version because “nothing has changed,” this is the year to get the upgrade.
In Closing, Some Hopes for NHL 21
NHL 20 is a lot of fun, provided you can find the game mode that you personally enjoy the most. Thankfully, there’s a ton of them to choose from and the customization options are deep, whether that’s measured by the number of toques or gameplay sliders. NHL 20 is an improvement on last year’s version in many ways, but it’s quickly starting to hit the wall in some areas for me. If I could make a wish, I would want next year’s version to focus on improving the current offering of game modes, while forgoing any new online modes. That’s my personal opinion, however, and I’m not really anticipating this to happen. Now excuse me while I head back onto the ice. I’ve got a Memorial Cup to win and I’m ready to be drafted by a team that needs a hard-hitting leftwinger that can score some ugly but much-needed goals.