NHL 20 Review: RPM Takes Center Stage

NHL 20 marks six installments since the franchise made the jump to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. And while the series is clearly better off now than what it was when NHL 15 launched on the consoles, it hasn’t gone without its fair share of disappointments.

EASHL was rebuilt after being removed while the gameplay and overall presentation had become a stale experience for everyone involved as the years passed by. With NHL 20, EA is hoping that by sticking with the aging Ignite Engine and improving upon the game’s Real Player Motion technology that fans get a gameplay experience they can be proud of while making enough changes off the ice to keep players coming back months later.

But is NHL 20 the hockey game everyone has been wanting or is it still stuck in the minors?

NHL 20 Review

RPM Takes Center Stage

Whenever a new sports title comes out, players will hear things during marketing like “new and improved gameplay!” or, in the case of NHL 20, gameplay “Fueled by RPM Tech”. While many will look at that and think it’s just another marketing ploy to try and get the casual player to jump on board, it doesn’t appear to be the case with this year’s game.

I can honestly say that I haven’t played an NHL game as enjoyable as NHL 20 from a gameplay perspective since the skill stick was first introduced in NHL 07. 

From shooting to skating, things just feel more polished.

Depending on your skater’s positioning, you may find yourself either fluttering a shot to the net or going for a quick backhand. In past games, you could get a bad positioned shot to come off the stick as if you had just received a perfectly placed pass. That appears to be gone from NHL 20.

That said, not everything is all sunshine and rainbows. There were times that rather than go for the easier backhand shot, players would do a long spin and look for a forehand shot. Also, the backhands felt kind of overpowered at times, same with one-timers to the blocker side of the goaltenders. It also seems like the meta for scoring on breakaways is a simple forehand-to-backhand move.

From shooting to skating, things just feel more polished.

With puck pickups, if a puck is around a player, they will adjust accordingly to pick it up or battle with an opponent. There are still some minor hiccups every now and then, but the new improvements to the mechanic allow for a much smoother experience with breakout passes as well as end-to-end gameplay.

Also nice to see is the removing of the gliding when picking up a pass. It’s nice to hear that it’s gone, but to actually experience it being done away with was great. Instead, players continue with their skating animations when receiving or going for a pass.

My only gripe with passing is the speed at which passes come off the stick. No matter what your rating is, it can feel like you’re trying to pass the puck along a section of blacktop rather than ice. On top of the passing speed, it feels a bit too easy to lay players out with a big check at times while pulling off dekes can be downright impossible even with some of the more highly-rated players.

Picking up the puck has become more reliable in NHL 20

For goaltending, you quickly see how the increased animations — over 400 of them — impact the play between the pipes. Quick animations like a shoulder shuffle or a quick move of the blocker make for fewer chances for soft goals. It’s harder to score, for the most part, and the rebounds are more unique after shots, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some ways to kind of take advantage of the situation. 

Despite all of the improvements to the gameplay and goalie animations, there’s still plenty of problems when playing against other players online. More specifically, there are too many instances of cheese goals or, what some may call, glitch goals. From starting in the corner and then bursting across the front to easily beat the goaltender to skating across in the slot from the goalie’s glove to his blocker side, there’s too much of a meta to playing online that still remains after years of the same complaints. 

If you don’t take advantage of the exploits within the game then your opponents online will. It makes playing Ones, Online Versus, and even EASHL frustrating. There are even still small bugs like the helmet glitch that allows you to remove your player’s helmet if you give a visor to a caged helmet. It may not impact gameplay, but it’s small things like that that have remained in the game for years that show a lack of attention to detail.

Player Control

One of the biggest issues from NHL 19 was the figure skating in order to keep the puck using a combination of LT and A (L2 and X on PS4), or just skating backward in general.

In the hours spent with the game, it’s clear that EA has nerfed that exploit in a major way for NHL 20. Now, it still works every now and then, but don’t anticipate it being the problem that it became last year. That is, unless, a tuner is released that reverts a lot of the good done during development. 

Defensively, it feels like you are on a near-level playing ground with offensive players whether it be in a regular game or a solo-controlled mode like the EASHL. I didn’t notice much in the way of pucks seemingly warping through a defenseman’s stick. Rather, I was able to break up plays and eliminate offensive threats.

Controlling the goaltender remains exactly the same as past years. But thanks to the additional goaltending animations, you cover the net in more ways whether it be stick saves or pinching the puck near your shoulder blade. That said, it’s all about positioning. As long as you’re square to the shooter, you’re going to make the save.

Presentation

One of the best new aspects of NHL 20 is the overhauled presentation. Gone is the NBC presentation, and in its place is an NHL 20-specific presentation that features new overlays, transitions, and a new commentary team. Doc Emrick and Eddie Olcyzk are thankfully gone, making way for Vancouver sports host James Cybulski as the main play-by-play voice with TSN’s Ray Ferraro taking over on color commentary after being the third man on the team the past few years.

Immediately, you notice there’s actual emotion in the calls of the action. Scoring a goal late in a game or to break a tie brings out an emotion from the call that I can’t remember ever hearing in an NHL game. There are fewer repeated lines thanks to the extra time spent recording lines, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone entirely. But, hey, it’s a video game. Repeated lines are bound to happen eventually no matter how many hours are spent in the recording booth.

The graphic presentation makes sure to highlight your players after goals and during the action with stats like time of ice, shots, and saves. There’s even a new score bug at the bottom of the screen that has drawn its fair share of criticism for being difficult to try and check it out during the play because of its location and layout. Though I happen to like it, I do think that giving players the option to have it sit at the top of the screen could go a long way towards curbing that criticism.

Immediately, you notice there’s actual emotion in the calls of the action.

Graphically, the game’s visuals remain pretty much exactly the same as they have been since the Ignite Engine was introduced to the series back with NHL 15. Player likenesses remain subpar, jerseys look off, and things have just become stale in a visual department. While I’m not one to bash the series for not jumping to the Frostbite engine because, well, you know about the issues with that engine and sports titles, it’s time to really work towards moving the series to something new as we get ready for the next Xbox and PlayStation consoles. 

Finally on the presentation front, can we please do something about the overall navigation. Going through four, five, six different slow-loading menus in order to do something as small as changing beard length or choose a different stick is not something that players want to do.

Hockey Ultimate Team

If you’re a fan of the card-collecting mode known as Hockey Ultimate Team, you won’t find too much added this year. There’s a new pack opening animation that you can thankfully skip as well as some new legendary players to collect. 

The only new real mode update is the Squad Battles that come over from FIFA that allow you to play against ultimate teams compiled by various members of the NHL community ranging from players to popular YouTubers in offline games for various rewards. 

Contracts remain in the mode, which is dumbfounding. MUT got better when they dumped contracts so it would only make sense for HUT to do the same.

Franchise Mode

It may surprise a lot of you, but NHL 20’s franchise mode is the clear-cut best franchise mode in any of EA Sports’ offerings. You can even go as far as saying that it only trails behind NBA 2K for the best franchise mode in sports games. 

Player morale returns, but you can’t talk to players unless they initiate conversation

But why is that? What makes it so good?

For starters, nothing was removed from NHL 19’s version of the mode. Instead, the mode saw a number of welcomed additions.

The biggest addition comes in the form of the long-desired coaching carousel. Players have to manage eight coaches — four in the NHL; four in the AHL — that each bring different things to the table within your organization. Each coach has their own traits regarding scheme and player types needed, and this can impact players currently on a roster or potential free agent and trade targets. Speaking of trades, there’s now a trade finder within the mode, making it easier to make the deals you want to improve or rebuild your roster. Still, there are no fun elements surrounding the trade deadline within the mode which just comes and goes. Just give us the cellphones back!

NHL 20’s franchise mode is the clear-cut best franchise mode in any of EA Sports’ offerings

The problem with the coaching system is that all the coaches you hire have to be free agents. You can’t hire a coach — and note, all coaches are fictional due to licensing — that’s employed by another organization, which means you can’t hire Dallas’ AHL coach to become Buffalo’s new head coach. Also, when you hire a new coach you need to re-scout your target players to see if they will fit in the new system.

The morale system also returns with players and coaches coming to you for discussions on various topics ranging from team performance to overall recommendations.  The problem with this is that while you can view player morale at any time, you can’t talk with your players until they come to you. 

Lastly, don’t see the league expand during your career like you may see in NBA 2K’s franchise modes, but that’s not that big of a dealbreaker for anyone.

Be-A-Pro

For as great as NHL 20’s Franchise Mode is, Be-A-Pro is just as bad. Actually, it’s worse than bad…it’s boring. And if you don’t think being boring is worse than bad, look at games like South Park for the N64 and Deadly Premonition. These were games that were downright terrible, but they weren’t boring in the slightest. I mean, Deadly Premonition, a game that was panned by so many outlets, is still getting a sequel.

Anyway, Be-A-Pro remains pretty much exactly the same as it has been since the series made the jump to the PS4 and Xbox One back in 2014. There have been some changes over the years like the skill tree that gives that false sense of RPG that so many games stick in to basically slow your development; coach feedback helps you figure out what you do well or poor, but it’s really nothing more than that. If there’s any mode in the series that needs a complete overhaul, it’s Be-A-Pro. 

I just hope we don’t get what we got back with NHL 14 when we got the deeper Live the Life mode in the last year of the previous generation only for it to not make the jump to eighth console generation. 

World Of CHEL

The online hub known as the World of CHEL returns in NHL 20 with quite a bit remaining the same. The popular EASHL sees no changes whatsoever, same with the uninteresting NHL ProAM. The other two modes within the World of CHEL, NHL Ones and Threes both see small improvements to add to the replayable factor of each. 

NHL Ones — in addition to the local NHL Ones now that allows couch co-op — introduces a battle royale element, of sorts, in the form of NHL Ones Eliminator. This pits 81 players in a single-elimination tournament, requiring you to win four straight games to be crowned champion. The Eliminator mode was also added to NHL Threes where you can join with friends or go it alone to earn unlocks for your created player.

Speaking of unlocks, they remain cosmetic only as your sticks, skates and the like don’t impact your ability on the ice. What does affect your ability is the player type you select along with the various traits that remain the same from NHL 19.  

While custom attribute allocation doesn’t appear to be destined for a comeback anytime soon, the player build still feels a bit too restricting. If EA isn’t going to reimplement the ability to build your player for the World of Chel exactly how you like, at least bring back a way to make them stand out more aside from the player traits. One thing that could be done is bringing back equipment providing boosts to your attributes. Back in the earlier years of the EASHL a player’s stick curve would increase the wrist shot accuracy while reducing slap shot power; a certain skate could increase agility or speed. 

Something, anything would help add to making players feel different on the ice without giving full attribute allocation. 

Verdict

NHL 20 is a game that you’ll either love or hate, there really is no middle ground in this debate. 

The improvements to the gameplay and presentation make the on-ice experience the best it’s been since the games of the late 2000’s. Off the ice, there’s plenty to enjoy depending on what type of modes you prefer.

Aside from some small omissions, Franchise mode is as good as it gets and HUT continues to be a solid mode for those into the collectible card game despite its lack of updates. On the other side of the coin, though, Be-A-Pro isn’t worth even one game while modes like ProAm, Draft Champions, and Ones Now feel like wasted space.

With the end of the current console generation fast approaching, one has to wonder where the NHL series goes from here because there’s no doubt there are still plenty of questions left to be answered.

  • 8.5/10
    Gameplay - 8.5/10
  • 6/10
    Game Modes - 6/10
  • 6/10
    Presentation - 6/10
  • 8/10
    Longevity - 8/10
Overall
7.13/10