It’s that most wonderful time of the year again, the time when every NHL team holds out hope that this will be the year that they raise Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice. And as the Cup-winning St. Louis Blues were literally in last place in the entire league on the morning of January 3rd, none of those teams’ fans’ hopes are completely unreasonable. Of course, it’s also time for the latest edition of EA Sports’ NHL video game. In recent years, EA’s NHL video games have consistently been amongst the best sports games available, giving significant competition to the likes of Madden, FIFA and even the venerable NBA2K. So how does this year’s game compare to NHL 19?
First and foremost, there have been some very notable improvements to the skating and shooting. Player movement is notably improved, and they glide on the ice with meaningfully-enhanced realism. In particular, it’s clear that the players are much more able to pick up the puck in motion, and the game’s flow is truly fantastic. NHL 20 also demonstrates a wide range of NHL stars’ unique shooting styles via the inclusion of 45 new contextual shot animations, and the result is a far more realistic visual experience
The AI is much improved this year, and in particular, it’s far more difficult to set up easy one-timer goals than it was with NHL 19. More often than not, AI defenders are well-positioned, and more strategic skating and passing is required in order to generate quality scoring chances. Goalies are also improved quite a bit, with a larger range of movements and more realistic AI. Of particular importance, rebounds are often strategically redirected as opposed to caroming off randomly (and often directly onto the stick of an opposing player). At the higher skill levels, goals will clearly be much more difficult to come by, and that’s a good thing.
The hugely popular THREES mode is back, and there are some terrific new arena options, including a frozen canal that evokes Canada’s lovely capital city. Much more “arcade” than “simulation,” THREES is a terrific pick-up-and play mode that’s particularly popular with younger gamers (especially when playing using the NHL teams’ mascots… yes, Gritty’s “In the Game”).
I have a love-hate relationship with Hockey Ultimate Team. It’s a fantastically entertaining game mode, enabling me to construct a team comprised of the same players who are on my fantasy hockey team, and to see how well they play together… But it is immensely frustrating to build up a terrific team only to have to start from square one with the next edition. It would be nice to have some continuity, perhaps giving HUT owners the opportunity to choose a certain number of “keepers”. This year’s mode offers a wide range of challenges that enable you to earn the coins needed to purchase packs (of players, coaches, uniforms, contracts, healing, etc.) and/or to purchase players directly from other HUT participants via the online auction.
The safe bet is that I will once again dive deep into HUT, but it’s possible that I will instead redirect my attention to Franchise Mode for the first time. Here’s an extended look at all that Franchise Mode has to offer.
And finally, there’s the CHEL mode, where you can create a player and then experience that player’s rise from pond hockey scrub to international superstar. With a huge assortment of gear and attire and multiple game modes (ONES ELIMINATOR, THREES, Pro-Am), this mode will definitely appeal to gamers old enough to remember the Tony Hawk and SSX games.
It’s no easy feat to have to consistently build upon a great game and make it worth the annual $60 investment, but EA Sports has definitely accomplished that with NHL 20. While there is plenty to be familiar with, including the intuitive Skill Stick controls, NHL 20 delivers plenty of “new” and “improved.” Far more than just a “roster update,” NHL 20 represents a substantial leap forward. Some improvements are pronounced and others more subtle, but the holistic result is a fantastic game that perfectly captures hockey’s energy and spirit. Game On!
Rating: 5 Pucks (Out of Five)