NHL 20 Review: Top-End of the Talent Pool
It's fall, which means it's time for another rollout of EA's NHL series. For fans of the genre, there's good news: NHL 20 is back with an entertaining hockey simulation and a variety of fun ways to play.
With the always-popular Ultimate Team mode, an intuitive and instructive Career Mode, and some pond hockey inspired games to enjoy, there's a little bit of everything waiting for you in this year's edition.
Getting Up to Speed is Easy
The most important thing about any sports game is how it handles. Clunky controls can drive a player insane and steep learning curves can make it difficult for anyone new to get into the game.
When it comes to converting the minutiae of an entire sport into a single controller, the NHL series is perhaps the biggest challenge EA faces outside of the UFC. With players flying around the ice on skates and wielding their sticks in dynamic fashion, it's important for EA to truly replicate the high-speed feel of elite hockey.
And, thankfully, EA does it with impressive economy. Button and joystick usage is efficient, and the game provides a great deal of creative expression and control with minimal use of the gamepad's functions.
While classic controls that harken to the series' much revered early iterations on the Super Nintendo and SEGA Genesis are available, the game is meant to be played on a modern two-joystick scheme, and it's at its best when you do so.
On a very basic level, your left stick controls your skater while your right stick controls their stick, but what at first seems like a somewhat limited layout actually delivers controls which help you to feel like a true NHL star.
By combining the right stick with a few buttons to modify it, not only do players have full control over the shots they take, but a deep system of dekes and misdirections opens up for skilled players to master.
With a little practice, your next open ice opportunity can see you beat the last man with a spin-o-rama, then fake the goalie out of his pads before nudging the puck past him into the exposed net with the toe of your stick.
If the above sounds rather intimidating and like something you'll never be able to manage, you are in luck. The game includes a Training Camp, which guides you through controlling your players, starting with basics like passing and shooting, before progressing to open-ice dekes and playing the puck between your legs.
The entire process plays out through a series of small tutorials which teach the moves, explain why and when to use them, and has you perform them in a training setting to get them down pat.
As a player who has always been more comfortable relying on the old-school controls of my youth, it got me acclimated and finally modernized in no time at all.
Be a Pro Career Shines
The series' franchise modes are always popular options for players, and the "Be a Pro" mode, in particular, lives up to expectations. While the lack of extras like interviews and apartment building from some of EA's other sports franchises will be seen as a plus by some and an omission by others, what it delivers here is a focus on playing hockey, which is easily strong enough to stand on its own.
When starting your career, you have three options for pre-draft preparations. If you want to jump straight into the league, you can go right to the draft. Those who prefer earning their slot can instead join a CHL side as a teenager and start making a name for themselves.
The Memorial Cup offers a happy compromise of the two, with your pro joining a CHL side for the four-team round-robin tournament, which will see you playing between three and five games before entering the draft.
No matter how you choose to go about your formative years, the experience is a can't miss way to play the game.
Playing in shifts means you can power through your career at a reasonable clip, while the coaching instructions you receive double as a training camp feature by encouraging you to perform certain moves for bonus experience and also showing you how to perform them. Even if you've never played an NHL game before and skip training camp, you'll be feeling like a veteran on the ice after a few games.
World of CHEL Goes Royale
If there's one thing the NHL's stadium series has taught us, it's that hockey fans will always have a special place in their hearts for the game being played in its pickup setting outdoors on a frigid winter's day.
It was only natural that it would find its way into the NHL series, and the expanded role of World of CHEL in NHL 20 shows EA is committed to the concept. While the grind-heavy approach is frustrating, with your character starting out with only a small handful of customization options unlocked in your free starter bag, the gameplay itself is an excellent change of pace from full side games.
Taking a sporting twist to the trendy world of last-man-standing, this year's edition of CHEL includes two different online elimination modes.
In THREES Eliminator, you can pair up with two friends to take on opponents in a rapid-fire series of winner-moves-on-pond hockey. Survive all three rounds and you'll be the kings of the bracket.
Even more fun is the ONES Eliminator option, which cuts the ice in half and places you and two opponents on the ice at the same time, all looking to bang in the most goals before the clock runs out. As in THREES, the winner moves on to the next round until finally, the 81 players who started the game are whittled down to one winner.
Ultimate Team is Back
At this point, the existence of an Ultimate Team mode, where you open packs of cards to cobble together a team logo, uniform, and players, is a given in any EA sports game, but the NHL version is among the best. While there are the usual concerns about the appeal to microtransactions that these modes include, it does offer a variety of ways to play for those opposed to such things.
In addition to the option to play online seasons to progress through the game's online tiers, there are offline options which allow you to play with and build your team even if you don't like online play. From taking on challenge modes with set objectives to battling against computer-controlled versions of other players' actual HUT squads, there's plenty of Ultimate Team fun to be had without ever venturing online.
- The game's tutorial and overlay options provide an easy entry for new players without oversimplifying gameplay and harming the top-end of the talent pool
- New World of CHEL options add even more fun to an already enjoyable side mode
- Strong "Be a Pro" mode is an absolute pleasure to play
- Players who have NHL 19 may not feel there is enough new about the latest addition to justify the cost
- Some mechanics in "Be a Pro," specifically the camera when coming off the bench, can be aggravating and lead to on-the-ice errors
- The inability to utilize the game's in-depth team creation feature for HUT in order to maintain the unlock-based system of earning real uniforms is disappointing and wasteful
NHL 20 is definitely a strong entry in the larger sports simulation world. For those looking to try a hockey game for the first time, or who have taken a few years off from the series and are ready to get their hands on some new features and updated rosters, this game is a no-brainer. The gameplay is fluid and fun, and the various play styles offer enough variety to more than get your money's worth.
For players who purchased NHL 19 but aren't members of the every-year club, it's a more challenging call. While there are certainly nice elements to the game, and the addition of Elimination modes promises a good time, it's hard to say if that's enough to justify paying full price for an improved version of a game that's only a year old.
If you opt to sit this one out until next year, you'll be missing out, but if you don't mind playing a year behind, you can wait for NHL 21 with the peace of mind knowing that you're missing out on a step forward, not a giant leap.
[Note: A copy of NHL 20 was provided by Electronic Arts for the purpose of this review.]