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NHL 20 Review: A Better Playing Game With a Familiar Coat of Paint

NHL 20

NHL 20 Review: A Better Playing Game With a Familiar Coat of Paint

NHL 20 is more enjoyable to play than previous installments but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily penalty free.

A little over a month ago, EA released a short little gameplay video that showed side-by-side comparisons of NHL 19 and NHL 20. The big takeaway from that video was a total lack of control, which basically summed up the disconnect with this series over the last several years. However, while still not perfect, this year the players and controls do feel much more responsive and that allows the series to take some strides in the right direction.

What I Like

New Commentary Team

While some early opinions of the new play-by-play announcer, James Cybulski from TSN, have been mixed — with the most notable complaint being he always seems to be yelling no matter how anticlimactic the situation might be — the previous commentary team of Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk had run its course. Regardless of the opinion on James Cybulski, at least we can say EA is trying to keep the game fresh and interesting, which isn’t something that has been said too often when it comes to the NHL series. Also joining Cybulski in the booth is Ray Ferraro, the previous “third man on the ice” in past NHL games.

New Presentation Package

The NBC Sports Network overlay is also gone and replaced by a new EA overlay. There have been mixed emotions on the new clock positioning, now at the bottom of the screen, but it hasn’t bothered me. The new overlay ends each period with a highlight video showcasing big moments, and the slow-mo replay system does a much better job of capturing the play than the previous presentation package. EA stated that by removing the signature NBC presentation it afforded them more freedom in what they could do. Again, nothing super flashy here, but it is nice to see EA trying something new in regards to the presentation.

Shooting

Perhaps the biggest new inclusion in NHL 20 is the introduction of several new realistic shooting animations that allow skaters to get off shots from a wider degree of angles. In previous versions of NHL, trying to get off one timers was a major headache. In fact, far too often an attempted one timer would result in swing and misses or weak shots if everything wasn’t perfectly lined up. Many (not all) star players have personalized windups and shot motions that help the user feel like they’re actually playing with that player rather than just some generic player. However, several players still do feel similar.

Goaltending

The last line of defense also gets a little love in NHL 20 with a variety of new animations, moves and split-second decision making. Goalies are more aware of threats on the ice and do a better job of deflecting pucks into corners and away from danger. The new animations do not make the average NHL goalie unbeatable or superhuman by any stretch, so it’s a nice new addition of realism added this year, even if they do not always work perfectly.

From time to time, the goalies will leave you scratching your head or slamming your controller in frustration. The fluky goals that plagued NHL 19 (and previous versions of the game) are still present despite the renewed focus on this front. Too often the puck will hit your goalie in the shoulder and then trickle in behind him without your goaltender being able to locate the puck. Although these situations do happen less often in NHL 20 it’s still hard to figure out why EA can’t or won’t fix this. Also, the goaltenders occasionally make some odd choices in their positioning. The screenshot below is a good example of that.

I walked out from the corner with the puck on my backhand and this is how the goalie chose to position himself. I simply took an extra second and sent the backhand shot to the far side of the net for the easy goal.

Franchise Mode Improvements

Starting in NHL 19, franchise mode was focused on in a much needed revamping. This continues in NHL 20 with a new coaching system that affects team building in a big way. Each organization has eight coaches that you can hire and fire at will. Like in the NHL, each coach has his own philosophy of how the team should play, and this affects which players fit into their scheme, how their careers progress, and a big one, the line chemistry among teammates. The coaching system isn’t perfect but it has significant potential. A frustrating aspect in regards to the coaching system is the fact that you can’t hire coaches from other teams, which is the almost standard way the coaching carousel works in the NHL (with the exception of hiring a coach from college or juniors).

More positives include player ratings and contract demands that fluctuate based on their performance. The new trade finder tool is a bit hit or miss. Trade finder helps find takers for players you plan to shop. However, trying to trade star players proves difficult. For the most part though, CPU teams seem much more interested in trading overall. The trade deadline also isn’t as active as it is in the real NHL, though the offseason movement feels realistic.

World Of Chel Improvements

In NHL 20, the World of Chel features more ways to unlock customization and weekly rewards than it did in NHL 19. The popular NHL Ones mode, which made its introduction last year, is also now playable offline. Expanding on Ones, EA created a Battle Royale mode this year. Battle Royale mode plays as an 81-person tournament called NHL Ones Eliminator that starts with 27 three-person matches and gets shrunk down over four rounds. The new mode uses a single-elimination format, and if at any point you lose you will have to start back at the beginning. In NHL 19, you were able to lose two games in a row, and at that point you were only demoted rather than having to start over. This new inclusion definitely makes the mode more challenging and fun.

What I Don’t Like

AI Still Needs Work

The AI is a problem that has lingered in the series for years and years — to the angst of NHL gamers — and doesn’t look to be going anywhere anytime soon. The main issue with the NHL series in my opinion is the AI. The AI is overwhelmingly disappointing in all aspects of the game. Everything from CPU teammates to the CPU opposition is nothing but frustrating. Hockey is such a fast-paced sport where tremendous skill and beautifully creative plays happen in the blink of an eye, and this is where EA falls well short while trying to replicate the real game.

Another frustrating issue in regards to AI and gameplay is the lack of flow. Yes, the game does play like an up-and-down, run-and-gun, arcade-like style. However, to me the speed doesn’t translate when trying to create in the offensive zone or when trying to start a rush. Almost every time your CPU teammates are standing still and flatfooted while receiving a pass or trying to setup a cycle. If you have your system settings set on “leave the zone early,” then your CPU teammates will occasionally catch a pass while moving up ice. In the offensive zone, it is a completely different story. Your skaters are automatically forced to go to a designated area without ever properly reading the play. The freedom and creativity that you see in real hockey is nonexistent in NHL 20 and the series in general.

The above screenshot is an example of the horrendous AI that has plagued the NHL series for years. This overhead view is of a 5-on-3 power play for the visiting team in white (human-controlled). The puck is being battled for in a one-on-one battle behind the net (human-controlled). Since the white team doesn’t have clear possession, the CPU teammates all passively retreat, offering no help or support despite having a two-man advantage.

In this short video, a human-controlled skater enters the offensive zone on a two-on-two. The CPU Minnesota defender (captain and elite defender Ryan Suter) is going to start backing up, and while I end the video there, he’s never going to challenge the offensive player. Instead, as you begin to see, he will drift into his defensive partner and out of the play as the clip ends.

Where Are The Box Scores?

A big negative in franchise mode is the nonexistent box score feature that all other sports games have. It’s hard to figure out why such an important feature would still not be included after all these years.

No Changes To Be A Pro

BAP again remains untouched and hasn’t really seen any changes in about six years. Furthering the disappointment is the fact that other EA titles, such as Madden and FIFA, have taken major strides and focused heavily on the story-driven Be a Pro mode in recent years. Now, we all know that the NHL team is the smallest of the EA Sports teams, but it’s still hard to sit by and accept a mode that hasn’t been touched at all while on this current generation of consoles.

EASHL And HUT Seem The Same

It doesn’t seem like anything was done here to add to or enhance the EASHL experience. The AI here in this mode is equally as frustrating as it is in any other mode. HUT is another mode that is relatively unchanged from NHL 19, although there are some minor tweaks in NHL 20. For instance, packs are cheaper this year than last, and there are new legendary players that have been added as well.

Bottom Line

Although still not perfect, NHL 20 is a more enjoyable experience on the ice than any of its predecessors. In addition, the new features for the most part enhance the game’s overall playability. However, if you are looking for or expecting true, realistic NHL-style gameplay, then NHL 20 is not the game for you. The same lingering issues still exist here, preventing the series from truly mimicking the real product, and the AI really does single-handedly damper the gaming experience in my opinion. But here’s to hoping EA is on the right track as the studio is finally starting to make strides again.

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  1. The above screenshot is an example of the horrendous AI that has plagued the NHL series for years. This overhead view is of a 5-on-3 power play for the visiting team in white (human-controlled). The puck is being battled for in a one-on-one battle behind the net (human-controlled). Since the white team doesn’t have clear possession, the CPU teammates all passively retreat, offering no help or support despite having a two-man advantage.

    I don't think the reviewer has taken strategy adjustments in to account. Although he's not wrong about the A.I. - their passive setup in the screenshot he used indicates that the forecheck is set to just that - passive.
    Although I understand the game needs to make adjustments based on where the puck is and what is happening - the onus is still on the player to recognize what strategies are working in the moment - and which ones aren't.
    Strategy adjustment is an under-utilized strategy for getting the A.I. to cooperate with you.
    KoryDub
    I don't think the reviewer has taken strategy adjustments in to account. Although he's not wrong about the A.I. - their passive setup in the screenshot he used indicates that the forecheck is set to just that - passive.
    Although I understand the game needs to make adjustments based on where the puck is and what is happening - the onus is still on the player to recognize what strategies are working in the moment - and which ones aren't.
    Strategy adjustment is an under-utilized strategy for getting the A.I. to cooperate with you.

    What's the point of having strategy adjustments if we CANNOT EDIT IT AND SAVE BEFORE WE START A FRANCHISE!!! We only have the option to play a season controlling all the 31 teams and edit all the strategies inside the season for each team or play a franchise and edit only our strategies, something that fixes nothing since the CPU teams will have the same problems. Also these kind of AI behaviors should not be fixed editing strategies, should be a better programming AI when playing on a PP.
    Anyway, it's a nice review and is good to see that some people are enjoying the game, however i won't touch it again until it gets on EA vault next year and i hope it becomes playable with sliders adjustments.
    Reviewers play the game once and never learn how to adjust sliders to make the game play more realistic or actually play it more then 0nce to learn how to play it. I never trust any people who review the game. If you understand how the nhl works then you would say this game plays beautifully.
    This game is not any better than NHL 2019. NHL 2020 is getting hammered pretty hard with the reviews so far. Metacritic has the game sitting at 78. NHL 19 had a score of 80. EA took a step backwards this year. It's time for changes EA! WAKE THE **** UP!
    Brain dead AI. No seperation of players. Game doesn't feel like NHL hockey. I'm sorry. Also what's with the stat overlays during a game? Can't even get a chance to see them. The stat overlay disappears after 3 seconds. Who made this game decision at EA? Fire this idiot with the rest of the team please! Get some people in there who know how to play hockey and know what it takes to make a great hockey game. Pathetic...
    https://www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-4/nhl-20
    tullyd
    Reviewers play the game once and never learn how to adjust sliders to make the game play more realistic or actually play it more then 0nce to learn how to play it. I never trust any people who review the game. If you understand how the nhl works then you would say this game plays beautifully.

    Are you suggesting that Ryan only play NHL once and never know how to adjust sliders? You know that he is the one that make most of the NHL articles from operationsports? That's totally unrespectful...
    I usually mute announcers a few weeks/months after playing a game because I'm annoyed with repetition. In this case, I muted them after 2 games. I cannot stand this team. That voice grinds on me. I do feel it plays better IMO. I like some of the new puck pickups and the new shots.
    Peter_OS
    This game is not any better than NHL 2019. NHL 2020 is getting hammered pretty hard with the reviews so far. Metacritic has the game sitting at 78. NHL 19 had a score of 80. EA took a step backwards this year. It's time for changes EA! WAKE THE **** UP!
    Brain dead AI. No seperation of players. Game doesn't feel like NHL hockey. I'm sorry. Also what's with the stat overlays during a game? Can't even get a chance to see them. The stat overlay disappears after 3 seconds. Who made this game decision at EA? Fire this idiot with the rest of the team please! Get some people in there who know how to play hockey and know what it takes to make a great hockey game. Pathetic...
    https://www.metacritic.com/game/playstation-4/nhl-20

    Just a heads up that you know you've been here long enough not to say this sort of stuff. There is voicing displeasure and then just using inflammatory language. You know the difference Peter.
    i am saying wait for the first patch and alot of the issues will be fixed and adjust sliders and turn up ai aggressiveness. dont ever judge a game based a few reviews by people who dont understand hockey and how authentic the
    video game is compared to the real game. no video game can imitate the real thing i am sure ryan is a good reviewer but he shouldnt judge or review the game based on playing it a few times .play it 10 times then give it a review score and wait for the patch to fix alot of the issues.
    Peter_OS
    Metacritic has the game sitting at 78. NHL 19 had a score of 80.

    Just to be clear - If I spent $100 building my HUT team and I lose online to 4-5 cross creasers - I'm able to just go to Metacritic and say the game sucks, right?
    ChaseB
    Just a heads up that you know you've been here long enough not to say this sort of stuff. There is voicing displeasure and then just using inflammatory language. You know the difference Peter.

    This guys lives for negativity. It’s just what he does.
    I've been one of this games biggest critics since NHL 07 and I had to take a step back because my complaints were never being addressed. Some still haven't, BUT this game is the best it has been since NHL 14 with all the issues etc.
    Fiddy
    I've been one of this games biggest critics since NHL 07 and I had to take a step back because my complaints were never being addressed. Some still haven't, BUT this game is the best it has been since NHL 14 with all the issues etc.

    It's finally fun to play again! The over the top commentary, presentation and smooth game play works for me. Not to mention the new goalie awareness and animations, franchise improvements and a slew of other improvements.
    KoryDub

    Strategy adjustment is an under-utilized strategy for getting the A.I. to cooperate with you.

    Good point. I read comments in here, (and FIFA forum) that make me wonder if more/better use of strategies/tactics would ease some frustrations. For NHL, remember we can crank the user strategy adjustment slider and the game will change your strategies based on game situations. I do my own, so I can't comment on specifics - like if it ups your forecheck for the PP - but with it maxed, it should make aggressive changes. It seems to work well enough for the CPU on higher settings.
    Also, it's a fair point to want better contextual AI behavior independent of strategies. However, it's a balancing act with giving the user control of how their team plays. Ideally, the user has the tools to dictate overall team/NPC behavior while also allowing for variation based on tendency and skill ratings (or traits). At the other end of the spectrum, I can remember playing past versions of games in which these settings were mostly ineffective. I don't think that's the case anymore.
    ugh. that clip you posted of Marner coming in on Suter. What level was that on?? Thats why I havent bought the game since 2016. If that stays in the game you saved me $60.
    Good fair and well informed review.
    For me personally is this year presentation change step one decade back, so it can be hardly improvement for the way I play the game.
    Also great point about the up and down arcade hockey nature. Something you can't change nor fix with sliders. That is just their choice.
    It is also much easier to program the game like this. You've got much less "holes" to solve with straight/limited scripted action like this.
    For me it's just not fun anymore.
    I love the game and have found it to be their best version yet. It's got its flaws and issues and weird stuff but so does every sports game on an annual release. But it's a fun game and really solid on the ice, especially after slider adjustments. Franchise mode is really deep and the new find trade option is a lifesaver.
    In my franchise I have found that changing all the team strategies to match the head coach is a plus. I fired a defensive coach for an offensive coach and upped the pressure to match the new HC and changed the team strategies line-by-line to match, makes every line and situation feel different and allows the realistic "new coach, new system" change to happen when needed.
    The hitting is absurd.
    I haven't played sicne NHL15, but I did the 10 hour trial.
    The hitting just doesn't make sense. Like that's not what hockey looks like. It's basically a Scott Stevens hit constantly.
    I know that gets better when you get the hang of moving the puck.
    I will say, I did find the defensive AI did a better job of playing passing lanes on the breakout, but the hitting is so exaggerated that it ruined the whole in-game experience for me.
    cjacks17
    The hitting is absurd.
    I haven't played sicne NHL15, but I did the 10 hour trial.
    The hitting just doesn't make sense. Like that's not what hockey looks like. It's basically a Scott Stevens hit constantly.
    I know that gets better when you get the hang of moving the puck.
    I will say, I did find the defensive AI did a better job of playing passing lanes on the breakout, but the hitting is so exaggerated that it ruined the whole in-game experience for me.

    What difficulty level and mode are you playing on?
    On AS default/simulation I rarely see a big hit, in fact to me, it seems much improved in this area this year.
    cjacks17
    The hitting is absurd.
    I haven't played sicne NHL15, but I did the 10 hour trial.
    The hitting just doesn't make sense. Like that's not what hockey looks like. It's basically a Scott Stevens hit constantly.
    I know that gets better when you get the hang of moving the puck.
    I will say, I did find the defensive AI did a better job of playing passing lanes on the breakout, but the hitting is so exaggerated that it ruined the whole in-game experience for me.

    I put the CPU hitting to 0 and they hit me six times a game with 0 Stevens type hits.
    I haven't bought this game for a number of years as I believe the series has taken a rather large step back under Rammer and his crew. I wasn't planning on buying this year's game either but it was gifted to me by my wife. Rather than hurt her feelings, I opened it and started playing.....I was happily surprised. Took awhile to fine tune the sliders as to adapt to my declining skills but after accomplishing that, I've been quite pleased with this one. While the reviewer here is correct on the shoddy AI which has always been EA's achilles heel, I'm finding that I can compensate for my teammates offensive blunders but the lack of defensive coverage is appalling. You simply can't be everywhere as you receive very little help.....but hey, it plays very, very smoothly and is a lot of fun to play.  Crackling good animations and I actually kind of like the new play by play guy....hockey is an exciting game and he reflects that in his game call.  I'd have to say that overall....I do recommend this game and it's been literally years since I've said that about an EA hockey game.
    MJ200
    ugh. that clip you posted of Marner coming in on Suter. What level was that on?? Thats why I havent bought the game since 2016. If that stays in the game you saved me $60.

    Honestly, that's been one of my gripes forever, and no amount of sliders, difficulty or strategy adjustments would fix it. Suter's not pressuring from the front on a deadly shooter, and he's getting no backcheck from Zucker to help take the puck either.
    The AI is just always incredibly passive, and really only seems to wait to get into arm's distance to go for a cross check and doesn't really do much else.

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