The current stay-at-home policies have millions looking to fill an abundance of free time that would typically be occupied with a flurry of spring sports activity. Arguably one of the best sports chunks of the calendar year any other early April would have seen the NBA and NHL barreling towards the playoffs, non-stop NFL Draft coverage, and a few weeks of MLB action. Gaming is up across the board as we find something to fill the void.
This is what lead to a significantly discounted copy of NHL 20 finding its way into my life. Let the journey commence for an NHL 20 beginner.
I am by no means a die-hard hockey fan. Somehow, in college, the game of choice that everyone wanted to play on weekends was the NHL series. I grew up in Texas, far from the hockey towns from which my peers hailed. Outside of NHL Rock the Rink for PlayStation 1 and the NHL Hitz series, I knew very, very little about the game of hockey altogether. So, sure enough, when it was time to play the actual simulation title I was floored by the amount of rules that the arcade titles disregarded entirely.
But I came to love the game of hockey altogether. As a die-hard baseball fan, hockey’s breakneck speed and constant stress levels are a thrilling contrast, and I struggled for years to find a team to follow. Do I follow a top star like Ovechkin or Crosby to learn as much as I can about the game at the top level? My hometown Houston Aeros were the farm team for the Minnesota Wild, how about them? Surely I could not side with arch-rival Dallas by any means, so should I follow one of their rivals? One thing was certain, I did not need any sort of team history to pull me in, and I wanted to rally behind a team that had never won the Stanley Cup before.
The trouble is, I never identified with a team. Even when the Golden Knights came around, I felt strangely unmoved to adopt them as my own. However, with their presence came the return of the expansion draft in NHL 18, and the idea of creating my own hometown squad and assuming the Golden Knights’ narrative was thrilling. I have never been a huge fan of card-collecting modes, and since I needed to familiarize myself with the league at-large, the expansion draft just made the most sense. I bought my first NHL title in seven years and was thrilled for what was ahead of me.
But my expansion club failed to retain my attention. On the ice, I encountered the same gameplay frustrations in NHL 18 that I did an eternity ago with NHL 11 on a previous console generation. The CPU was either blindingly overpowered or comically inept, and I soared to a lopsided winning percentage atop the league. The few losses were blowouts, and when I increased the difficulty level to accommodate, the game became so difficult that it almost felt like the CPU was cheating. Not too long after, I tragically gave up on the expansion team and sold my copy of the game.
NHL 20 Brings Me Back
Baseball’s absence due to Covid-19 left me with a void of something to follow and learn about with a certain level of interest. So when I saw the discounted NHL 20, memories of learning about the league while playing NHL 11 and the bonkers worldwide franchise mode from NHL Hitz 2003 pushed me towards trying again.
I hopped into Training Camp and was immediately met with muscle memory. There is additional polish to physics from what I remember, but it feels all too familiar, for better and for worse. Even the “learn more” section remains a collection of videos with instructions instead of interactive tutorials, a gripe I had from 2018. I certainly do not need a tutorial to show me how to shoot, but I would have loved some situational defense practice.
As I hit random button combinations trying to figure out the one-handed tuck, I learn of a shot fake and the ability to jump with the puck. I cannot find them in the controls section, so I check them out on YouTube and try to achieve what the game should already have been doing in its Training Camp. So far, not so good.
Every few seconds, I get hit with an error that the servers are unreachable, but that I also need a connected EA account to use the game’s online features. I don’t need custom rosters and I will not be playing any of the card-collecting modes, so I continue to close it out.
On-ice, the game is a frantic blast. My players appear smarter, and the physics altogether feel right and better. I feel like I have better control of my players and that the AI is not telepathically picking off every pass. Dumping the puck is easier and effective instead of magnetically clunking the opposition in the chest. Body checks have gravity, and whiffs feel justified as opposed to a randomized chance. It feels easier to maintain an offensive possession. Controlling the puck is easier, and its movement is more calculated than erratic. It tangibly feels better than 2018, and it makes for an excellent on-ice experience.
I get locked into a 3-3 tie going into the third period with excellent penalty killing and two short-handed goals, and I am immediately reminded as to why I loved this series in the first place. I immediately forget every advanced deke I went over in training camp and somehow cannot win a faceoff to save my life. I wind up losing 5-3 with both goals coming in the final three minutes, but NHL has sunk its claws into me. I eagerly jumped into the next game and found myself hooked.
At the time of writing, the game is only $23 both for physical and digital copies, and it comes with a tremendous recommendation. It is perfect for NHL newcomers, casual fans looking to grow their familiarity, and sports gamers looking to branch out and try their hands at a new sport. Arcade-style single-player modes, your textbook card-collecting mode, and a deep franchise mode with an expansion draft option all provide considerable legs to a title that feels great on the ice.
I’ll be back with more because this on-again-off-again fan is back to being a fan for now.