NHL 20 is a Monster Package and Turning Point for The Series

NHL 20 Preview

When I sat down with NHL 20’s creative director William Ho, I could see genuine excitement in his eyes.  William knows EA Sports is primed for the September release of the best-damned hockey game to date, and he’s ready to show the world.  In my short time with NHL 20, I was shown a variety of new features that will fundamentally change the way the game is played, by pushing the series forward towards a more realistic experience.

I appreciated the fact that William started by speaking to old-time hockey.  A time where individuality didn’t have much of a place on the ice.  The game was played with the collective mindset of the crest on the front of your jersey was a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back.  Of course, this mindset still exists for many of the stars of the NHL, but there’s no denying that in today’s hockey, these players are individuals.  They’ve become brands.  Their charisma and personality is more present in the game than ever, and this year, EA Sports is celebrating that with their RPM-Tech Powered gameplay.

The new ‘Signature Shots’ being introduced are going to replicate the biggest stars’ real-world shot styles, and they’re looking fantastic in NHL 20.  The few I saw (20 in total, upon release) were identical recreations that had me feeling as if I was watching real-life highlight footage.  PK Subban’s unique slap shot delivery is instantly recognizable.  His high-angle windup and straight-as-an-arrow follow-through are perfect.  Alex Ovechkin, one of the most lethal scorers in league history, receives a pass to the top of the circle and drops to one knee, ripping it home in the process.  It’s the sort of realism the series has needed for years, and this is only the tip of the iceberg as several hundred new shot animations, and new passing and puck pick-ups change the way the entire game feels.

The first time I received a pass mid-stride, I had a huge smile on my face.  In previous years, when a player would receive a pass, the game would force the player to stop moving for a split second.  This created a feeling of sort of stop-and-go hockey. This is now a thing of the past, as the new puck pick-up animations have the players seamlessly receiving passes without losing a step.  This creates faster, more skilled, and more fluid plays up and down the ice.  It’s something you need to feel for yourself to know just how well it works.  Once you do get the puck into the attacking zone, with the new ways RPM Tech has been applied to shooting, no matter the angle, the distance to the net, or the player you’re shooting with, the correct shot for the situation will always be taken.  Gone are the days of players cluelessly shoveling the puck towards the net.  For the first time, these players feel like they’re making decisions.

He Shoots, He Scores! 

Skaters aren’t the only ones with new tools to play with, as thankfully, goaltenders have seen a major overhaul.  New goalie A.I. includes full offensive threat analysis, which allows goaltenders to read the positioning and threat level of every attack.  Say goodbye to a lot of the “automatic goals” from previous NHL entries.  In NHL 19, one of my go-to moves was to shoot low pad for an easy rebound one of my wingers could tap in.  In NHL 20, goalies will read the fact that I have a man getting set up, and will redirect the puck into the corners, just as they would in real life.  These are the sorts of changes that force a player to stay engaged throughout the entirety of the game, as opposed to just turning on auto-pilot and scoring the same goal over and over.  Also of note, if you’re like me and enjoy position locking as a goalie, the new animations and shot control tendencies will automatically be performed making playing the position easier than ever.

With the fresh decade, comes a revamped broadcast package that is sure to get many longtime fans excited.  As much as I love Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, I think most would agree that the entire NBC presentation package had run its course.  Dedicating yourself to emulating the exact look and feel of a real-life broadcast limits what you can do.  This year, EA has created an entirely new presentation and broadcast package that allows them to focus more on the game’s biggest moments.  Overhauled scoreboards, overlays, and motion graphics all help add to the excitement of scoring goals.  Everything feels more important now, especially thanks to a revamped replay system.

That’s a Beauty Celly

In years prior, scoring a goal often felt anticlimactic as the replay system failed to capture the excitement of the moment.  All-new replays have the action tracked better than ever, showing off plays from angles we’ve never seen before.  They give off a much better sense of the play, and the reaction from the crowd, and it’s a big part of helping with that feeling of authenticity.  These then translate to the ‘Play of the Game’ highlights, giving your friends and foes a chance to relive your best moments.  This all looks fantastic, but what truly brings the package together is the new commentary team.

The problem with the commentary teams of years past was that they were never local.  EA would need to fly the team out to Chicago three or four times a year.  This would severely limit the time they would have with Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk.  To remedy this, EA has brought in the local commentary team of newcomer James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro, who moves up to color duties after previously only reporting from rinkside.  Cybulski and Ferraro are able to come down to the studio once a week, where they develop the quality of the commentary, re-record and improve things that they feel can be done better, and above all else, have built real chemistry with each other that seeps through into their lines.  In prior years the commentary teams would only get about 30 hours of booth time.  This year, the team had 300 hours.  This doesn’t mean that there are 300 hours worth of lines, keep in mind, but that 300 hours worth of work went into shaping and molding this commentary.  The team will also continue to record new contextual commentary throughout the year, adding an ever-evolving layer of realism that we haven’t seen before.  Expect the commentary to be far and away the best we’ve ever heard in the series.

Hockey Ultimate Team is back and this time it’s taking a page out of Fifa’s book with the fan-favorite mode “Squad Battles”.  Every day you’ll see new opponents appear, including weekly ‘Featured Squads’ assembled by NHL players, musical artists, hockey influencers, and superstar athletes from other sports.  By beating these squads, you’ll earn some big rewards.  HUT has also brought the total number of collectible and playable legends up to over 400.

Banana Lands

If ‘Ones’ and ‘Threes’ was your thing, you’ll be happy to know that they are back, and better than ever.  New to NHL 20, the highly competitive game mode Eliminator is EA’s take on battle royal meets hockey.  Playable solo or with friends, Eliminator pits 81 players against each other in an elimination tournament.  If you or you and your squad can win four back-to-back rounds of increasing difficulty, you’ll be crowned the winner.  ‘Ones’ can now be played offline, in what William described as NHL meets Street Fighter.  You pick your characters, pick your rink, and the more you play the more you unlock.  They also hope to add more players post-launch.  Along with these game modes, come four new outdoor rinks (the outdoor rinks from last year will be returning too) that will surely be a hit among players come September.

The first I was shown was an old farm, complete with a beat up dryer that’s been used for shooting practice.  The Park, based off of Vancouver’s Trout Lake and the year it froze over becoming a skating rink for the city, looks fantastic and hits close to home.  Heading over to Ottawa, a rink inspired by the Rideau Canal might be the most impressive looking out of the bunch.  Finally, The Peak is set at the peak of a glacier, on a mountaintop.  This one is completely out there in the best of ways, and it’s so nice to see EA having some fun with these here.  What’s especially great with these new rinks though, is that they’ll be available for all modes – Ones, Threes, Five vs Five and Six vs Six.

A huge hit in NHL 19 was the casual gear you could customize your ‘World of Chel’ player with.  Last year saw around 900 items worth of gear for these players, but NHL 20 brings that number up to over 2200.  This includes new categories that have been requested by the community, including hats, and face masks.  You’ll find weekly in-game events that will reward your player with items and XP, with new content being released post-launch to always keep you coming back to the rink.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy for me to be excited about NHL 20.  A lot of what I saw, in only a short amount of time, are things that I’d been hoping to see for some time now.  EA Sports is starting to hone in on delivering the full package, and I believe in years to come we’ll look back at NHL 20 as being a major turning point for the series.  From top to bottom, the game is smoother, more fluid, faster (without actually increasing the game speed!), and more fun than ever before.  NHL 20 releases worldwide on September 13th, and it might just be the sports game to own this year.