I was in the crowd during San Jose's epic Game 7 comeback against the Golden Knights. It had everything I love in a hockey game: speed, power, elegant skill, and a raucous atmosphere unmatched in North American sports. When the Sharks completed their comeback and won in overtime, I dragged myself back to my car, half-laughing, half unable to move.
Games like those are what tend to stick in my mind when playing NHL 20. It's a tall order recreating what for my money is the single best sport to watch in person. Hockey is a beautiful, physically demanding sport full of massive hits and incredible goals, but even with today's technology, NHL still isn't all the way there.
Still, NHL has made greater strides in a short amount of time than sibling series like Madden, and with fewer resources. This year's version certainly still has issues, some of them longstanding, but it also has its strengths. Even if it's a pretty conservative update by most standards, it's worth pointing those strengths out.
Here's NHL 20's first strength: it has the best franchise mode of any of EA's sports games. It's a dense, surprisingly customizable experience that includes divisional realignments, user-created teams, and the ability to play in the AHL. Any mode that lets me replace the Dallas Stars with the Minnesota North Stars, complete with a customizable arena, is okay in my book.
EA has been steadily layering in more depth over the past couple years, including an owner mode and revamps to the way that scouting is handled, and this year is no different. NHL 20 now features the ability to hire and fire various coaches, all of whom have unique attributes and salary demands. I've gotta say, I don't think Bruce Boudreau is at fault for the current state of the Minnesota Wild, but I did give some serious thought to canning him out of principle.
NHL 20's coaching carousel is complemented by line chemistries. Basically it's an excuse to juggle your player combinations a little bit and see what works. If players have chemistry with one another, a green +1 or +2 will appear next to the line and they'll get a stat boost. The actual formula for this process is somewhat inscrutable, but the feedback it provides is intuitive enough, so I'm willing to go along with it.
The general idea is that you hire a head coach with a philosophy that fits your own, then acquire players who fit into that scheme through line chemistries. Its accessibility is undermined a bit by NHL 20's dense interface—the number of menus you have to click through can make its franchise mode seem downright labyrinthine at times—but it all comes together rather nicely in the end.
Obviously, there's more work that can be done in franchise mode. Customizable goalie masks would be nice, for one. Online franchise is missed. Perhaps a Winter Classic game? And it could do more to generate storylines and give me impetus to keep playing beyond Year 1. But as it stands, NHL 20's franchise mode gets a lot right.
World of Chel, by contrast, is on shakier ground. EA's big outdoor hockey mode was superficially cool when it debuted last year, but I quickly tired of its signature game, Ones, which had you endlessly chasing a puck with two other players. It felt shallow and I dumped it in a hurry.
Happily, Year 2 seems stronger than before. Ones still isn't much deeper than "scramble around and hope for lucky bounces," but it's supported by a new variant called "Eliminator," which is basically a four round tournament featuring 100 players. (EA hyped it up as NHL Battle Royale, which... nah.) It is fun to try and get as far as possible in the tournament, which in turn gets you some nice cosmetic swag.
Rotating goals similarly bolster the experience. During the early access period, it was possible to earn NHL 94-themed cosmetics by completing objectives in the various game modes, and I was totally okay with that. It even got me playing Threes again, and god help me, enjoying it. (Okay, Threes isn't that bad, but I do find its attempts to ape Rocket League's aesthetic a little obnoxious.) Even then, I think it could be a little deeper.
As it is, World of Chel still doesn't quite do it for me, mostly because I don't really love Ones or Threes. But the infrastructure seems stronger this year, and there's perhaps a greater chance of me getting sucked into Chel than before.
With that, I suppose this is the part of the review where I bid adieu to Mike Emrick, who's anchored NHL's commentary for most of the generation. Emrick is a fantastic announcer in real life, but perhaps because of restrictive recording schedules, he never really worked in NHL. I'm glad EA is getting some fresh blood in the recording booth.
Emrick is replaced by James Cybulski, a veteran of "Sportscentre" on TSN. Yes, he's extremely Canadian. Because it's his first year, his commentary is fairly simple, but I'm willing to call it "good enough." The same can be said for the new presentation, which lacks the arena exteriors and some of the other touches from the NBC overlay, but at least benefits from being new and relatively unobtrusive.
I can't say that I have a ton of thoughts on the gameplay. EA has started working in signature animations for stars like Alex Ovechkin, and the goalies are supposedly a little smarter this year, but these aren't changes that are immediately apparent to the naked eye. It feels much as it did last year.
This isn't what I would call a terrible thing. NHL 19 was pretty darn fun at points, at least until the patches started rolling in. It toes the line between simulation and arcade hockey, with its default settings frequently resulting in breathless rushes from one side of the rink to the other, the puck bouncing haphazardly about the boards. The best players can make the A.I. goalie seem almost hilariously impotent, which is both a credit to the granularity of NHL's controls and a reflection of how far it can be from reality at times.
Come to think of it though, we really get hung up on how close sports games match reality, don't we? I think it was last year that I talked about how it was frustrating to see sports sims obsess over realism to the detriment of being, well, fun. NHL 20 is usually pretty fun, and perhaps comes closer to matching the old fun and accessibility of 16-bit sports than any of its modern competitors.
There's not much else to say about this year's NHL. Many of my previous complaints still remain, among them the Be a Pro mode once again being neglected, and generic players continuing to be frighteningly ugly. On the other hand, no sports sim has a mode that comes close to matching the great EA Sports Hockey League—the longstanding co-op mode featuring fully customizable teams.
It's not been an easy generation for NHL, but its development team has done about as well as it can to recover given its comparatively limited resources. Hopefully all that progress won't be lost once it comes time to transition to the next generation of consoles.
NHL 20 isn't a huge update over last year's version, and its graphics continue to lag behind the competition. Still, it brings with it plenty of solid refinements, and its franchise mode continues to stand out as a strength. Returning players may be disappointed by this year's features, but if you're a hockey fan who hasn't picked up the series in a while, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.