Review: ‘NHL 20’ builds upon last year’s revolutionary experience

"NHL 20" cover athlete Auston Matthews can perform a signature shot in the newest edition of the hockey video game franchise. Photo Credit: EA Sports

Signature shots enhance the on-ice action, while Eliminator variant gameplay modes wade into the battle royale craze.

"NHL 20" cover athlete Auston Matthews can perform a signature shot in the newest edition of the hockey video game franchise.
"NHL 20" cover athlete Auston Matthews can perform a signature shot in the newest edition of the hockey video game franchise. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Long-running sports game franchises don’t tend to put out revolutionary versions of their annual titles in successive years. So it goes that this year’s "NHL 20" wasn’t going to drastically outskate last year’s impressive "NHL 19."

That’s not to say "NHL 20" takes a step back. Far from it. This year’s entry into the only officially licensed pro hockey simulation series on the market fine-tunes the experience in noticeable ways. That may be a harder sell for those who already plunked down $60 a year ago, but those who missed out are in for a treat.

The most notable new addition comes in the form of a battle royale-esque spin on previously introduced modes, NHL Ones and NHL Threes. Both can now be played in a version called Eliminator. Ones Eliminator tosses 81 players into an online bracket with the goal of winning one-on-one-on-one matchups until only a single players is left skating as the victor. Threes, the arcade-style spin on the NHL, works the same way.

I have to be honest with you: I am terrible at the "NHL" games developed by EA Vancouver. It’s a "me" problem, not a "them" problem. As such, I never got very far in either type of Eliminator, but the idea and execution of it should appeal to core players who love to compete online for bragging rights. As far as spins on the "PUBG"-initiated, "Fortnite" popularized gaming craze that is battle royale competition, this is decent.

Aside of the Eliminator playtype, NHL Ones also adds local multiplayer as an option. It’s addition this year highlights how glaring it was to overlook this option when it debuted as an online-only mode last fall, but it’s here now. So, that’s nice.

The action on the ice will look and sound different this year, as the broadcast package and announce team have been changed. Gone is the team of Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, replaced in "NHL 20" by James Cybulski and Ray Ferraro. Whether you liked the previous team or not, Cybulski and Ferraro mesh well with the experience. The in-game action feels (and looks) less like an authentic televised hockey game, but the franchise might be better off for it.

On the ice, the players themselves are more personalized than ever with the implementation of signature animations to better match the top stars of the NHL. Auston Matthews, this year’s cover athlete, can utilize his unique wrister, for example. The list of players receiving preferential treatment is smaller than the 31 teams in the league, but it’s a welcome step in the right direction.

New goaltending A.I. purportedly is part of the package in "NHL 20" as well, but one could make the argument goals are easier to come by this year than last year. This is not a new complaint for the series, which tends to yield more high-scoring affairs than actually happen at hockey’s highest level.

Franchise mode receives some attention with the ability to manage coaching staffs. From the AHL to the NHL, your team’s coaches can be hired for certain strengths and attributes. The idea is welcome, and it adds another layer of immersion when it comes to running an organization. The "NHL" series still has catching up to do with its team management mode compared to other elite sports titles, but it’s getting there.

All of these additions and changes, plus small tweaks to what’s available to do in time-sucking modes like Hockey Ultimate Team and World of Chel, are welcome in making "NHL 20" a little bit better than its predecessor. Will any of the aforementioned selling points quiet those who’ve wanted major upgrades to career-focused Be A Pro? No. Is navigating the franchise’s notoriously sluggish menus any better? Nope. Are any of the above a major selling point if you were happy with "NHL 19?" Not likely.

Truly, "NHL 20" is a good sports game. If you like video game hockey and have been away from the series’ last few entries, this is a great time to jump back in for a nice time on the virtual ice.

Available now

“NHL 20,” published by EA Sports and developed by EA Vancouver, is out now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, $59.99

Scott Fontana