Cool as ice.

As the only game left in town for NHL Fans, NHL 20 has both a lot of weight on its shoulders and little reason to “rock the boat.” This newest iteration of EA’s seminal hockey series does make some major improvements to the on-ice side of things, particularly with respect to new animations and fun new modes, but in general continues to disappoint in some places that should have been fixed several iterations ago.

On the ice, there is no doubt that this game plays phenomenally. The controls are smooth and relatively user friendly, with several variations in scheme. If you’re the basic arcade style hockey fan you can play with the NHL ’94 controls, which limits input to two buttons but dramatically reduces the number of tricks and specialized shots players be able to access. From there they can step up to a hybrid of stick and button controls all the way up to pure Skill Stick controls. Skill Stick offers an almost dizzying amount of puck control and shot options for folks who want to be able to make spectacular plays and have true freedom of movement for both the stick and manipulation of the puck. I found the training courses for the various moves connected to the Skill Stick to be very detailed and easy to understand, but at the same time I had trouble remembering during the heat of a scoring opportunity as to what types of moves and shots were good for what situations and the somewhat intricate controls to access them.

MSRP: $59.99
Platforms: XB1 (reviewed), PS4

Visually the game looks amazing. One of the big selling points for the series this year is the suite of new animations and they are impressive. For the amount of complicated and often very intricate moves that are available in the game I never saw a situation where my skater looked or behaved in a way that was unnatural or “gamey”. Another selling point is improved Goalie AI, and I can say that while the bulk of the time the AI in this area is solid, Goalies in the game still get faked out by the same moves way too frequently.

All the major modes and features one would expect are here, in addition to a couple new ones they may not expect. Franchise, Season, and Quickplay modes are pretty standard issue affairs in all EA’s offerings, and these modes remain relatively unchanged year over year with the same sort of control and options as you would expect. Over the last several iterations of the NHL series the World of CHEL mode has become a major focus, and this year’s game adds a lot of new cool features in this mode. For those that aren’t familiar, at its core the World of CHEL mode is a selection of single and multiplayer modes where players essentially create a character and use that character to play in various types of games and challenges to unlock new gear, customization options, and more.

There’s plenty to do in World of CHEL and plenty of reward for doing so. NHL 20 has added thousands of new customization options, from unique hockey gear to branded apparel and more to collect (complete with common/rare/etc. tags so everyone knows how likely they are to run into someone else sporting that radioactive green hockey stick they just unlocked). The customization in this mode is really fun and one of my favorite things about playing games against other CHEL players was seeing what items they had unlocked and how they had their players designed. Players can also unlock customization options throughout other modes in the game by completing CHEL challenges, which gives extra incentive to try some them out.

When it’s time for the puck to meet the ice in CHEL you’ve got several options to do so. If players are only interested in single player content, they can play through the Pro-Am section and still progress their character. The real stars of the mode are the EASHL (EA Sports Hockey League) and the brand new Eliminators. The EASHL is the primary multiplayer component of this mode, and it’s where players play online in teams against other players from around the world. I spent most of my time online however in the new Eliminator modes.

These modes are battle royale style (ugh, I know) tournaments in either the Ones or Threes style of play. Ones is by far my favorite, and involves three players on the ice at the same time, all competing to see who can score the most goals before the time limit is up. The winner of each round moves on to the next, while the other two are eliminated from the tournament. The structure of this is the same for the Threes tournament, where one competes against another team of three players to see who moves on. I had a blast playing Ones online and, while my skill-level certainly left a lot to be desired, I never felt like I lost in a cheap or unfair way.

My favorite modes in modern sports games are always the single-player “Career” style modes in the vein of Road to the Show or Be a Pro. The Be a Pro mode in NHL 20 has a lot of the things everyone has come to expect from the genre, with the ability to either enter the draft straight after character creation, pick teams directly, or enter the CHL to try and play for a chance to be the number 1 pick. Before writing this review I went back to my last NHL series review (’17) and read my feedback on Be a Pro. At the time, I lamented the stock black and white images with plain text overlays that represented the conversations with team leadership and agents. Unfortunately, several iterations later that’s still the method used in this year’s version. They also still rely on a letter graded system of game performance to determine total experience gained and playtime. Unfortunately, while some of the major movers in this area (scoring a goal, getting an assist, not committing penalties) are pretty explicit some of the other ones are either vague or not adequately explained (for example, “good” line changes). In general, NHL 20 still seems a step behind other sports games (most predominately MLB The Show and the NBA 2k series) with respect to this mode. Next year’s game should be a complete overhaul with playable training sessions and more detailed interactions off the ice.

Not that fans of the NHL have any other choice if they want an up to date representation of their sport of choice, but NHL 20 is a great pickup. Even if you aren’t a huge hockey fan there is a lot to love here, and the ability to simplify the controls ensures that everyone can have fun even if they aren’t all that knowledgeable with respect to the sport. The new multiplayer modes are fun and the customization options added to CHEL make for a pretty good reward for playing. If you’ve ever enjoyed playing a hockey game, it’s worth checking this one out. If you love the sport, it’s pretty much a must buy.

Review copy of game provided by publisher.

  • On ice action is smoother than ever
  • Presentation is excellent
  • World of CHEL and new Elimination modes
  • Still missing some things from several iterations ago
  • Be a Pro mode still needs some enhancements
Written by
Wombat lives by the code that if you are playing a game from this year, you are doing it wrong. His backlog is the stuff of legend and he is currently enjoying Perfect Dark Zero, Skies of Arcadia and Pong.