September has fallen into a routine for gamers looking for a hockey fix, and it’s a routine that looks something like this: EA makes a lot of ‘we’re fixing EVERYTHING’ promises, the game releases with fans hyped to try all the new tweaks, and then…disappointment.
Fortunately, this year looks to buck the trend, with a laundry list of fixes that actually made it into the game ranging from mundane things like coaches in Franchise mode having a morale system to the RPM Tech 2.0 upgrades that completely obliterates my biggest issue with the franchise over the past few years.
My biggest pet peeve with the gameplay has been the way you get ‘locked’ into a glide when you’re picking up a pass on the fly – which removes the ‘on the fly’ part of that process. If you’re curving toward the boards when the pass comes your way, you’re left to smash into them and stop your momentum entirely. Even worse though, catch a pass in the slot and you’re likely out of the prime scoring area before you can shoot.
RPM Tech 2.0 does away with all that, and 99% of my other animation concerns, right out of the box. Whether you’re a fan of speedier players like McDavid, who dramatically benefit from the puck pickup changes, or if you like to cycle the puck in the opposing team’s zone, RPM Tech 2.0’s upgrades are a godsend.
I’m not going to say there’s nothing left to fix here. I’d still like to see players have distinctive skating strides, for example, and while they’ve added signature shots for 18 of the top stars there’s a lot of room for additions on that front, but on the whole this is the largest gameplay improvement for the franchise since the addition of Skill Stick. 45 new contextual animations for shooting help solve the ‘why would he chip a weak backhand on net?’ problem from past games, while 400+ new animations for goaltenders help them keep the puck out of the net.
The bigger addition for netminders is the ability to control the rebound, directing the puck away from the front of the net and into the corner or over the glass. The AI still falls into the ‘shoot, rebound, score’ trap, and they still have some weaknesses in the corners when getting backed into the net, but overall, it’s a much more natural and realistic experience.
The AI has obviously been tuned as well, with more aggressive and intelligent teammates that do a better job of filling the holes than they have in the past. It’s possible to pin the opposing team into their zone, for example, and they don’t surrender the neutral zone quite as readily as they did in the past. Custom slider settings have always been a key part of making it a more sim-like experience for those who want it, and we’ll see what gamers can do with them this year – but expect it to take a few weeks for properly tuned slider settings to start being offered up.
The audio also saw a major overhaul with Doc Emerick and Eddie Olczyk out and James Cybulski and Ray Ferarro dropping into the booth. In the pre-release footage I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a positive trade or not, as Cybulski’s audio seems permanently set at ‘Stanley Cup Game Seven’ levels of excitement, but after a few games it stopped being something I noticed except for the big moments when it fit perfectly.
Visually there’s no major overhaul besides the animations, but the game does seem to run better than past titles have. There’s no more stuttering music during menus and pre-game loading screens, for example, and I haven’t had a single noticeable framerate drop during gameplay. There are still only faces for a select – albeit quite large – group of players, and that seems to also extend to the legendary players brought in for the NHL Alumni teams. Guys like Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe, and Lidstrom look fantastic, but some of the lesser legends like Mike Gartner don’t fare quite as well.
With a ridiculous assortment of modes to play in, gamers will have no problem finding their niche whether that’s running a team in Franchise, Season, or Hockey Ultimate Team mode, living the life of an NHL player in Be A Pro – a mode I’d still LOVE to see overhauled into more of an RPG with choices to make and repercussions to live with, or playing online in World of CHEL’s ridiculously fun Ones and Threes modes.
Having over a dozen modes to play means the menu’s a little busy, but fortunately you can pin your three favourite to the main screen to help separate the wheat from the chaff.
4.5/5 – NHL 20 has some minor issues but plays a fun game of hockey. RPM Tech 2.0 is a revolution for the game’s controls and eliminates most of gamer’s complaints, at least on that front.