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The hockey-obsessed Game Informer staff has put dozens of collective hours into the NHL 20 beta over the weekend, our longest look at the game thus far. Though the gameplay in this build is about eight weeks behind the work EA Vancouver has done to polish the game, the time on the sticks still gives us a good idea of how the experience has evolved from NHL 19. Here are our biggest takeaways thus far regarding the presentation, modes, and gameplay.
The Reworked Broadcast Presentation Is Divisive
The longtime NBC duo Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk pass the torch to a new broadcast team in NHL 20. As good as that tandem is in real life, their work in the game never captured their dynamic commentary and began to feel stale. New play-by-play man James Cybulski raises the energy level in his performance, which is a refreshing change of pace. That said, some people we played with are already annoyed at his exuberance.
Ray Ferraro moves from the Pierre McGuire role to assume color commentary duties, and his work is a mixed bag so far. He doesn't interject himself into the conversation as much as you would expect for someone in that role, and right now the broadcast feels light on insight or anecdotes that enlighten beyond the moment to moment play. Their commentary is clearly a work in progress – they aren't even announcing the player names you pick in EASHL – so perhaps these pieces are coming later.
The broadcast changes that we enjoy the most so far are the reworked replay system and Play of the Period highlight package. The new dynamic camera angles do a better job of celebrating big moments, even if the slo-mo sound effect gets old quickly.
The new scoreboard placement appears to be the most divisive change thus far. Its new location on the bottom of the screen makes it harder to peek at the clock at a glance. Maybe they add an option for players to select where they want the scoreboard?
EASHL Gets No Love
Many hockey fans purchase the NHL game and only play the EASHL mode, which pits teams of three (or six) users against one another in a divisional ladder format. Despite its popularity, it appears EA largely took the year off in offering improvements. Some of the player classes have slightly tweaked skills and a few of the traits are gone, but everything else appears to be on par with NHL 19's offerings. This means no practice mode, no changes to the abysmal CPU A.I., and no toxicity tools to deal with the unsavory team and player names that run rampant in the mode.
The progression rewards system has a few minor tweaks in that you no longer automatically receive useless goalie equipment if you never play goalie (though you still unlock useless goalie traits and specialties), and the weekly challenges give you aspirational items to earn. However, these challenges require you to play through all the modes in World of Chel. We would prefer if challenges were mode agnostic so experienced players aren't forced to waste time in casual modes like Pro-Am and Threes if they want a rare team jersey or some other coveted reward.
The Good Gameplay Innovations
One of the biggest features EA touted for NHL 20 is the contextual shot animations. After playing the game for a while, we can say with confidence these are a nice addition to the experience. Particularly when playing Versus mode, we noticed players lunging to get their stick on the puck, opting for soft tap-ins at the back door, and repositioning themselves to get a shot off even if the pass is too tight to their body to get a full-powered shot.
The pace picks up in the transition game thanks to the new feature that allows players to receive passes in stride, which helps make the game feel faster when moving the puck from your back-end to the attacking zone. Aim your pass correctly and you may start generating more odd-man rushes or breakaways.
I've also been largely impressed with the goaltenders so far. Netminders are much more active with poke checks on breakaways, during penalty shots, and when skaters cut across the crease. They also do a better job at redirecting pucks away from high traffic areas (with one major caveat we'll discuss in the next section).
Areas Ripes For Improvement
Open betas are meant to be dissected by users, and NHL 20 has a fair share of areas that need addressing. The most glaring issue right now is the wonky puck physics. Far too many goalie saves careen into the stands – we're talking 5-10 times a game on average. In addition, we're seeing several unnatural situations where the puck pops slowly into the air after a deflection and takes forever to come down to the ice. Couple this with the legacy issue of pucks being deflected all the way to the other end of the ice with the speed of a slap shot, and this area of the game just feels off.
The passing also hasn't found its sweet spot yet. Far too many passes move much slower than anticipated, even when you're charging up the pass power by holding down the trigger. We've seen way too many dribblers slide across the goalmouth, making it easy for trailing defensemen to pick off one-timer attempts.
While puck pickups operate much more fluidly in transition, we still see a lot of problems related to loose pucks. We've seen instances were multiple players skate over a puck to seek possession, only to move right past it.
As we mentioned in the EASHL entry, the CPU A.I. is also lacking no matter which mode you're playing. Overzealous forwards skate offside clearly ahead of the play. Defenders curiously move out of sound defensive position for no particular reason. The worst culprits of all are Saros and Kurtz, the buffoon A.I. defensemen in EASHL. These hosers always pass a second too late, run right into goaltenders on breakaways, and love to jump into the offensive play when the forwards are already in position, leaving the team exposed to breakaway counter-attacks. The tragic A.I. makes you want to take the night off when you don't have a full roster of human players.
Casual Modes Get A Boost
EA says more people than you think played the arcade-centric World of Chel modes like Pro-Am, Ones, and Threes in NHL 19. The second year of WOC should be better than the first for fans of these modes thanks to some smart evolutions. Ones Eliminator and Threes Eliminator extend both of these experiences with a round-based winner-take-all format, and Ones Now finally lets you play with friends on the couch. I personally would have preferred these efforts went into improving the more popular EASHL, but here we are.
The beta comes to a close tomorrow, so time is running short for forming your own opinions on where the game stands today. If you've already played, share your thoughts in the comments section below and check out the list of changes EA has already made to NHL 20 in the lead-up to launch.