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EA Sports turns focus to customization, unique feel with latest instalment in NHL series

Taking inspiration from cover athlete Auston Matthews and incorporating all-new offensive flair, 'NHL 20' will allow players to set themselves apart with on-ice style in more ways than one.
EA Sports

EA Sports

EA Sports will launch the latest iteration of their NHL video game series worldwide on Sept. 13, and with the next generation of gaming consoles on the not-too-distant horizon, NHL 20 will be an important release for the publisher – potentially one of the last PS4 and Xbox One titles they will publish in the series.

More than anything this year, EA is touting a greater sense of customization and uniqueness, features which fall in line with other titles available in the sports gaming market. To that end, they’ve overhauled gameplay physics, introduced more customization items in the “World of Chel" game mode, launched a battle royale-style competition – in the vein of Fortnite or PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – and worked in a new broadcast team.

Last year, EA revamped their skating and hitting systems with the help of Real Player Motion, or RPM Tech, allowing gamers to feel the “sizzle” and raw power of elite skaters such as Connor McDavid or Elias Pettersson as they cut up the ice. This year, EA has fleshed out that system, applying it to every aspect of the on-ice product, particularly shooting and goaltending.

A common criticism lobbed at the NHL series in the past has been that players handle too similarly. With the introduction of “Superstar Signature Shots” this year, EA has attempted to address those concerns. One can instantly recognize P.K. Subban’s trademark clap-bomb from the point or Auston Matthews’ toe-drag wrister from the slot and can subsequently re-create those releases in-game. Forty-five new contextual shot animations join the signature shots to make the attacking experience feel more authentic. Shots taken off poor passes will now be weaker and less accurate, whereas wheelhouse set-ups can be one-timed into a yawning cage.

Of course, with new methods of attack comes new defensive mechanisms. Goaltending has been improved, with stoppers now directing more pucks toward low-danger areas or to their teammates. No longer will taking a low, hard shot on net almost invariably result in a juicy rebound in the slot. It’s something William Ho, creative director for NHL 20, acknowledged could be taken advantage of in the past.

“We hear fan feedback all the time,” Ho said. “We've heard that it was almost an exploit. You could take that low shot and count on the rebound going to your open forward. So definitely better rebound control (was important). Having those glove saves, being able to deliberately redirect the puck out of danger that was something we deliberately worked on for NHL 20.”

Goalies will also read the threat level and positioning of attacking forwards in anticipation of shots and react accordingly. This introduces to players a certain aspect of the “shoot from anywhere” strategy. “You will (often) find goalies cheating a little bit so if, with the new shooting, you can find that hole and beat him then that's in your arsenal,” Ho said.

Hear that, Habs fans? If you want to re-create Cole Caufield’s sharp-angle snipe from this summer’s World Junior Summer Showcase, now is your chance (though you’ll have to do it with someone other than the University of Wisconsin commit, who won’t be in the game due to NCAA regulations and licensing).

On-ice performance isn’t the only area in which users will have a greater sense of control this year. With franchises like NBA 2K and Madden being lauded by gamers for their sense of style, NHL has followed suit this year. Their new catchphrase behind the movement: “Be bold.”

EA stressed that hockey culture has begun to move away from the buttoned-down reputation it’s garnered in the past. Fittingly, cover boy Matthews has developed a reputation across the league for his unique, Euro-inspired style, and users now have more than 2,000 total customization items with which they can outfit "World of Chel" characters. New items include facemasks and caps (which can be worn forward or backward), for which the community has been clamoring, Ho said.

Characters, new gear and all, can now also be taken to the ice in “Eliminator," a tournament-style challenge building upon the NHL Ones and NHL Threes game modes. In Ones Eliminator, users fend for themselves and must string together four consecutive wins in order to be crowned that champion. Lose and it’s back to square one.

Putting a fancy bow on the product is a revamped broadcast setup. Gone are commentators Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick and Eddie Olczyk, as are NBC-licensed graphics. EA has instead brought in James Cybulski andRay Ferraro (who appeared previously as the between-the-benches voice) as the broadcast team along with new overlays. Ho said that Cybulski and Ferraro residing in Vancouver, which is home to the EA Sports office that develops the series, will allow the commentary to develop over the course of the year. The duo is expected to be in the studio the up to twice a week, which will allow the pair to develop a rapport, work out kinks and lay down new tracks to keep the commentary fresh, helping give NHL 20’s broadcast a more organic and authentic feeling compared to its predecessors.

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