EA Sports' latest installment of its popular NHL series, "NHL 20," hits stores on Friday. We've been playing it for about a week, so here are some takeaways from our early access.

EA Sports

1. The presentation is much improved

The NHL series has been in dire need of a presentation refresh for a few years now, most notably with regards to the commentary team. Doc Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Ray Ferraro took over those commentary duties beginning with "NHL 15," but the trio's run has come to an end with "NHL 20."

EA Sports decided to do away with the NBC Sports-style presentation, which not only means that the broadcast package has been dropped, but so too has the commentary duo of Emrick and Olczyk.

Ferraro was always the strongest of that bunch and he stays on to serve as the primary color analyst (an upgrade from his role as third-man-in from ice level) while James Cybulski takes over the play-by-play gig. Cybulski may not be a household name or easily recognizable voice when it comes to hockey broadcasts, but this is an upgrade for the game. 

Not only did the previous trio's commentary get extremely stale with a very familiar slate of nonsensical dialogue, but it didn't particularly work that well to begin with. Through little fault of his own, Emrick's signature crazed, breakneck style of play-by-play never really translated to the video game realm (much like Gus Johnson on "Madden") and it often led to some really disjointed bits of commentary. Plenty of routine sequences were met with Emrick losing his mind behind the mic and it rarely felt like an authentic broadcast experience.

With Cybulski and Ferraro, the commentary isn't completely seamless but it tends to be a little more responsive and appropriate for the action you see playing out on the ice. 

It's sad that we'll no longer hear Edzo shoutout that young lady from Shawinigan, but it's a worthy sacrifice.

With the death of the NBC branding also comes a new scoreboard ticker, one that may take a little getting used it. It takes up too much unnecessary space at the bottom of the screen and its animations can be a bit distracting during play, but it brings neat goal summaries. 

Another minor improvement in the presentation department comes via in-game replays, specifically after goals. Though some of the replay angles make it difficult to really appreciate your hard-earned highlights, there is a sweeping new slow-motion replay format that showcases goals. It can lead to some really cool looks. 

2. Gameplay continues to smooth out the kinks

Simply put, this year's game plays pretty well. There's no major overhaul when it comes to gameplay, but that's because one wasn't really needed. "NHL 19" took a significant step in the right direction by revamping the skating, which made a world of difference. Those changes opened the door to a more fluid and authentic experience, which "NHL 20" builds off of. 

Puck pickups are pretty damn seamless, which allows for cleaner transitions and end-to-end play. Contextual shots boost realism and help eliminate frustrating, brainless whiffs. Goalie play, while still far from perfect, is improved. There are more save animations (with several of them helping to keep the game in motion rather than frustratingly bringing it to a halt) but goaltenders are still a bit too anchored, jittery and inhuman. 

A long overdue addition to gameplay is the inclusion of signature shots, which bring some much-needed character and depth to gameplay. Many star players have personalized windups and shot motions that help the user feel like they're actually playing with that player rather just some generic digital unit wearing their jersey.

One of my biggest frustrations with last year's game revolved around clearing the puck out of the zone. Way too many of the clear attempts -- both on the human and CPU side -- would fly out of play and earn a penalty. Sure, it's an unfortunate reality in the real-world NHL, but it doesn't happen nearly as much as "NHL 19" would've led you to believe. That issue seems to be sorted out this year, thankfully. 

An area that still needs a bit of work is the deking system. Simply, players with higher skill ratings should be able to deke with more effectiveness. The success rate for the game's elite, elusive skaters just isn't high enough.

NHL 20

3. Graphics desperately need an overhaul

Folks, 2015 called and it wants its graphics back. "NHL 20" may play better than ever, but it hasn't exactly taken any major steps towards being a visual treat. This year's game looks pretty much the same as it has for the past few years. 

Here's what I wrote about the graphics in last year's review:

Let's break it down this way: If NHL 18 and NHL 19 were cars, they'd both have the same, relatively unassuming base body model. Let's call it a Toyota Corolla. But while they look the same from the outside, the NHL 19 Corolla is supercharged under the hood. It's still a Corolla, meaning it's not going to turn many heads on the street, but it's a whole lot more fun to drive. (This review is not sponsored by Toyota, but if they want to send me a free Corolla I will not object.)

One year later and that still applies when comparing "NHL 19" to "NHL 20." And, yes, I am still open to accepting a free Toyota Corolla.

From a vanity standpoint, there's a major lack of texture and detail to the in-game graphics, especially when you compare them to EA Sports' other offerings like "Madden" and "FIFA." Those games are currently miles ahead of the "NHL" series. You play them and you can see beads of sweat on a player's face. You can see details on the jerseys. Someone walking by your television could briefly mistake a video game for the real thing. 

But "NHL" is unmistakably a video game. Once again, far too many player faces look nothing like their real-life counterparts, including some stars. The uniforms still seem heavy, flat and lifeless. We need more jersey movement when players are ripping down the ice and firing off shots. 

The game is desperate for a fresh coat of paint, but perhaps that's to be expected when the cover art looks like this:

4. Offline modes still lack immersiveness

Admittedly, I'm not much of an online player, so I'm not much of a valuable source when it comes to HUT, "World of Chel" and other online modes. However, I do log a ton of hours offline trying to carve out a career as a player in Be A Pro and as a general manager in Franchise mode. 

Both of those game modes still lack elements of depth that would convince you to be truly invested in the experience.  There's not a whole lot of fun or interesting things to do away from game-to-game action. 

Franchise mode makes some baby steps with features that should have been in the game at least a handful of years ago. You can now manage and communicate with your coaching staff as well as search for trade offers. Line chemistry is a thing, too. 

As someone who loves to get completely sucked into sports franchise modes and the seemingly mundane elements of team management, to the point where I establish a very real and very raw emotional connection to my club and my players, I still find it pretty hard to get lost in NHL's consistently rudimentary offering. 

Be A Pro still really offers nothing of substance, yet both "Madden" and "FIFA" bring cinematic, story-driven player career modes. Those can be hit or miss, but at the very least they offer proof that the developers are trying to be creative. "NHL" has nothing of the sort, and it just feels lazy that they've allowed what should be a popular mode get this stale.

5. So, should you buy it? 

I don't know, it's your life... spend your money however you want. But I'm going to give it a 7.8/10.