Here’s an interesting question to pose to all of you sports fans today: Take a popular sport beloved by millions of people. Now, make it more accessible for newcomers while retaining the strategy necessary for hardcore fans. While some designers would probably go the EA route, with full sim-recreations of the game, Midway Sports went in the opposite direction, with arcade mechanics and over the top action for their sports titles. Innovative and lots of fun to play, Midway aficionados eagerly await the hard-hitting play from year to year. Well, prepare to be surprised, because Midway’s season, led off by NHL Hitz Pro, is more grounded in fundamentals than the absurd.
Like previous titles, Hitz takes advantage of the current roster for the NHL as of late July. (Unfortunately, this means that the recent tragedy that’s befallen the Thrashers renders the roster dreadfully outdated.) This lets players hit the ice of the NHL fielding the strongest players from pre-season camp, which helps when choosing between leaping straight into an exhibition match and playing a full season with a favorite team. If the strain of slugging your way through a season feels like too much for one sitting, you can leap straight to the playoffs and play for that coveted trophy, the Stanley Cup. Ambitious coaches can try to lead a team of unknown players into the league by choosing Franchise mode and taking on all comers, or you can play a pickup game at one of three unexpected arenas.
Now, if you’re like me and you haven’t ever strapped on a pair of ice skates in your life, don’t fret, because the included Hockey School is designed to educate even the most ice illiterate player. Taught by star players like Glen Murray and Stephen Weiss, and presided over by the legendary Scotty Bowman, the NHL’s all-time winningest coach, you’ll learn the difference between a slap shot and a stick check. Creatively, the moves within Hitz have a Rock, Paper, Scissors mechanic to it. A Deke beats a Body Check, a Body Check beats a Guard Puck, a Guard Puck beats a Stick Check, and a Stick Check beats a Deke. Aside from these fundamentals, you’ll get a chance to practice these skills and get pointers from the pros as they instruct you on the best moments to use these talents.
Regardless of the mode you choose, the arena you play in or the team you field on the ice (which can include national teams like Finland, Sweden and America’s rival on skates, Russia), players can expect a hard fought battle for the puck. Unlike previous years, the refs serve more than a decorative function in this game; they’ll actually call and enforce onsides and icing penalties, for example. Unprepared players who commit too many fouls could find themselves caught in a power play that they might not be able to defend against. However, just because there are refs doesn’t mean that Hitz is limited in the amount of bone-crushing blows you can lay on an opposing skater. With effective timing, anyone can send a player flying through the glass or onto the bench.
Along with the redesigned focus on the gameplay, Hitz has received a boost in graphical detail across the boards. While there are four more players on the ice than previous Hitz games, the character models seem a bit larger, and feel better animated. For example, the transitions between a deke to a guard puck when you’re knifing through a tough defense seems much smoother, and the extension from players stretching out to knock a puck away from an unobservant skater is beautiful. This, coupled with a nice camera and animated crowd, gives a great sense of flow to the action. In fact, the biggest detraction that you could potentially claim for Hitz are the possible hardware differences, such as frame rate drops or lossy textures found mainly on the PS2 or the Gamecube.
Sound is handled nicely as well, with a rather impressive crowd dynamic for gameplay. During tight games, the crowd is basically a sixth man, cheering and stomping along with the action, while during blowouts the crowd might lightly applaud. Tim Kitzrow and Harry Tienowitz do an adequate job of calling the game and running the play-by-play, yet quite a bit of the zip and humor found within the series commentary seems to be missing.
These items aside, one of the trickiest items comes up, that of the gameplay. Don’t get me wrong, Hitz Pro provides a ton of options for play, allowing anyone to tweak the play to their liking. Want a tightly controlled sim game? Ratchet up the rules and ref options. Desire more of a brawl on ice? Pump up the fight leniency. These are all great for giving players tons of flexibility. You’ll also find that the AI will perform some great moves, such as initiating wraparound shots or coming up for a rebound slap shot. Additionally, if you’ve got a PS2, you can experience a pretty decent online experience thanks to the online mode.
However, some of the other features seem rather lacking in comparison. For instance, there are only 3 pickup games, none of which allow NHL or national teams to play on them. Instead, you only get blue collar hockey fans that play amateur matches. If you consider that this mode takes the place of the mini-games from last year, you’ll notice just what a minor tradeoff this feature is. Secondly, the number of hidden or additional features typically found in a Midway Sports game are dramatically reduced, and the items that you do find are of little consequence at times. Primarily pertaining to the franchise mode, it’s an interesting concept to get a famous player’s jersey, pads or skates (which impart bonuses to the skater wearing them), but depending on user-defined options, these bonuses can be rendered insignificant.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there’s something about the spirit within Hitz Pro that seems to be slightly lacking from last year’s title. For instance, while you can lay out an opposing skater, the size difference between some skaters can border on the impractical, which actually is more of a jarring problem now that things seem more grounded in reality. The number of fights also seems dramatically reduced even if you jack up the fight meter and go looking to cripple people; they just don’t breakout as much as they used to. Finally, catching on fire, the typical Midway staple of a player in the zone, comes across much weaker than previous titles. There are seemingly only two ways to achieve this state, and both of them come across as either accidental or a hit or miss situation. It’s rather disappointing to see just how limited this equalizer to a game has become
Aesthetics aside, NHL Hitz Pro still provides an enjoyable hockey experience that’s easy to pick up and play, graphically sound and aurally interesting just like before. However, this experiment with more realism injected into the series lacks a certain amount of zip that diehard fans have come to know and love. Hopefully next year’s version will augment the arcade action within the 5-player format as well as more features reminiscent of previous titles, but as the start to a new franchise, NHL Hitz Pro is definitely skating in the right direction.