Reviewed: December 2, 2003
Released: September 30, 2003
For countless years (even dating back to the golden era of arcades) Midway Sports titles have provided a unique approach to the sports genre. Offering irreverent and exaggerated gameplay that promoted fun and arcade-like action versus those other stat-heavy sims, games like Blitz, Hitz, SlugFest, and even Redcard created their own niche market and a surprisingly large and loyal fan base.
But for every fan of the series there were at least a dozen “serious” sports gamers that scoffed at Midway’s attempt to liven up the genre. Burning players, comical (and sometimes painful) animations, and a casual disregard for rules and regulations of the sports these games were based on were just not accepted.
Midway is changing all that with their latest installments of their football and hockey franchises. Dropping the traditional “year” moniker and replacing it with “Pro” is only the beginning. These new sports titles have been reworked from the source code up to cater to the original fans of the series and hopefully lure a few of the more serious sports enthusiasts into Midway’s camp.
NHL Hitz Pro is the first of these new sports titles to arrive for next-gen consoles. 2003 is seeing a massive amount of sports titles being “dumped” into the gaming pool. For any given sport you have at least two options, sometimes three or four, so just how does NHL Hitz Pro stack up to the competition?
NHL Hitz Pro Key Features:
Midway’s ultimate goal was to find that “happy place”, no, not Happy Gilmore’s fairytale land of beer, lingerie, and midgets on tricycles, but rather a perfect (or acceptable) mix of their original arcade vision combined with enough sim-like attributes to make even the most skeptical armchair goalie happy. And guess what? They did it!
NHL Hitz Pro gains immediate credibility by taking the game from three-on-three to five-on-five. With the added players comes an increase in the rink size and the AI has definitely been tweaked to promote teamwork rather than the one-man showboat. In essence, NHL Hitz Pro has risen from the depths of arcade ridicule and joined the likes of EA, ESPN and 989 Studios versions of the sport.
Unlike those other games, Hitz Pro still has that childlike charm hidden within its core, just waiting to be unlocked by those who choose to tweak a few options. Gamers have full control over just how “real” they want their hockey experience to be by adjusting more slider controls than you would find in a recording studio. Just about every aspect of the sport of hockey can be toggled; tweaked, or fiddled with to give you arcade fun or sim-serious gameplay.
Even when you crank up all the sim options NHL Hitz Pro never quite achieves the same technical level of gameplay realism as NHL Live or ESPN NHL, but it still manages to deliver an excellent hockey experience that will appeal to a much broader audience than ever before.
Novices to the sport of hockey will find the new Hockey School an informative and very useful tool in getting acclimated to the sport and how to play it on a console. Once you have mastered the basics you can take your game to the rink in an expanded Franchise Mode of just have some casual fun in a Pick-up game. The Franchise mode is unlike anything I have ever played. Other sports games have you create a player then try to get him recruited, but Hitz Pro has you create an entire team then compete in a brutal series of games to prove themselves worthy to enter the NHL. You get to create the team from scratch picking from a wild and ultra-cool selection of uniforms and team logos. This mode is not for the weak. It’s a long hard fight to the big league and if you lose too many consecutive games you are tossed out of the competition entirely.
As cool as this approach to the Franchise mode is I still would have liked a traditional Franchise system where I could manage an established NHL team. Basically, you just don’t have the option to manage your favorite “real” team, and when you combine the fact that your fantasy team has to go through the rigorous qualification process to even play a normal season, only the most diehard fans will ever see this mode through to its conclusion.
Those with favorite teams can still enjoy taking them through a regular season, or if you are in a hurry to add that Stanley Cup to your locker room just head straight to the Play-Off mode and ignore that silly season thing.
Midway has always been known for its wild and crazy player enhancements and outlandish playing environments. Even these aspects have been toned down just a bit in the Pro series. Pick-up games now include realistic people in realistic locations so you might find yourself playing as a bunch of kids on a frozen pond or how about a game of street hockey?
Even though Hitz Pro has made a huge shift to serious gameplay there is still plenty of hard-hitting action, both smacking the puck and the players. Checking the opposing team has never been this fun or brutal. The brawls are intense and the officials seem to overlook a majority of the un-sportsman-like conduct. When a personal fight eventually breaks out you get to engage in some fisticuffs that take the form of a Simon Says mini-game. The face buttons will appear on screen and you have to match the indicated button repeatedly to fill a meter and land a punch. It’s a fun little diversion that replaces the traditional fight modes of other hockey games.
Attacking the puck with the same ferocity as the players will send it streaking across the ice, bouncing off the boards and hopefully sailing into the net. You have one of the best command and control systems at your disposal to execute slap shots, wraparounds, or coordinate tricky crossover plays to sneak one past the goalie. You have a full complement of dekes, spins, and other moves you can use to make your trip into enemy territory that much more successful. Hitz Pro is truly pick-up and play even if you don’t go through the tutorials.
The defensive game has been enhanced with some new moves. In addition to the poke check you can dive and block shots. Your ability to perform any offensive or defensive action is an intricate calculation using the stats of the players involved. This makes the game just as much about the players on the screen as the ones holding the controllers.
NHL Hitz Pro is probably one of the prettiest hockey games you can play this year, and the Xbox version is easily the best of the three platforms for this particular title. You won’t find more realistic, crisp, detailed textures or high-detailed models, wrapped into a complete hockey presentation package anywhere else. Even the menu system is a model of perfection, simple to use and easy to navigate.
Much like ESPN NHL, a lot of work has gone into making you think you are watching a broadcast hockey game. This includes plenty of realistic informational displays, TV-style camera angles, and plenty of pre and post game content. You’ll see the teams filing in from the locker room and the camera will swoop over the crowd, which I must say is one of the best crowds I’ve seen in any sports game this year. The spectators are individual 3D models (no cardboard cutouts here) and even though they duplicate they are scattered so well you will hardly notice. They all react appropriate, moving around, cheering and yelling at the players on the ice.
The arenas are excellent whether you are playing in a major stadium with the Jumbotron hanging overhead and smooth mirror-like ice below, or just playing a neighborhood game of street hockey or a friendly game of pond hockey.
Animation is excellent, both in the flawless framerate and the individual moves for each of the players. Each move is independently mo-capped and these are seamless integrated together to create an almost lifelike hockey experience. Just check out some of the goalie animations if you have any doubt.
Special effects range from the excellent reflections in the glassy surface of the ice that slowly diminishes over time as it wears down to some excellent lighting effects and of course that famous flame effect when your players catch fire.
As with any sports game you get a replay system to review the action, and Midway has created a new feature that allows you to “Be the Cameraman”. This gives you full control over the camera to pan and zoom around at will and revisit that amazing shot you just pulled off from any angle.
NHL Hitz Pro does support Progressive Scan so HDTV owners will get to experience all these wonderful visions at even better resolution and quality than a majority of gamers. While I don’t have an HDTV I do have “access” to one and I must say the difference is astounding.
Tim Kitzrow has been doing commentary for Midway Sports games for as long as I can remember. I love his banter with Jimmy Shorts in the SlugFest games, and he just adds that extra level of professionalism and quality to any game is works on. He is in rare form on this project. His lightning-fast delivery of the play-by-play manages to keep up with the action on the ice – something that’s hard to do in real life let alone simulate in a game.
There is also plenty of color commentary that is fun and informative and surprisingly manages to not get repetitive or annoying, even after 15-20 hours of gameplay. One especially nice touch is the commentary that plays out during replays that is often insightful and even scary in its accuracy. Some of their discussions revolve around events earlier in the game or manage to capture the scope of the entire game.
The ambient noises (if you can call them ambient) are all there to make your hockey game as real as can be. The PA announcer can be heard in the background but he is usually drowned out by the multi-layer crowd noises that are quite accurate with the action on the ice and also any team alliances. The rest of the sound package is dead-on with realistic sounds of skates on ice, wood striking wood or scraping on ice or sideboards, and the thud of players hitting each other or the ice. Considering the lack of any Dolby Digital surround support the game sound amazing.
Sports games generally have a lifespan that is only as long as its next sequel or in this case, annual update. NHL Hitz Pro offers countless hours of quality hockey action whether you are just exploring the fun and challenging pick-up games or choose to tackle the in-depth Franchise mode.
The lack of Xbox Live support was immediately apparent and I won’t be so easy to forgive this oversight if it happens in next year’s version. For now, we will have to resign ourselves to playing with only four people (no – not even a system link is supported). Online play not withstanding, you cannot even connect to download new content or updated NHL roster data.
Midway had one goal in mind when the decided to go “Pro” – make a hockey game that was fun to play while still observing the rules of the sport, all the while keeping it fun to play without bogging the gamer down in endless stats and detailed gameplay. NHL Hitz Pro is just that; a fun action-packed experience with mass appeal.
There is plenty here to justify a purchase no matter what type of sports gamer you are. Fans of previous NHL Hitz games will still enjoy the easily accessible gameplay and hopefully respect the move into a more serious variation of the sport. While NHL Hitz Pro still might be too simplistic for hardcore fans, everyone else is going to love it.