NHL Hitz Pro Review (PS2)
NHL Hitz Pro is the first game from Midway that sports their new philosophy of “more realism”. You have to give it to the company for trying to change with the times. They took their proven formula of high-octane action and applied it to a 5-on-5 hockey game. By opening up the ice a bit, and improving the defensive AI to do more than just knock your block off, Midway has crafted a surprisingly addictive hockey title, that can actually coexist in any hockey-lover’s library. If their sim of choice (ESPN of NHL 2004 usually) gets a bit tired, they can slap in Hitz Pro for an instant tension-reliever.
I actually like the graphics in Hitz Pro. Even on PS2, I think they’re acceptable (albeit a bit muddy texture-wise), and I never found myself thinking “man this thing is ugly”. You can see what you need to see…passing lanes, goalie positioning, and players diving for the crease. Midway seems to have gone out of their way to try to add more cinematic flare to the game, and has really succeeded in doing so. Cutscenes will give you all of the off-play action, with players shoving and whatnot. They also give you the game highlights or pretty saves in between faceoffs. Stopping quickly will create the expected spray of ice, and the crowds are well-animated. Overall, it really does a nice job of making you feel like you’re looking at a hockey game. The largest problem with the graphics is the framerate: quite often, you’ll find yourself crossing center ice, only to have the framerate drop considerably. I haven’t quite figured out why yet. It happens on all rinks, ponds, or parking lots. It happens whether you have 3 or 10 players on the screen. In short, it’s a mind-boggling screw up, but eventually you’ll end up looking past it because the game is just so fun.
The play by play is the trademark “Midway Sports Guy” that everybody will recognize. It hardly ever lags behind the action (unless you do a tic-tac-toe passing setup for a one timer, but even then he’s tough to beat), and one of the funniest things I’ve heard is him arguing with the color commentary guy in load screens. During the highlights (Story of the game segments), they will actually provide some eerily accurate analysis of what’s going on out on the ice. They’ll make mention of key checks, shots, and screens…all of which actually happened. It never ceased to amaze me. The crowd is the last thing worth noting; they actually act like a crowd. Miss a big shot, you’ll get a rumble from the crowd at home, or a cheer on the road. Big hits get the expected “OOOOOHHH”, and they chant during a game. It really is a joy to listen to.
The single biggest aspect of any game (in my opinion) is always how it plays. It can be like dating a supermodel…she could be beautiful and say all the right things (do you want me to get you a beer, dear?), but if you get her home and she’s hardly “fun to play with”, the relationship won’t last long. It’s the same way with games. Thankfully, Midway took the gameplay of NHL Hitz and just expanded on it. It’s now 5-on-5, but it’s still blazingly fast…much moreso than any other hockey title on the market. Joystick jockeys out there will get their money’s worth on Hitz Pro, because the action clips along so quickly, that mere mortals will have a hard time keeping up on the higher difficulties. You really can pepper the goalie with 10 shots in 10 seconds if you get the rebounds, which brings me to my biggest gripe: goalies are completely unpredictable, even in a game. Usually in the NHL, you can “feel” how the goalie is going to perform in the first few minutes of a contest. Being a Ducks fan, Giguere is the best example there is. When he’s on, you can tell. He’ll make fantastic kick saves, insane glove saves, and just completely shut down the net. However, when he’s off…it’s bench time. Who can explain his unbelievable run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year, only to allow something like a 2.88GAA so far this season? Game to game is one thing, but in Hitz Pro, it’s shot to shot. You have absolutely no idea what your goalie is going to be able to do, which combined with the blistering pace, gets a bit frustrating. You could play solid defense, and build a 1-0 lead with hardly any time left. If you try to get too safe, and the CPU gets into your zone, your goalie who has completely shut down the attack all game might let a simple wrister go flying by, even without a screen. I don’t know a goalie in the NHL who won’t save a shot with a clear view.
It’s not a huge problem, but scoring goals (or having them scored on you) doesn’t have a feeling nearly as rewarding as in other games. You can actually score on slappers from the blue line, which is a plus, though. You’ll have trickle goals, rebounds that get shoved in, all sorts of goals (which is refreshing), but none of them give you that feeling that you just worked your way to a score. A lot of my games on the harder difficulty levels degraded into “cross the blue line, throw the puck on net, see if I get a rebound or the goalie just misses it”. With the game speed, you don’t have time to set up a “true” offense very often, and when combined with the schizophrenic goalies, it ends up feeling even more frantic. Giving up that one rush could make or break the game (which is both a good and a bad thing). Fighting has also been retooled this year, but I’ve never been the type to stay glued to my TV to see a fight in a hockey game. I realize there are some out there, so they will appreciate the overhaul. It’s almost like one of those ‘dance games’ where you have to hit the button when the icon shows up. You’ll have a series of buttons, with the moving icon above it. Press the required button as the icon hits it, and you’ll fill up the meter. The first one to fill up the meter wins. Interesting take on fighting, but it’s there if you want it.
After you look past the initial gameplay aspects, you start to look at modes. Hitz Pro has the required exhibition and tournament modes, but the franchise mode is what needs the biggest explanation. It’s unlike any other franchise mode you’ve ever seen, which will probably make or break this title’s longevity with most gamers. In Hitz Pro’s franchise mode, you actually have to create a team first, then take said unknown team through a series of games against other no-name teams en route to a place in the NHL schedules. This means your “Waukeegan Warriors” will actually square off against the Detroit Red Wings eventually. It’s bizarre, but it works. My only wish is that you had more control over your uniform colors and stylings. You choose from preset logos, and your logo choice determines your uniform automatically. Also, don’t lose 3 games in a row…if you do, your progress is instantly canned. You’re done. I guess that would already eliminate the Ducks this year, wouldn’t it? When you actually make it to the NHL, though, you’ll have fun seeing your no-name players score on Hasek and the like.
When trying to determine if a game is right for you, what do you look for? If it’s graphics, Hitz has a framerate problem, so you might be annoyed. If it’s sound, you’ll love it. But, if you’re like most gamers out there, you want to know if it’s fun. NHL Hitz Pro has fun down to a science…they should probably get a patent on it. It’s fast, addicting, and insanely fun. It’s not intended to replace the current juggernaut titles in the NHL arena, and that’s a good thing. It’s for the gamers who like to have different experiences with their hockey games. With Hitz Pro’s sliders, you can make it anything you like, so you could have as much of a sim as you want, or you could go over the top and have a no-holds-barred slugfest. If you like a fast and fun game of hockey, look no further. If you’re a sim purist, give it a rental and see if you don’t have a hell of a time.