Developer: Next Level Games
Release Date: September 25, 2003
Acclaim has not been known for the simulated aspect of cyber-simulation-sports. We have the wonderfully addictive and hilarious NFL Blitz. We also have the woefully terrible MLB Slugfest. Somewhere in between we have NHL Hitz. Hitz is a franchise dating back to coin-op machines in a time when video game arcades were actually profitable. The biggest change in the franchise came when the design went from horizontally scrolling sprites to three dimensional figures beating the snot out of each other with the ubiquitous “He’s on fire!” signifying a flurry of goals.
This year Acclaim has sought to add some refinement and subtlety to a series of games that have absolutely none. For their part, Acclaim has made the smart move here. With a resurgence in hockey games over the past two seasons, Acclaim has watched EA take a rather embarrassing stumble last year and knew even though Gigantor fell flat, he’d get back up again. In response Acclaim has added new features and enhanced existing ones and tried their best to take advantage of what X-Box has to offer. In some ways they succeed marvelously and in others you are left wondering what exactly happened. If I am to insert a clever hockey analogy here, Acclaim’s line change is the right one and came at the right time, but someone tripped getting off the bench.
Starting up the game leaves you to be “treated” to a poor quality video of uninspiring highlights. The video is blurry and must be due to its use on PS2. It’s not the end of the world, but certainly a bad first impression. The game makes up for it with the ability to hop through easy menus to get into a game. Load times are negligible and before you know it you’re reworking your opponent’s dental work in an efficient if not brutal fashion.
A small investment of time allows you to involve yourself in the game’s most rewarding single player experience: Franchise Mode. In Franchise Mode you cannot control the ticket price, concession stands or upgrade travel expenses; what you can do is start your team off in the minor leagues and (taking a cue from European Sports Leagues) work your way up into the NHL. Playing a fifteen game season allows you to do several things, all of which are pretty good. You can edit players but you cannot significantly alter stats, a reasonable concession. As you rack wins in the Minors you are given tasks to fulfill within the game. These tasks start off simple but then increase in difficulty. At first you’re asked to score a goal with this guy, easy enough. Then you’re asked to score two or three, fine, no sweat. What gets a little trickier is when you have done these things with fourth line players. An easy work around is to team up your specific task appointed player with your best line mates and go to work, but even this doesn’t guarantee things as you face teams that are better than you as time goes on. The purpose behind these tasks is special gear you can earn the right to use with any player. You can assign Paul Kariya’s skates to make a slow-poke keep up or a speedster blaze on. Rob Ray’s helmet makes your lightly salted finesse players a touch spicier in a fight or can make your bruisers make prison guards shudder. The catch is that you can only give one piece of equipment to one player with the exception of goalies. As you mount wins and fulfill tasks your team improves considerably to the point where you can compete with the big kids.
What matters most in any game is how well it plays and for the most part NHL Hitz Pro plays rather well. The analog control is fluid and realistic to a point where you can’t check someone who is directly behind you. To lay the body one needs to garner enough momentum and pursue one’s quarry at the correct angle to intercept and thus neutralize the target as a viable threat to one’s own net. One of my favorite things to do was let the puck sit in the corner and wait for the other team to come by and try to grab it. While they did a little bit of the Turbo Button and a well placed check sent them through the glass and tumbling over the boards and into the crowd. It was totally ill.
Passing and shooting are on their own buttons as well as a spin move and a “protect the puck” button. The latter buttons serve as a rocks-paper-scissors style of checking and dodging checks. It’s not balanced perfectly but the system works. The problem is that tapping the B-Button only helps when you’re being stick checked as the Y-Button shields you from body checks. Who’s going to stick check in a game like this? Perhaps a hurdle or stiff arm would be more appropriate for this game. If you’re playing the computer then you can up the rate at which it stick checks and this addresses the problem, but in two player mode stick checks are all but irrelevant.
In terms of sound and music, Hitz Pro is a mixed bag. The music revolves around a rock/metal theme but thankfully you can use your X-Box hard-drive laden with ripped music to create your own soundtrack. Crowd noises and in game sound effects are fine, but nothing impressive. The best aspect of the game’s sound is the commentary, which has some interesting interpretations of what is happening on the ice. Personally I would’ve liked it more if it were more over-the-top, but what they have is fine. My favorite bits come during the load times when both commentators have something totally inane to say which always makes me smile. Unfortunately the commentators are not available for the pick-up games you can play at the city hockey rink or local pond. It makes sense, but I’d like to have them there anyway.
NHL Hitz Pro a well dressed game. The in game graphics are clean and the animations, however limited, are very fluid and life like. For some reason the player models are all jug eared, but hey it takes all kinds. The actual NHL players are face mapped for the most part and look somewhat like their real-life counterparts. One of the best graphical moments in the game comes when goals are scored. First you’re given a replay where you can actually move the camera and slow down time to behold all the glory that is you. It’s neat the first few times, but then you never do it again…until a friend comes over and you to dutifully instruct him and/or her how his and/or her defense was split during an odd-man rush and how your merciless stick handling froze the goalie, made him we this pants and then be scored upon top shelf, where momma keeps the peanut butter. After that the celebration begins and the game makes use of a nifty little camera effect to add depth. The figure in the foreground is clear and brightly light from different angles and colors and the ones in the background are fuzzy and out of focus. It’s a small detail, but details make games better.
The only gameplay design that puzzles me is the fighting engine. Fighting in other hockey games tend to not exist or be an after thought but in a game like Hitz Pro fighting is and should be an integral part of your strategy. I was hoping for a Streetfighter mini-game or something, how cool would Hurricane Kicks be with skates on? But what I was left with was a bunch of flashing buttons which stop on one and you have to tap it faster than your opponent and then that means your guy can launch that volley of punches. The fighting system is okay at best. It’s better with a friend (see the pattern?) but I think a fighting system closer to EA’s engine for NHL 2004 would have been more fun, at least that way you have a modicum of control over what punches you throw and whether or not you block them.
As a whole NHL Hitz Pro is a great party game. Playing on your own is fun, but ultimately not satisfying enough for the game to be considered great. Being played over pizza, beer and a bunch of friends while some silly baseball game is on TV is a much better way to enjoy this game. The game’s are fast and furious enough for youthful testosterone bursting college age boys and fun enough for their girlfriends to pick up play and excel at so as to shame their primate-like lovers. It’s a wonderful thing when this happens.
The time you spend bringing up minor league teams to NHL status, tweaking the play-list and earning all sorts of cool gear will also unlock a lot of other hidden treats as well. Getting bored with the game? Throw on some cheats to mess things up and make it a little more interesting. Turn on the Bulldozer Puck feature and mow down anyone in your way with a nasty slapper or a twisted wrister. All in all NHL Hitz Pro delivers what it advertises in a clean and fun package. I’d highly recommend it for dorm rooms and bachelor pads.