Published by: Midway Sports
Available on: Playstation 2
, and X-Box
Reviewed on the Playstation 2.
It really is
called NHL Hitz 20-03, the dash in "20-03" is official. See www.midway.com
As a somewhat sporadic hockey fan (I follow the Colorado Avalanche during the playoff season), I hadn't really gotten into hockey games until I recently acquired a PS2 for Christmas. My dad has one as well and picked up a copy of EA's NHL 2002 for a few bucks at CostCo. After playing for a bit with my dad (and whooping him soundly), I was hooked on the genre and immediately wanted to rent / buy my own copy of NHL 2002, or hopefully something better that was "previously played" and thus in a more reasonable price range to accomodate my current zero-income status. My local Buy-Back Games didn't have anything but NHL 2001, which I didn't feel was worth the $20, so I checked out my local Blockbuster Video. They had everything I could possibly want, but the only title that was actually available at the moment was this one. Thusly, I was stuck with NHL Hitz for a little over a week.
What can I say? It doesn't try to be anything more than what it initially sets out to be -- a fast paced, blitz-style hockey "like" extravaganza. The emphasis is of course on heavy hitting, and with the non-traditional 3 vs. 3 teams, you'll find that breakaways and odd-man rushes are a rather commonplace necessity. The only thing that will land your player in the penalty box is checking the goalie, which you can sometimes get away with, and of course getting into a fight, which leads to a 2 on 2 situation. This all makes for a somewhat simplistic, straightforward playing style that some will love and others will loathe. Without further ado, onto the review...
The controls are for the most part standard fare for hockey titles. On posession, you have cross for pass, square for shoot, triangle for deke, and circle to guard your puck against poke checks. L1 clears the puck and R1 gives your player a turbo boost that drains a limited meter. The only way to charge the meter back up is to stop using the turbo, but it's pretty easy to get the hang of knowing when and when not to use it. Rather than being a feature that you kick on momentarily to confuse the enemy and get a sudden "boost" as the name implies, I found myself using turbo almost constantly except when I ran out and needed to re-charge it. On defense, the cross becomes change players, square becomes poke check, circle becomes check, and triangle still works as a deke button, which is helpful when you're just about to grab the puck and get checked at the same time. L1 blocks passes and shots, but I found it difficult (being a novice) to remember to actually use this button during furious gameplay.
All in all, the controls are easy to get used to but are ultimately simplistic just as the rest of the game is. Tap square to wrist shot, hold it down to slapshot, just like EA. The one-timers are easy to pull off and it's pretty satisfying (at first) how the game lets you check players right through the glass and into the stands.
I rate this low because by its very nature the gameplay gets very repetitive here. I found the "beginner" difficulty level to be ridiculously easy from the onset but initially had some trouble on "Rookie." I was constantly frustrated by what seemed to be the computer's inexplicable ability to always catch up when losing by a few points. As it turns out there does seem to be a "catch-up logic" built into the game, but when one checks it out under the advanced options, it's supposedly turned off by default. After playing for a few days and learning how to constantly bash the living tar out of my opposition except when taking the time to shoot a one-timer, I eventually found "Rookie" to be ridiculously easy (unless playing an evenly matched team, in which case it was just "easy"), yet "Pro" seemed too hard. I probably would've gotten used to it in a day or too, but I couldn't bear to play it much more anyway.
The game does give you a lot of controls as far as fine tuning the skill level of the CPU, but I think a good game should have reasonable difficulty presets that make sense. "Beginner" should be pretty easy, "Rookie" shouldn't be too hard but shouldn't be nearly as easy as "Beginner," and "Pro" shouldn't be ridiculously hard unless it's the hardest setting there is. In this case, it's not, so it doesn't make sense that the game would be that much harder than "Rookie." Of course this is all subjective based on my own skill at the game, but the point is that there should be a more graduated feeling of progress rather than either having to deal with winning constantly by huge margins or losing constantly by huge margins. Fine-tuning the AI is one way around this, but it feels cheesy and like "cheating" in a sense.
To accomodate for its quick-to-burn-you-out repetitiveness, the game thoughtfully forces you to play three minute periods without any choice otherwise (at least, I couldn't find the option). I initially lamented this, thinking I'd like to be able to play some half or full-length hockey games, but after getting used to the game itself I was soon wishing I could lower it to one or two minutes.
Play ultimately just devolves into a massive amount of checking and one-timer shots, and that's pretty much it. The satisfaction of knocking an opposing player through the glass wears off after the fifth time or so. I'm guessing that at higher difficulty levels it becomes necessary to "guard puck" and "deke" a lot more to score, but on "Rookie" there's no real need. Each team has a "hot spot" from which they are more likely to score, rather than there being a more realistic "hot spot" effect caused by the combined strengths and weaknesses of the teams or at least the goalie himself. This means that once you know your team's hot spot, you just keep one-timing in that general area and get scores like 15-2, rather than having to learn your "hot spots" for each team in a gradual process. When playing the CPU on "Rookie" I found it ludicrously easy after a certain point to continue making the same one-timer goals over and over again without any trouble passing the puck. On "Pro" it becomes much harder to pass unobstructed, but with the three player system, coming up with impressive and complex plays to make up for the difficulty in completing passes is seemingly impossible.
Obviously the entire point of the game is to eschew total realism for the fun of creating a fast-paced game that borders more on being a fighting or wrestling title than a hockey game. Unfortunately, for me it didn't have enough substance as a result of this engross me as a one-player game. In addition to this shortcoming, I didn't really get the chance to play this game too much two-player, so I'm not sure how much more better the experience would be in that regard.
One somewhat interesting feature is the "on fire" gauge. After enough checks and "defensive manuevers" this gauge will charge up either to one bar or two bars. One bar can be used to power up one player, who will then burn red or blue flames depending on whether they are home or away. Two bars can used used to power up the whole team. I tend to save up for the whole team every time, as this boosts your stats quite noticeably for a short period of time and makes it easier to score. This is kind of cool, but is just another point for the "more like a fighting game" column.
Curiously, one area where this game excels is the actual fighting. Unlike most modern titles, there is actually some real player control involved rather than simple button mashing. You can dodge, punch high / low, block, and grab, so against a skilled opponent the fight's outcome can shift dramatically. Against the CPU I found button mashing to be an effective strategy despite having the option to fight more cautiously.
In an attempt to keep you interested in a slew of nine-minute one-timer check-festival spectacles, NHL Hitz features your basic exhibition mode, a season mode, and a franchise mode. The franchise mode turns the game into something like an RPG (in the sense that Gran Turismo can be "like an RPG") where you start out with a wimpy team of misfits and gradually turn them into an NHL caliber group of badasses. Unfortunately, I only rented the game and after playing maybe 30-50 games was too disinterested to pursue franchise play.
Maybe skilled players who master the more difficult settings will find the game more rewarding than I did, but ultimately this is an arcade game that surely can't be too fun unless two or more true human opponents are beating each other's asses.
They aren't too bad, they aren't too great. Some player faces look ok, the majority look crappy, like most hockey titles. And like most hockey titles, it seems like this particular wing of game development isn't given as much attention as say, the NFL guys. Like most hockey titles it looks like most of the graphics could be rendered on a PS1 without any problems other than a slightly lowered framerate. The ice is ok-looking, and skates do leave little brief trails in it. The framerate is pretty decent although it has far more slow-down during furious moments than in I'd noticed in EA's NHL 2002 or Sega's NHL 2K3.
It's not bad, it's not spectacular. Nothing special. The commentary of course gets extremely old extremely quick, like in any game...but when I turn it off it's almost too spookily quiet and I have to at least end up leaving the play by play announcer active. I could get into the whole "the puck bouncing off of post sounds like this, and sticks sound like this and blah" but I'll just say it's good enough to suffice for the game and will sound decent cranked up loud if you're into that sort of thing. The music is pretty cheesy in my opinion, featuring Powerman 5000 for the opening title track. Of course, that's just my personal taste. I ended up turning it off because it does seem to play more often and becomes more annoying for that reason more quickly than the music in other hockey titles.
I give this game a "6," but of course my very objective-looking number is really nothing more than a subjective opinion. I'll admit when I rented it I thought that it might be cool to free up the rink a little by having less players on each side. Unfortunately, this only removes any semblance of depth from the game and makes it so that no matter how many potentially great features it may have (such as the franchise mode) the core problem of being repetitive and boring at the game level looms beneath the surface, regardless. There are many, many features that comprise the classic "Arcade Style Hockey Game," such as unrealistically fast player and puck movement, very easy passing, lots of brutally unrealistic checks, few penalties and no technical calls like icing / offsides, etc. I feel that they could've kept a 5 on 5 (or at least 4 on 4) format to preserve some strategy while still pushing the trappings of "arcade style hockey" to the limit. In a sense you could say that NHL Hitz represents the total extreme of the "arcade hockey" spectrum, whereas EA titles are more like "arcade-ish hockey" that inevitably will leave true hockey fans far more fulfilled. And then, at the other, end lies the "as realistic as it gets" sim-hockey badass known in its current iteration as NHL 2K3, but I'll leave that for another writeup.
You may have noticed the sparse attention to sound and graphics in this review. That's because frankly, gameplay is vastly more important (within the context of the console and its other games, of course), and if the gameplay value is low, it doesn't make the damnedest bit of difference how good the graphics and sound are. Suffice it to say they're good enough to meet the rest of the game's needs, and that's good enough...but this is definitely not a "must buy" in my book. I generally play most rented titles at least every other day for the full week I have them, but in this case I was disinterested by the third or fourth day. Of course it might have been more much enjoyable if I'd played it two-player more often, but a game really should have a substantial enough one-player game to keep people interested in between the times when their friends can come over to get their asses handed to them.
The preceding writeup was written with lordaych's E2 Writeup Banger-Outer version limit of 1/x as x approaches infinity, a WSYSIWYG (mostly) text-editor that produces E2 HTML for posting to E2 without fussing around with HTML tags, character entities, etc. If you're intrigued, /msg me for details and perhaps I'll send you a beta version once I have it in a less embarassingly incomplete stage. Or if you really want it bad I might just send it like it is and you can have a good laugh at its utterly bug-ridden state.