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NHL Hitz 20-02 (PS2) Review

Background Info

Screens (12)

Developed by Black Box (who produced the excellent NHL2K on the Dreamcast) and published by Midway, NHL Hitz is the follow up to the Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey games on the N64. Featuring hard hitting, over-the-top, 4-on-4 arcade action, Hitz is a truckload of fun at first, especially in its excellent multiplayer mode. Unfortunately, shameless cheating AI ruins the long-term appeal of the game, relegating Hitz to rental status.

Presentation/Graphics : 75
The first thing you notice once you step onto the ice are the slightly grainy visuals; it doesn't make the game look bad but it's a shame that the visuals are not nearly as crisp and sharp as those in NHL 2002. The player models, while on the whole decently done are a bit disproportional with some of the players having very stubby legs. This is quite disappointing since there are only 6 skaters (not including the goalies) on the ice in Hitz as opposed to the 10 that are in NHL 2002, and yet EA Sports' title has much better player models. On the bright side the jerseys look wonderful, as do the helmets (which aren't shiny), gloves, and sticks, and even though the players are a tad un-proportional there are very noticeable size differences between the players and having big Chris Pronger go up against little Theo Fleury looks as every bit a mismatch within the game as it would in real life.

While the player models are so-so, the animations are brilliant with a wide variety of animations and smooth transitions between each of them. The most impressive animations are definitely those for the body checks--players get slammed into the boards, fly through the glass, helmets come flying off after particularly devastating open ice hits – all of these look so painful you'll be cringing in front of your TV. The goalie animations are also pretty good with a wide variety of spectacular saves. The fighting animations are also very well done with players bobbing and weaving very smoothly and are a hundred times better than the pathetic Rock 'em Sock 'em robot animations found in NHL 2002. Complimenting the fine animations is a very brisk and smooth framerate that stays constant throughout the action.

NHL Hitz also has some very nice rinks. These rinks are much smaller than regular NHL arenas and look about the size of your average local skating rink. These small rinks give the games an intense atmosphere and they also allow the crowd to be fully 3D animated all the time (as opposed to being only 3D and animated during close-ups like in NHL 2002). There are also several very cool bonus rinks such as a Roman coliseum, a castle and a shark tank!

Hitz features a great selection of lighting and particulate effects, the most impressive of which has to be when a player gets struck by lightning before going 'on fire'…which will invariably prompt one of your friends during a multiplayer game to scream out 'There can only be onnneeeee' each time it happens. Finally, the game features 3 different camera angles (Ice, Side or Overhead) with adjustable levels of zoom for each angle.

Presentation/Audio : 75
Hitz' intro sequence starts off to the sounds of Limp Bizkit's 'Rollin' and the game has a half decent soundtrack with Korn and a couple of other bands featured; not really my cup of tea but at least Midway got some well known names for the music. Once you get to the team selection screen you'll hear the unmistakable voice of 'The Midway Announcer' who's always sounded to me like he's constipated. The announcer does the usual screaming out of player and team names during the menu screens, and also during the game where he basically just comments on big body checks and scoring chances. However, due to the back and forth, high scoring nature of Hitz this basic commentary works pretty well. The on-ice sounds are done really well with some very painful body check sounds to compliment the very painful looking checking animations.

Interface/Options : 75
Usually for an over the top style arcade game you'd expect an exhibition mode, a season mode and maybe a custom tournament mode. Fortunately, Midway didn't subscribe to this formula and gone beyond the plain vanilla options set with NHL Hitz. The major modes of play are Exhibition, Championship, Franchise, and Skills. There is also a Hockey Shop mode and a Custom Team mode. The Championship mode is a 'season' mode where you have to beat all the teams in the NHL in succession. After each victory in Championship or Exhibition mode you're awarded 'Hitz Credits' which can then be redeemed in the Hockey Shop mode to buy or unlock fantasy teams, throwback jerseys, and fantasy rinks. The Franchise mode is similar to a tournament mode where you have to try to win the Midway Cup with a user-created Custom Team, and after each Midway Cup victory you gain attribute points that you can use to boost the stats of your custom team players.

The Custom Team mode is surprisingly deep for this type of game, allowing you to select your home rink, team logo/jerseys, your team's 'Hot Spot' (the area of the ice where you'll receive a shooting bonus), trade players, and create players as well. The create a player mode also has a ton of depth and gives you even more freedom to create your player's appearance than NHL 2002 with the ability to change the height and weight of your player, choose between 42 different types of faces and the ability to adjust the width and height of feet, calves, highs, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, pelvis, stomach, chest and head! In order to play the Franchise mode you have to create a custom team from scratch (that's a goalie and several skaters) and as mentioned before, the attribute points won after each victory in the Franchise mode can be used to improve your custom team's players or they can be traded in to obtain a real life player on any of the existing NHL teams.

The Skills mode is an interesting addition providing little mini-games such has hardest shot, shot accuracy, face off quick draw, and even body checking practice! These little mini-games are actually quite fun and as you complete each one you unlock a harder difficulty level. Hitz also features the obligatory options for controller configuration, game speed, and 3 skill levels (Rookie, Pro and All-Star),

Gameplay : 60
As you'd expect NHL Hitz uses the same over-the-top gameplay found in EA Sports' NHL Rock the Rink (PSX), and Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey (N64). The games are 4-on-4 (3 skaters and a goalie) and prior to each period you're able to select which of the three skaters from your selected NHL team you want on the ice. The rosters mainly include high scoring forwards, enforcers, and the odd All-Star defenseman (i.e. Lidstrom, Blake, Pronger etc.) so don't expect to see lesser known forwards or stay at home defensemen.

The control scheme is the usual hockey fare with separate buttons for speed burst (or 'Turbo' as it is known in the Midway lexicon), shoot (poke check on defense), deke (spin move), pass, and a button to guard the puck (body check on defense). The 'Guard Puck' button performs a nifty deke where you kick the puck up through your skates which prevents you from being poke checked.

As you'd expect the action is pretty much fast and furious with high scoring, end to end play, that features a ton of fights and even more crushing body checks. Players go 'on fire' after scoring three times in a row, while your whole team can go 'on fire' if you score 3 consecutive unanswered one-timers. The first few days of play really are a blast and Hitz is a ton of mindless fun; unfortunately, the more you play the more you start to see problems in the gameplay that hinder the long-term value of the title, especially when compared to NHL Rock the Rink. However, before I start moaning I'll talk about what Hitz does well first.

One of the great things Hitz brings to the table is its excellent fighting engine. In most hockey games fighting really seems like an afterthought with the controls usually comprising of a punch button and maybe a dodge button. The fighting in Hitz isn't realistic by any stretch of the imagination; it's more like something you'd expect to see in a bare-bones fighting game with light punches (to the face), heavy punches (to the torso), the ability to sway your body back and forth to avoid punches, a block button, and a grab combo (where you grab your opponent and unleash a barrage of punches). The wonderfully animated players also add to the excitement, and the first player to have his energy bar completely depleted loses the fight, and coolest of all, is actually ejected from the game! This means that the outcome of the fights has a direct bearing upon the outcome of the game since if you can beat up your opponent's star player you can kick him out of the game.

Another aspect of the game that I really like is that there are a wide variety of goals that can be scored; wrap-arounds, shots from the point, one timers, wrist shots from the slot, and dekeing the goalie on the odd breakaway are all ways you can score in Hitz. There also doesn't seem to be a single 'money-goal' or incredibly high percentage scoring play like there is with the one timer across the crease in Rock the Rink; however, this also has a lot to do with the cheating AI which I'll discuss soon.

Finally, and where NHL Hitz really shines, is multiplayer. One area that Rock the Rink disappointed was that it only allowed for 1-on-1 play which meant it was resigned to the shelf when a few mates came over (NBA Street suffers from the same problem). Hitz, on the other hand, features support for up to 6 players and oh, how sweet it is! It may not require the high skill and cooperation of 4-player ISS Pro Evolution 2, but Hitz' brutally violent, end to end, high scoring action really lends itself to party gaming. As with most Midway games the controls are smooth and pretty simple which again makes it a game that's very easy to just pick up and play – perfect for when you have a few friends over.

Unfortunately, unless you live in a dorm (or just have a ton of gamers who practically live at your house) the single player mode will occupy the bulk of your gaming time, and this is where Hitz lets itself down. There's three main gameplay problems with NHL Hitz that cut short the fun of the single player experience: the rink size, the body checks, and the inclusion of 'computer assist'/catch-up AI.

While Hitz features a ton of NHL and fantasy rinks they all share one problem--they're all a tad bit too small. You can skate from one end to the other in only a few strides and the problem is worsened by the large player models. The result is that play seems too claustrophobic, this of course facilitates the endless Armageddon of hitting, but at the same time it means that you don't pass the puck around a lot and games get really scrappy especially on the harder difficulty levels where the CPU players will mercilessly slam you into the boards if you bat an eyelash. In Rock the Rink the rinks seem much larger so you can spread the play out more and passing plays become more prevalent. On the All-Star difficulty level in Hitz you can only string together 2 passes at best before being decked.

Speaking of being decked, while you'd expect a hockey game called 'Hitz' to have some spectacular body checks, the hitting is far too potent a weapon the game. The constant hit-fest is fun in multiplayer and when you first start playing the game, but on the harder difficulty levels the CPU players are bulldozers, annihilating your players whenever they touch the puck. Of course, you end up returning the favor and there really is no need to use the poke-check or have a decent defensive player in your line-up since you can simply pummel the puck carrier and gain possession. Like I said before, this is fun for a while; however, the checking means that lower skilled large players are much more useful than higher skilled smaller/less physical players. The small rink size makes the problem worse as the differences in player skating speeds aren't as pronounced as they should be. Consequently, a line of Oates, Bondra and Jagr is utterly useless against a line of grinders like Domi, Corson and Roberts since you can just pummel the more skilled players into the ground. This also takes out the strategy that was present in Rock the Rink where you had to decide what kind of lines to put out--3 large slow players, or 3 small fast players, or lines with combinations of the two.

However, the rink size and hitting don't have a massively negative effect on the gameplay and alone wouldn't have dragged the gameplay score down to a 60. Unfortunately, Midway had to put their stamp on the game by including the most retarded invention in sports gaming – computer assist/catch-up AI. I don't want to go off on a diatribe about the evils of computer assist but I'm still at a complete loss as to why developers feel the need to include this feature in games. All it does is make the gameplay predictable and makes gamers feel cheated, and the computer assist in Hitz is particularly brutal. On the All-Star difficulty level if you're up by a few goals with a few minutes to go expect your goalie to momentarily become brain-dead, letting in floaters from center, giving up massive rebounds and go wandering. Conversely the CPU goalie who may have been letting in goals like a sieve will suddenly become a Tretiak-clone stopping anything and everything sent his way until the game is tied. Even the player attributes seem to change and the CPU players become a lot faster and seem to forecheck with even greater ferocity, and heaven forbid you get into a fight during the CPU's catch-up period as you'll see little guys like Stevie Sullivan laying an ass whooping on Sandy McCarthy! All this just to make the games artificially close, and really I don't see the point of playing the first two periods if the computer is going to try and even the score up come the end. The result of the cheating AI is that after a few days the game just becomes tedious and an exercise in frustration.

It really is a shame that Midway and Black Box decided to include computer assist/catch-up AI into NHL Hitz. Even with the small rinks and the vast overemphasis on checking (I know, what did I expect from a game named 'Hitz'?) the game would have come close to matching the reining king of arcade hockey, Rock the Rink. Unfortunately, the catch up logic ruins the single-player experience after a while.

Replay Value : 60
Hitz' Franchise mode is a great addition on top of the usual Championship mode, allowing you to develop your custom players as the games wear on. Likewise the Skills mode adds some very entertaining mini-games that are good for a quick play. Unfortunately, once you start becoming proficient at the game and bump up the difficulty level, the computer assist ogre rears its ugly head and spoils the long-term replay value. Multi-player is a blast and adds a lot to the replay value score; however, if you don't play multiplayer games frequently then Hitz will get pretty annoying, pretty quickly.

Overall : 65
As a single-player game Hitz makes a damn good rental; you'll have a truckload of fun and by the time the computer assist and other problems with the game start to bother you it'll be time to return it. It really is a shame that Midway and Black Box included such blatant computer assist since it ruins the longevity of what would otherwise be a solid game. As it stands EA Sports' Rock the Rink still remains the king of arcade hockey titles in terms of balanced and fun gameplay. However, if you do happen to have several friends around, 6-player NHL Hitz is a blast and might be worth the purchase for those who do make good use of their multi-taps.

By: Lavan Chandran 12/5/01

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