A new kind of icing.
Midway has enjoyed a long, secure reign as the king of action sports. From NBA Jam to NFL Blitz to MLB Slugfest, the company has managed to carve out a successful niche for itself by shoving subtlety into the backseat with the kids while barrelling down the fast lane of huge hits and frantic action. The only real competition has been from EA Big, who have in recent years dominated just about every sports genre they touch.
But they have yet to take aim at hockey, which has given Midway some room to maneuver in its NHL Hitz line. The latest, NHL Hitz Pro, shares as much in common with its over-the-top predecessors as it does with actual hockey sims like the ones from Sega and EA. The result is yet another solid entry that takes the series in a new, more realistic direction, but not necessarily a better one.
The biggest change is the number of players on the ice " this is 5 on 5 instead of the classic 3 on 3, and to make the transition smoother, you now have the option to crank it up to simulation rules. If you desire, refs will call all the usual penalties, from icing and offsides to charging and interference. Or you can just play the game like its past versions, leaving the rules off and beating the hell out of everything with no fear of retaliation from the officials.
The slew of options, in fact, gives Hitz Pro a unique feel. You can really customize the game to your liking by tweaking the AI, goalie difficulty, various visual treats, even the game speed itself. Gamers always moan about not having it exactly the way they want it, and Midway has pretty much put the game in your hands.
It's a good thing, too, since the goalies on the initial difficulty setting are slightly retarded and tend to make random mistakes a little too frequently. You don't control him, so you'll wind up watching in vain/pride as he blows/blocks a really easy/hard shot. Sometimes he'll become The Hulk and block everything, and then all of a sudden he'll miss some stupid little floaty wuss shot for no good reason. My first multiplayer match resulted in a first period score of 5 to 6. I think the goalies were smoking weed behind the Zamboni before the game. No big deal, though, since you can just tweak it to the right difficulty.
Despite this wealth of options, the gameplay is largely unchanged. You still throw big hits as often as possible, fire off one-timers frenetically and whip the puck around faster than Gretzky on coke. One handy new move is the wrap-around, that sneakiest of shots, which sort of locks into place if you try to shoot while behind the net. It doesn't work often, but when it does you feel like a pro.
The game modes have been revamped as well, particularly the Franchise. In Hitz Pro, you create a fictional team and take to the ice in an effort to make it into the NHL. As you progress you'll build up your players' overall rating (and in turn, your overall team rating) and acquire items in the form of Hero Equipment by completing in-game tasks, such as scoring 2 goals with a certain player in one game. You might win Lemieux's Gloves or Lidstrom's Stick, which you then assign to a player to boost stats.
Unfortunately, this is something of a step back from the great Franchise mode in Hitz 2003, which allowed you to unlock and purchase tons of gear and really build your team player by player. Instead, each player (except for the goalie) can only use one piece of Hero Equipment, limiting your ability to really buff out a few guys. Plus, the Franchise mode just ends when you win 15 games " no FMV, no super trophy, just a text message telling you that your team can now be used in Season mode.
At least in Season mode you can create a player from scratch, but even that isn't handled as smoothly as the likes of NHL 2004 or ESPN Hockey, not to mention the brilliant creator in Tiger Woods 2004. You have to choose from predetermined faces (presumably of the Midway staffers) and can't really "put yourself into the game' very well.
Otherwise, Season mode is just like any other, with basic sign and trade ability as well as full stat tracking. It doesn't compare to the depth of the sim hockey titles at all, but it gets the basics right.
Another new mode is Pick-Up, a series of smaller rinks that feature the same gameplay but in quirky environments, such as a frozen Pond or even in-line skating on a Street court. Nothing to get excited about, but it's a nice change of scenery.
Speaking of which, the graphics in Hitz Pro are almost unchanged from earlier versions. The game moves quickly and the framerate is pretty solid. Some nice new cinematic replays add some drama, capturing big hits and sweet saves automatically. The Xbox and Gamecube do feature noticeably better textures and sturdier player models, which seems to be the norm these days.
The PS2 does make up for that, though, with its exclusive ability to play online. It's a smart step for the franchise and works fine if a bit rough around the edges when lag pops up. The game is so fast paced, even a smidgen of lag can mar the experience, but kudos to the gang for putting it in.
The audio is the same across platforms, which is to say it's either good or grating depending on your love or hatred of snappy one-liners and bad jokes. The in-game color commentary and play by play has style, I'll give "em that, but the lame banter while the game loads is like a bad night at the Laugh Shack in Spokane.
Generally speaking, Hitz Pro plays and feels like a bigger, more option-oriented version of the past Hitz games, so fans of the series will hop right in and dig it from the get-go. The hits are big, the action is fast and the mechanics work well. However, in their effort to broaden the game's horizons, they have altered some features for the worse.
Fighting, for example, has gone from decent to horrible. While the fighting system in the previous game wasn't great, it still gave you some degree of strategizing thanks to blocks, grabs and punches. Now, it's deteriorated into a stupid button-timing game where you have to mash whatever control button happens to light up. As in, one button. Do that three times before he does and you win. I was hoping for a bigger and better version of actual fighting, not Simon for one-handed people. Boo!
And then there's the hallmark of the Midway sports line " getting "On Fire!' This was user-controlled in earlier version of Hitz and therefore could be saved up and used when needed for an extra boost. Now, your team only goes "On Fire!' after the other team loses one of the boring fights or gets whistled for a penalty. In other words, it happens maybe twice a game and it has little to do with how well you play. Boo, part two!
But in general, Yay for Midway trying something different with its Hitz series. While its simulation dreams don't match competing games, it offers enough of a varied experience to be considered a good, solid combo of the two sports game styles.