New skates meet old ice.
Many video game publishers try to be everything for everyone, opening new brand
divisions left and right to cover all the bases. Here’s their sports lineup,
there’s their RPG scene, over in the corner is the edutainment stuff, and in
the back room you’ll find the first-person shooter.
But few get this kind of diversification right, and some, like Midway, don’t
really fall for it, which in their case is a good thing. By and large the company
focuses on arcade-style gaming. They know their audience and they know what
they do best.
they also know that NHL Hitz has no rivals in the realm of over-the-top
hockey, yet they still try to make it better. NHL Hitz 2003 keeps the
core intact while tossing tons of bells and whistles onto the ice, not to mention
a few new ways to play. The gameplay, though, is the same as it ever was, which
keeps Hitz from breaking through and attracting new fans.
Hitz 2003 gives you three-on-three ice hockey. Penalties are kept to
a minimum while big hits are kept to a maximum. Think NBA Jam with ice
skates and you have the right idea.
Many of last year’s game modes make a return;
you can play Exhibition, Season and Tournament games. There’s also a new Hockey
School mode hosted by Red Wings coach Scottie Bowman to help you learn the moves.
Most of your time, though, will likely be spent in the burly new Franchise
mode, the most important addition to the product. This lets you create a team
from scratch and take on the World in an effort to beat the best of the best.
Win the whole thing to receive an invitation into the NHL, thereby making your
team playable in other game modes.
Franchise mode is the bread and butter of NHL Hitz 2003 and incorporates
every new aspect of the game. You build a team player by player (or you can
let the CPU handle that) using the solid player creator. You can choose from
a number of different playstyles, such as ‘Playmaker’ or ‘Enforcer’. Player
appearance also affects stats – the taller players have higher pass ratings
but move a bit slower.
There are two other ways to build up your team – raising your team’s overall stats by dishing out experience points or equipping player with cool gear. Both ways require you to take on different teams in 8 rounds of hockey.
But instead of straightforward matches, each opposing team features three
‘tasks’ that must be completed as well. You might have to get a certain number
of hits, or score a slapshot goal, or get 3 one-timers with one player. It gives
the game a Tony Hawk vibe and adds
to the gameplay by giving you goals other than simply requiring you to score
By beating the fictitious ‘boss’ team in each round, you acquire new gloves,
helmets, pads, sticks and skates, which can them be assigned to specific players
on your team to boost stats. With over 250 pieces of gear to unlock, you’ll
find yourself spending a good amount of time playing dress up. At times, it
almost feels like an RPG.
It wouldn’t be hockey if you couldn’t fight, and you’ll occasionally get into
it with the other team in one-on-one brawls with very simple controls. It’s
not thrilling, but it can sway the results because losing a fight means you
also lose that player for the rest of the game.
it comes to unlockables, Hitz 2003 is literally overflowing with them.
Meeting different goals in different game modes can open up 120 unlockable goodies,
from new heads to new models to whole new teams. It wouldn’t be a Midway game
without cheats and easter eggs, right?
One of the easiest ways to unlock goodies is to try your hand at the 6 all
new mini-games. These are decent if somewhat flimsy diversions that are much
more fun as multiplayer games. Own The Ice has you scrambling around the ice
to secure 5 areas with the puck, King of the Rink is a flat out brawl, Shootout
is an old-fashioned man vs. goalie confrontation, and Keep Away is, well, self-explanatory.
There’s also Three in a Row (tic-tac-toe) and a Shooting Gallery that lets you
smash windows. All are interesting, but none are particularly engrossing.
Regardless of the mode, Hitz 2003 features simple yet effective control.
You can hit, deke, guard the puck and turbo blast around the rink like a madman.
New to this year’s version is the ability to block passes and shots by pressing
L1, as well as a more robust fake shot/pass feature.
Still, very little ground has been broken in the actual gameplay. You cannot
design plays and the teams don’t have specific tendencies aside from their ratings.
Hitz 2003 offers a million ways to play the same old game rather than
adding new, functional gameplay elements. I think it’s swell that I can dress
my team in clown suits, but how about focusing more on improving the action?
The big problem of the Midway sporting line – not much depth to the gameplay
itself – is still here and will still drive away those who want more things
to do once they’re out on the ice.
The look is also largely the same as last year’s Hitz, featuring good
looking player models and nice particle flame effects when you’re ‘on fire’.
The framerate stays pretty smooth, though it drops noticeably when things get
cluttered and during fights. The ice and arenas look great, though, and even
the crowd has been spruced up a bit.
These Midway games always crack me up with the ridiculous announcing, and
Hitz 2003 is no exception. I’m impressed that the play-by-play keeps up
so well in such a fast-paced game, though like every sports game on the planet,
it can get repetitive.
Anyone into hockey or arcade sports in general can’t afford to miss Hitz
2003, as it’s simply the most robust version of the game thus far. Some
more interesting gameplay ideas would really help the shelf life, as the game
gets stale despite its plethora of modes and goodies. But until the competition
offers something better, it’s the best choice out there for arcade hockey.