Reviewed: October 31, 2002
Released: September 16, 2002
I’ve played just about every Midway sports title that’s released in the past two years (ever since they started hyphenating the date). When you play so many sports games on so many platforms it becomes easy to get jaded when the next year’s title finally ships.
Most sports franchises see a new version every year that offer roster updates and some slight improvements in AI or graphics, but seldom are they worth purchasing a whole new game. While EA and SEGA are probably the biggest offenders in this growing trend, Midway has also been known to release a minor update as a full product – NFL Blitz anyone?
NHL Hitz 20-03 is the sequel to last year’s arcade-style NHL hockey game, and not only does it break this annoying trend, it rises to new heights of features and quality exceeding that of the original and most every other Midway sports title currently available.
NHL Hitz 20-03 Key Features :
Thankfully, Midway has realized that not everyone knows hockey as well as others and has included an excellent tutorial; the Hockey School with Scotty Bowman. This tutorial is a series of tasks to get you up to speed on the sport, its rules, and how it plays on your PS2. Veterans will scoff at its simplicity since it covers hockey basics like skating, passing, shooting, checking and the deke, but everyone else will be sending “thank you” cards to Midway. Once you are comfortable with the controls you can dig into the rest of this feature-rich game.
Midway has gone all out and made this game a huge improvement over last year’s version. In addition to the standard quick/exhibition game and the full NHL Season Mode there is an excellent Franchise mode and a whole mess of new mini-games. Chances are you will still be working your way through this title when 20-04 hits the shelves next year.
Everything you liked about 20-02 is back and improved, and everything you disliked has been removed or replaced with something much better. There is now an incredible statistics system in place that keeps track of every player in the league, both in Season and Franchise play, including player trades using trade logic, a playoff tree, and official NHL awards.
The RPG-style points system has been streamlined and is easier to work with when creating those custom players. It is all designed around a locker room setting with official NHL licensed gear that you can unlock and assign to players giving them bonuses on their various abilities. It’s incredibly deep and complex yet totally intuitive, even for someone with little knowledge of the sport.
All of those mini-games from last year have been replaced with six new and improved games for one or two players like Tic-Tac-Toe, Control, King of the Ring, Keep Away, Shootout, and Shooting Gallery. There is so much fun in just the mini-games that Hitz can easily fall into the “party game” category. These games are really original too. My favorite has to be the Shooting Gallery that puts you on a rooftop with three other players and you must get control of the puck then skate near the edge of the roof and shoot out windows in the next building.
After the tutorial and a few quick games I fired up the Season mode, which includes the complete 2003 schedule of games and all 30 NHL teams and players with ratings based on the 2001-2002 season. Pick your favorite and see if you can take them to the championship.
If you don’t like any of the existing teams then head over to the hot new Franchise mode and create your own team using an amazing library of options. Pick your team name, logo, and even player nicknames, which are then spoken by the commentator during the play-by-play. Then you can challenge other unknowns from all over the world until you get invited to face off in the actual NHL. This is a huge undertaking that will occupy much of your life to the exclusion of family and friends.
NHL Hitz 20-03 features stronger, faster, and more intelligent players with improved goalie logic, team AI, behavior, animations and control that make Hitz more challenging that ever, while a visual aggression meter informs you of impending fights. The fight system remains the same, but now when you loose a fight you choose the player to replace the ejected player and you play 2-on-2 for the duration of the penalty. Other penalties can result in an ejection and create some imbalanced gameplay such as running into the goalie, resulting in some 2-on-3 scenarios.
Playing hockey on your PS2 has never been easier with some of the most responsive controls I have ever seen in a sports title. Anyone of any skill level will become almost instantly comfortable with the controls, which means you can compete based on your skills of hockey rather than your skills of manipulating the Dual Shock. All of your regular moves can be turbo-charged complete with those famous Midway flaming players.
For those of you who thought last year’s Hitz was a skate in the park, you will be shocked at the increase in AI and subsequent difficulty in this latest installment. The goalies are masters of the net and you are going to have to work for every last point. This means strategy and passing and no one-man shows, because you can be sure the other team will be working together to defeat you.
The visuals in last year’s Hitz were pretty amazing, so I was surprised to find that they were even better this year. Midway consistently milks more and more from the PS2 and Hitz 20-03 features cleaner graphics, larger arenas with functioning scoreboards, animated coaches, on-ice refs, and huge crowds that are ten times the size they were last year and even more detailed. There are over 4000 animated fans in the stands cheering and doing things like the wave, and the frame rate never drops for a second on the ice.
Players are much more detailed, with more fluid animations and individual faces that you can only really appreciate in the replays. To add even more realism, NHL teams take on the same playing style as their real-life counterparts, and the two-man motion-captured animations provide gamers a more realistic view of the action and interaction on the ice.
But just like last year’s game the true testament to Hitz graphical goodness is the quality special effects. Of course there is the excellent ice reflections, and ice that actually shows wear as the game progresses, and then there is the beautiful lighting, fire and particle effects that add substantially to the overall hockey experience.
The new color commentary is a welcome addition to the rather dry play-by-play of last year’s game, but as refreshing as it is, Hitz 20-03 is a massive game that you will play for upwards of 100 hours. Ultimately, this means you will start hearing the same thing over and over again. While it may take you several weeks or even months before this happens, you can always opt to tune out the commentary and tune in the…err…tunes.
NHL Hitz 20-03 features an impressive soundtrack including:
Hitz 20-03 is massive. The Season and Franchise Modes are guaranteed to keep you busy until next year, and the multiplayer options and mini-games will have you popping this game into your PS2 whenever your buddies come over.
Every part of this game seems to unlock some other part, and with all sorts of hidden stadiums, teams, and alternate player models to discover, Hitz 20-03 can easily become a game of exploration, as you try to uncover the hidden treasures buried deep below the surface of the ice.
Midway has delivered one of the hottest sequels in sporting game history. Not only does it surpass the original, it easily secures the top spot in the Midway sports line-up. With a robust single player experience, fun and challenging mini-games, and graphics that blow away even the more serious hockey games out there, NHL Hitz 20-03 is a must-have purchase for anyone who loves hockey with a unique spin on fun or just sports games in general.