One of the big reasons you should get this game is because you can get into goalie fights. And because it's a fine hockey title as well.
Midway’s self-proclaimed adrenaline-style hockey title is back for its second year. Like most good sports game sequels, it improves upon the previous year’s miscues and adds to what’s already there. Hitz 20-03 does both, but also like some sports franchises, there are still some small quirks to what is overall another solid addition to the series.
All of the basic categories have been improved considerably in a year’s time. The biggest and most immediate difference in Hitz is its graphics. Player models have improved big-time, with bodies looking better proportioned and more human than before. Everyone’s got their own face on their heads, and sometimes you can see their mouths move as they talk to the other guys. Even more impressive is the fact that developer Black Box stuffed even more fans into the fully polygonal 3D crowd; there are now somewhere around 4,000 people in the stands (only 500 last year). It’s amazing to witness a crowd that big that has that much motion to it. With all the extra polygons in the stands and in the players on the ice, the gameplay is still silky smooth almost the entire time.
But it’s not all the time. The framerate still chops up occasionally, but it’s certainly nowhere as bad or as often as it got in 20-02. Also, odd as it might seem, this appears to happen more often when certain teams are out on the ice. However, there is an interesting option available: you can turn off the polygonal crowd. This dramatically helps smooth out the game, if you can’t stand the chop from time to time.
Another big new improvement comes in the control department. After you’ve seen how all the basics work in the hockey school mode featuring 9-time Stanley Cup winning coach Scotty Bowman, you can check out the new moves. The L button does two very simple things: If you have the puck, it dumps it into your opponent’s end. If you don’t have it, your player will go down in an attempt to block a pass or shot. The Z button activates the On-Fire mode for you or your team. Both of these new additions compliment the big gameplay changes that make last year’s good game even better.
Midway’s traditional “On-Fire” mode is well-known by any arcade-style sports game fan. Three baskets in a row, or a couple of sacks or catches in a row, and your player catches fire and gains an ability boost. Well, in hockey, scoring more than once is difficult to do once, let alone three times in a row. Midway realized this and ordered a change. Now, instead of scoring to catch fire, your team has two meters. Every time you avoid (or land) a check or poke away a puck, the meter will go up. Fill one meter, and you can set one person on fire. Fill them both, and the whole team is set ablaze. This means you decide who goes on fire and when, and it makes for more ice-melting action, which is a welcome change.
Another big gameplay addition is the power-play. Anytime someone hits the other team’s goaltender, they’ll be sent to the penalty box, creating a 3-on-2 power-play. Believe it or not, it’s a pretty accurate representation of how a real NHL power-play works. The shorthanded team needs to try and block shots and passes and get the puck away from their goal (using the L button), and it’s extremely well-done. It makes for desperate action sometimes, which is what power-plays can do.
Speaking of hitting goaltenders, you can now get into fights with your netminders. At first this might seem like nothing more than a cute little addition (since there is nothing more entertaining than seeing two skinny guys in huge pads beating the crap out of each other), but can actually have a major outcome on the game. As with the boring, regular fights, the loser is out for the rest of the game. Since most team’s backup goaltenders suck, getting into a goalie fight and winning might just be the thing you need if you just can’t seem to score. It really works.
The sounds of Hitz have improved too, but not all that much. The voice of Midway, Tim Kitzrow, made for a pretty annoying announcer last year. However, when Midway decided on adding Barry Melrose to the commentary box, things suddenly became more bearable. Yes, the play-by-play will become more annoying the more you listen to it, and yes, the jokes will get old. That’s true with most sports games nowadays anyhow, but compared to last year, hearing two voices for the length of a game compared to one is a huge improvement. You’ll get used to the play-by-play, as it never gets to the point where you’ll want to turn it off. If you do decide to however, keep the sound effects on, since they’re spot-on perfect yet again. The soundtrack is good, but optional during gameplay. You’ll have it off most of the time, so it’s not worth talking about too much more here.
Hitz 20-03 also sports a brand-new franchise mode. Although not as hardcore as a hockey sim’s franchise mode could be, it’s a deep offering that is perfect to go to after you’ve taken your favorite team to the Stanley Cup. Instead of inserting the team directly into the NHL (like most games), you need to play your team through the minor circuits and world teams to advance up the ranks. As you do, you can add attribute points to all your players, and buy equipment that boosts stats. After you’ve beaten everyone, you’ll then be invited to play in the NHL, and your franchise team will be inserted into the schedules of any other team you decide to play as. It’s a lot of fun to watch as your team becomes stronger as you go instead of simply picking players and taking on the NHL right from the start.
Also new to this year’s edition are mini-games. Hockey-themed versions of Tic-Tac-Toe, King of the Hill, a shooting gallery, and others are the perfect way for you and your friends to take a quick break between games on the ice. Although they might seem a bit out of place when you first jump into them, after a while, you’ll see that a few of them will grow on you, and you’ll see how high you can score. That and you’ll need to get a high score to unlock some goodies.
The unlockables are back, and they’re hungry for revenge! 122 items are locked up when you first start playing, and there’s a ton of stuff you’ll need to do get it. Heads for custom players, body models for teams, fantasy arenas, classic jerseys, and even dominate teams from the past are yours, but only if you do what it tells you. For instance, to earn New Jersey Devils sweaters and teams, you need to play 5, 10, or 20 games with them. It’s good if you have a favorite team, because you can unlock all your favorite team’s stuff much more quickly (since you’d play with them more). Other things that can be unlocked require you to set records, like most hits in a game, or longest winning (and losing) streaks. You’ll also need to start a franchise team if you hope to unlock everything. There’s tons of stuff to get here, and it’ll keep you busy for a while.
So it’s another sports game that’s better than last year’s game was, right? Yep. If you want a simple and fun hockey game, this is the one for you, without question. If you’re debating on trading in 20-02 in for 20-03, it’s a judgment call, but one that you won’t regret making if you do. Any hockey fan should give this one a try. It’s got the super-fast gameplay that made last year’s game so well-received, and with all the new additions, it will be one you’ll play for some time after you get it.