Above all else, NHL Hitz Pro is just a lot of fun.
NHL Hitz Pro features most of the same modes as last year's game, like exhibition mode, season/playoffs mode, a new version of hockey school (hosted by former NHL coach Scotty Bowman and a number of current NHL superstars), and a revamped version of the franchise mode. The new franchise mode, like last year's, puts you in control of your own team, giving you the ability to name both your team and your players. You can also customize the appearance of your team, which adds another level of personalization to the mode.
Once you create your team, you basically set out to take on 15 other bush-league teams in a quest to make it to the NHL. As you play each game, you have a specific challenge set that must be accomplished during the game. These challenges range from recording a shutout to winning every fight in the game to getting three assists with one specific player. Completing these challenges allows you to improve your team's overall status and to unlock "hero equipment." Hero equipment is essentially a stats upgrade for any player on your team you choose to give it to. You'll unlock things like Lemieux's gloves, which increase your skating and shooting abilities, and Domi's helmet, which increases a player's aggression levels. Once your team has completed the circuit, you can use that team in the game's season mode.
One unfortunate omission in this year's game is the minigames mode, which a lot of people rather liked, but is no longer available. The effective replacement for minigames is pickup hockey. This is basically a miniaturized version of the game that takes place on a frozen pond, in a city park, or in a parking lot. Each location features two set teams who battle it out. In the parking lot, for instance, a pair of roller hockey squads go at one another, and in the city park, it's an all-out brawl between two groups of blue-collar types. Here, you basically set how many goals you want to play to, and the game is on. This mode isn't quite as original or interesting as last year's minigames mode, but it's still really good--especially in multiplayer.
The PlayStation 2 version of NHL Hitz Pro is online capable and features the usual round of online options. You can simply hop into a quick game, if that suits your fancy, or you can get in on a tournament. During our time online with the game, the performance was very smooth, with only minimal lag toward the beginning of our games and a bit of delay in getting lobby screens refreshed. No drop-offs of any manner occurred, and overall, the game played wonderfully online.
As far as presentation goes, this is the area where NHL Hitz Pro falters a bit. For the most part, the game does look very good. The player models are less exaggerated and look more realistic than ever before, and all of the game's menus and stat overlays are equally pleasing to look at. Animations are just as wild as ever, with players on the receiving end of brutal checks flying face-first into the ice. There are some pretty awesome-looking contextual goal-scoring animations, like one where a player dives to hit a rebound with his stick and attempts to edge it into the net. On the PS2, the game suffers from both the Xbox version's slightly choppy frame rate and the GameCube version's less-than-clean look, but beyond these few issues, it still runs well. The game's audio is on par with the graphics--meaning it's good but not great--and consists of typical sound effects and some random, yet decent, licensed music. Commentary is provided by the team of Tim Kutzrow and Harry Tienowitz, and, like in most Midway sports titles, it's usually pretty amusing stuff.
NHL Hitz Pro offers some new simulation options, but these really aren't what the game is all about. The gameplay of the arcadelike modes is still really great, and the extensive roster of modes for play make this a great package for any arcade hockey fan or simulation hockey fan looking for something a bit different. If you enjoyed any of the previous installments of NHL Hitz, NHL Hitz Pro is right up your alley.