For GameCube-owning hockey fans, the future isn't exactly bright. EA Sports has decided not to release its NHL franchise for the console, and Sega won't have its NHL 2K series ready for Nintendo's new machine until next year. Stepping up to the plate to deliver the first and only hockey game for the GameCube is Midway with NHL Hitz 2002. While a far cry from EA Sports' sim-heavy hockey series, Hitz serves up a fast game of arcade hockey complete with flaming pucks, alien heads, and disco rinks.
NHL Hitz is similar in gameplay structure to Midway's other arcade sports games, such as NFL Blitz and NBA Jam. If you're looking to set up your power play and generate some shots or if you like to play the defensive trap to limit the other team's chances, NHL Hitz is not the game for you. Games of NHL Hitz are three-on-three affairs in which the checking totals outweigh the shots on goal. Players will catch on fire after scoring three goals in a row, and the entire team will catch fire if three straight goals are scored on one-timers. Just because a player is on fire doesn't necessarily translate into a string of goals, as it still often requires a nice shot to find the back of the net. Player ratings are reasonably accurate--bigger players won't always get knocked down by smaller players, but it's not out of the question.
Traditional hockey strategy has been thrown out the window in NHL Hitz 2002; instead, a simple rock-paper-scissors scheme is used to govern the entire game. For every offensive move, there's a defensive move to thwart it. If you're getting checked to the ice by the opposition, simply perform a spin move, and you'll avoid checks. If your opponent starts trying to poke-check the puck free, then it's time to use the puck-protecting move. The same holds true in the face-off circle. If an opponent is lifting your stick on every face-off, you can perform a push to garner the puck. It's a simple system, to be sure. But in a game that plays as briskly as Hitz, there's not a lot of time to make decisions, and this gameplay system is a perfect fit. The fighting in NHL Hitz is the best yet seen in a hockey game--the punch and block mechanics are sound, and you can even finish a player off with a combo or special moves such as head butts and chokeholds. If your player loses a fight, he will be lost for the remainder of the game. This adds incentive for learning how to fight and can turn the tide of the game rather quickly when a big scorer is relegated to the bench. For a game that's easy to pick up and play, there's a lot of hidden depth in NHL Hitz 2002.
Anyone who's ever played NFL Blitz or NBA Jam should be familiar with rubber band AI. This allows the computer to adjust to your abilities on the fly and guarantees that each game is never over, no matter how big the lead. It helps keep the games close and exciting, but the result is that it never seems to matter how good you play. If you're up by a few goals, your goalie will suddenly become Swiss cheese and allow slap shots from center ice to find their way into the net. Yet, the opposing goalie will become a veritable brick wall, not allowing a single goal, no matter how good the shot. It's possible to quadruple the shots, hits, and passes of the opposition and still lose a game if your player ratings aren't high enough. This same AI carries over into the multiplayer modes as well, and it can be frustrating to lose to someone in the final seconds on a shot that has no business stretching the twine.
NHL Hitz 2002 has a surprisingly high number of gameplay modes for a game of its ilk. There's an exhibition mode for head-to-head play for up to four players, a season mode in which you must defeat all 30 NHL teams, a franchise mode that asks you to take a created team to the Midway Cup finals, and a skills mode that helps you tune your abilities. Points are awarded after each exhibition victory for answering trivia questions following each game and for accomplishing specific objectives in the skills mode. The points can then be spent in the hockey shop to unlock player heads, alternate jerseys, and fantasy rinks. The create-a-player mode is surprisingly deep--you may customize a player right down to his nose size and head width. If you choose to create a team for the franchise mode, you may select from 11 different jerseys, pick a rink, and start chipping away at a ladder of more than 40 teams to beat. Both created players and teams are available for play in the exhibition mode, and it's nice to be able to improve created player stats while whooping on your friends. While the gameplay modes included in NHL Hitz are nowhere near as deep as those found in most simulation hockey games, there's enough variety to keep players busy for some time.
NHL Hitz 2002 won't likely be nominated for the year's best graphics, but Black Box made the right decisions with the GameCube's polygon budget to keep the game running fast. The players and stadium models have remained virtually untouched when compared with those of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game, but they were fine to begin with. As you might expect, the texture clarity is an improvement upon the PS2 version's, and there's a nice variety of player models included in the game. The varied player animation is smooth, and small touches--like players hopping over downed opponents or getting checked through the glass--show themselves after extended play. NHL Hitz is the first sports game to include a crowd constructed entirely of polygons. There are just a handful of rows, but each person is independently animated, and it really brings the arena to life. The crowd will walk out of the arena if the game's a blowout, will stand up and cheer for exciting plays, and will even hold up signs that display codes for the game. The ice surface is fully environment-mapped and will gradually get chewed up as the periods wear on. Electricity will rain down from the rafters when a player catches on fire, and flaming pucks and players emit real-time lighting that can be seen on the ice and boards. Several fantasy rinks, such as an alien base and a graveyard, can be purchased once enough points have been accumulated, and they're the graphical highlight of the game. There's something about watching hockey players skate on a marble surface while aliens sit and cheer that will strike a chord in most players. Even with all three players on fire, a large portion of the crowd onscreen, and plenty of action taking place, the frame rate usually stays the course with only a few hiccups during extreme close-ups. NHL Hitz 2002's graphics aren't especially impressive, but they are simple enough to allow the game to play rather briskly and detailed enough that it still belongs with its sim-oriented peers.
Midway's one and only announcer has returned for NHL Hitz, and it's hard to keep your composure when he spits out comments like "Hit me, baby, one more time." His statements repeat constantly, but he's rather adept at keeping up with the breakneck pace of the game. Midway has licensed real artists, such as Korn, Fuel, and Limp Bizkit, to provide the soundtrack for Hitz. Unfortunately, the tracks are heard only between games or while playing the skills mode, so their impact is limited. Sound effects include the obligatory bottle rocket sounds for big slap shots and an amazingly accurate sample of skates cutting through the ice. In all, the sound in NHL Hitz 2002 gets the job done, but all of Midway's sports games are begging for a commentary upgrade.
As the only hockey game available, NHL Hitz 2002 deserves a strong look from GameCube-owning pucks fans. Its three-on-three gameplay incites pandemonium, and its wealth of gameplay options provides plenty of depth for a game of its type. Always frantic, NHL Hitz 2002 provides some high-level entertainment for the first couple of days and works best as a multiplayer game, but the handicapping AI makes the gameplay unbalanced. If you're desperately looking for a hockey game for your GameCube, NHL Hitz 2002 is worth a rental to see if its over-the-top gameplay style appeals to you.