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NHL Hitz 2003
PS2 Staff Review by Mike Weatherup

If there was ever a franchise that took a complete turn around from one year to the next, it has to be the Hitz franchise. I despised last years version of the game because it did not play all that well, it felt rushed, it looked like Midway was trying to cash in on it from their experience with the Blitz franchise and I have met the developers at Black Box and know they could have done a better job. Well it would appear that someone at Midway let Black Box develop their game without the usual interference that publishers usually cause. The result here is an incredibly fun game to play and it just happens to turn out being the sleeper ice hockey hit on any console this year.

The visual experience here is very sharp. The boys and girls at Black Box in a short time have come to grips with the PS2 environment. The rinks are brimming with life and fine detail. The environmental effects like lighting and ice spray are dazzling eye candy. The biggest improvement has to be the player models, which this year truly resemble their real life counterparts. Their smooth animations are equally impressive. As in last years iteration, there are a number of outlandish arenas where the action takes place. These places are very vibrant and distinct with all kinds of little details that have been painstakingly covered by the artists. Also making a huge change from previous years is the voice work. I was cringing at the thought of hearing the same Midway guy blurt the same comments that were first heard back in Wayne Gretzkys Hockey on the N64. To my delight, the variety in the commentary has been drastically overhauled to include much more detail in on ice action and the absurd comments are varied and funny. Add to this a superb soundtrack coming from the likes of Rob Zombie, Powerman 5000, Incubus and more.

My biggest gripe last year was the control. I never felt I was in full control and that it was just luck as to whether my players would touch the puck and get a goal. This year things were tighter so that now I can fully control all aspects of the insane on ice action the game offers. While the pace of the game is very fast, I feel like I can comfortably control my players with feasible actions instead of simply bashing the buttons on the controller and hoping for the best. This makes timely and crucial body checks and dekes easy to perform. This is the only game this year that feels like hockey. NHL 2003 from EA Sports is a digression from last year, NHL2K3 from Sega is too simulated and NHL Face-off 2003 is three years behind the competition.

I am overwhelmed with the amount of content Black Box and Midway put into this years version. It features a fairly deep Franchise Mode that allows you to create a team from scratch consisting of six players that are then inserted into the NHL pool. You are able to give each player a variety of attributes that use a point-based system. Earning more points is possible by working your team thoroughly each game. In addition to the Franchise Mode, there is the Season Mode, Hockey School, Mini-games, International and All-Star Teams plus Fantasy Teams and Stadiums. While the mini-games are not as deep as those in last years game, they do now offer a two-player option, which allow some endless sessions with friends. Next year, I would like to see online play.

I know many of the hardcore hockey fans out there are thinking how can this game be the best this year. The answer is simply that it is fun and the other offerings are not. True, being Canadian, I prefer more realism than over-the-top gameplay but NHL Hitz 2003 has given me a different perspective due to the fact that the other guys couldnt get it right this year and Midway did not only get it right, but they have gone and increased the bar for future hockey titles. Be sure to check Hitz 2003 out before making a purchasing decision this busy holiday season.

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