Hockey games are traditionally less popular in Europe than the US, in the same way that football games are traditionally less popular over there than here. It's a fair cop. And just as the Yanks like the odd bit of footy now and then, we enjoy a dabble with the old puck and pads now and again, and EA and Midway are currently fighting over who gets to entertain us.
Last year, EA's NHL 2002 came out on top. It was a massive improvement over its predecessor, and although Hitz was a damnably enjoyable multiplayer game, it had serious difficulty equalling the huge number of options and gimmicks in EA's NHL series (like the Cards system, which returns for 2003).
However, in the space of a year, EA has done more or less the grand total of nothing. NHL 2003 is a slight update of 2002, with tweaked AI, tightened control and neatly buffed visuals, and new features are pretty thin on the ground. Returning heroes include the Franchise mode and the aforementioned Cards system, and the presentation is up to EA's usual high standards.
Hitz though surpasses its predecessor in every way. It too includes a Franchise mode, and a full NHL Season mode. Like 2003, you can pick from the various teams in the NHL franchise, but you can also develop your own entirely customised team, choosing everything from facial expression and jersey colour to speed and shooting percentages. Meanwhile, NHL 2003 will merely let you mix and match existing NHL players into your own shuffled fivesome, or build your own player and slot him into an existing team.
Both games could bury you in stats, on and off the ice, and both games allow you to tweak virtually everything, although we were left wanting to make the goalies a bit less adept in both titles...
Visually the games confer and swap ideas between matches as far as I can tell. NHL 2003 has nice, bulky players with finely detailed textures, and like hockey in real life, there seems to be a fine Teflon sheen to just about everything - the ice, the Plexiglas hoardings, the stick varnish, the ref's shoes... Animation is uniformly excellent, and there's almost zero slowdown. The only choppiness occurs when everyone's bunched up in one goalmouth.
"La la la la laaa"
Hitz 20-03 sings from the same hymn sheet. Models are pretty nice, and there are some cute fiery effects for when your player is "on fire" (or "in the zone" if you like). The only problem we had with the way it looks is that it's very smooth in the overhead views, but any close-ups, fights (which are as "interactive" as they used to be), etc, all drop frames like there's no tomorrow. We had heard that the US version was pretty nippy, and both the Cube and Xbox releases seem that way from what we've seen of them, so Hitz' dodgy performance is a bit of a mystery. Still, it doesn't greatly impact the gameplay, which is the important thing.
When it comes to other aspects of the games' external make-ups, we have to say it's another tight call. Commentary is fine in both cases, with some nice colour provided by their respective NHL pundits, although EA's commentary was, curiously, the first to grate on us after about five hours. Perhaps due to the high volume of "jokes", although we wouldn't swear to it. Elsewhere, both soundtracks are good - Hitz opts for the heavy angle (Hoobastank, Incubus, Rob Zombie, etc), while EA's Trax get another outing (with Queens of the Stone Age, Jimmy Eat World and others on the bill). Musical choice is very subjective, but we did deduct EA a couple of points for that infuriating little window which tells you the name of the "Trax" - if there was an option to turn it off, we'd be happier.
Where the two games differ the most is in their approach to matters on the ice. NHL 2003 is hugely varied in how things unfold, and there are a greater number of strokes and things you directly control. For example, shot blocking is quite an easy task, whereas it's totally alien to Hitz, and player attributes impact gameplay quite a bit - keep an eye on who's on the puck, for instance, because that fancy shimmy you're about to try might only work with your substitute's higher deke skills.
You won't like me when I'm angry
The most significant change to NHL since 2002 though is the introduction of "gamebreakers". Those with good memories will recall that we felt NHL 2002's "breakaway" feature was pants, and gamebreakers are an extension of that. When you get into a good position (on the end of a through pass, usually), the game switches to a close-angle view, slows down and the sound goes underwater. As you stride forward glacially to the sound of your own heartbeat, you'll decide that not being able to see what you're doing, having to change the speed of your button presses and generally not being able to control your player properly is a bad thing, and you won't like breakaways. Gamebreakers allow you to instigate a breakaway effect deliberately by filling a power meter through body checks and good passing. As we said a year ago though, the camera is too low and it's hard to control your player precisely when under the terms of a gamebreaker. So on the whole, they're a bit of a moot point around here.
Elsewhere on the ice, NHL 2003 suffers from a number of flaws, like the low scoring, the way the puck is apparently glued to the stick (the press chided EA so hard about this behaviour in its footy games that they stopped doing it), and there aren't as many goals from careful build-up play as there are from one-timers and solo efforts.
Still, it's bloody good fun to play regardless, particularly in multiplayer.
Turning to Hitz though, we discover that simplicity is the best thing for hockey games. You have three blokes and a goalie at your disposal. When you have the puck you can pass, shoot, deke or shield. When you don't, you can beat the crap out of the other guy to try and get it back. At all times you can skate faster by holding R1 (turbo), and piledriving people into walls and generally being uncivilised will build up your fire meters (one for you, and one for your team). When full, you can light yourself up (complete with throwaway graphical effect), increasing your speed and other attributes.
That is all there is to NHL Hitz 20-03. What happens on the ice, is that you see a huge cross-section of different games as a result. The dynamic is a lot faster than EA's, and there's more room to manoeuvre on the ice with less players. AI seems to have improved since 20-02, and there aren't as many goals nor is there as much turnover as before. Multiplayer, as with NHL 2003, is the best way to play, and the lack of a full hockey team seems to make this a lot more fun than its main competitor.
Unfortunately for EA, Hitz has also struck back in the "added crap" department. Although there's nothing to combat the Cards system, there are pages of items to unlock, many of which will improve your skaters' statistics, and some of which are wacky and enjoyable diversions (like alligator heads for your custom players). With a matching Franchise mode to help compete, EA no longer wins the battle by sheer volume of options. Indeed, with Hitz' mini-games (like shooting noughts and crosses in the goal mouth), you could argue that Midway finally has the upper hand.
Both simulating and stimulating
It's very difficult to say which of these two hockey games you should buy, or even to say which is the most fun for me. Both games have a fair old stab at simulating and stimulating, and both do a good job. Both pack loads of stats. Both have engaging multiplayer modes. NHL 2003 looks slightly better I suppose, but Hitz' soundtrack and commentary is more agreeable. And in terms of longevity, neither game is going to run dry on you within a good few weeks. Personally though, I've found that Hitz just edges it. There's more fluency to the gameplay, and the "on fire" element is handier than EA's aptly named "gamebreaker". Maddeningly, there is little point in buying them both, but they are both worth buying.