American sports games have become a regular fixture of the console launch line-up, and often, as is the case with the Xbox, we end up with both serious simulations and arcade blitzes. Midway's NHL Hitz 20-02, not to be confused with EA's NHL 2002, falls into the latter category, streamlining the noble art of slapstick in the interests of gameplay. Hitz is a fairly conventional arcade sports game, bending rules here and physics there. The rink seems to be slightly smaller than your average playing surface and teams are made up of four players rather than five. On the other hand, as the presence of numerous copyright screens aptly demonstrates, the game is still backed by an NHL license, meaning that all the players and teams are based on their real-life counterparts, right down to their individual strengths and weaknesses. The main game modes are Championship and Franchise, the former allowing puck peddlers to pick an NHL team and lock horns all the way to the Stanley Cup. The latter is slightly more involved, and before taking on the Franchise mode, players have to head to the Custom Team page and create their own foursome. With only a handful of different outfits and comedic variables though, and a bunch of meaningless statistics to fiddle with, it makes sense to get some time in on the ice first.
The best way to get to terms with the game is through the ubiquitous quick mode, known here as 'Exhibition'. This doesn't even require you to enter a name to play (and without a keyboard any tappy-tap-tap elements of the game involve tedious manipulation of the hateful d-pad), and lets you pick from all the teams in the NHL and their individual players, as well as choosing whether to play home or away. Stepping out onto the ice it's immediately clear that NHL Hitz 20-02 looks very impressive, and with the volume up the atmosphere is quite electric. Players joke around on the ice and reach for the sky as the commentator reads off their names. Animation is super-smooth, which helps complement the equally fluid gameplay, and in general the models look very beefy, padded and realistic. Sticks and pucks fly with satisfying thwacks and other onomatopoeic nonsense, and players even talk smack at each other during face-offs and after heavy clashes. With a complete lack of visible refereeing and a button for turbo-charging attacks, it's a game of back-and-forth with players clashing and sparks literally flying. Often matters get so out of hand the game switches to a side-on view and lets players duke it out beat 'em up style, with the loser relegated to the bench for the rest of the match. Meanwhile the incessant shouting of the over-enthusiastic commentator eggs you on, although relegating him to half-volume creates a nice background.
During the game's three periods of three minutes each players clash regularly and the puck moves between ends with astonishing speed. Players can actually tweak the game speed up or down, and I found a setting about three quarters of the way to maximum worked best. Sadly this speed negates virtually all real skill, with most games coming down to one-timers, playing the puck in to the middle at speed and striking it with a monstrous backlift, but playing it any slower is like watching paint dry. This wouldn't be quite so infuriating if our old chum the Xbox controller weren't doing his bit to resist the player too. Thanks to the physical proximity and clunky feel of the diamond buttons it's very tricky to perform a decent one-timer, switching quickly from A to X. The control system in general feels unresponsive, but it's a touch deceptive with the pad - and God - mostly to blame. The shoulder triggers control your boost bar, which empties and replenishes quickly enough, but you often find yourself pasting the button down because using it liberally is nigh on impossible at the speed the game moves. The other problem is that you simply cannot turn very quickly at speed on ice, and whether or not this is realistic it's certainly irritating. One thing that definitely isn't realistic though is the special effects. High scoring games often see smoke rising up off regular scorers' shoulders, and if they keep up that form fire and eventually bolts of lightning and electricity can envelope the whole team, enhancing their accuracy with the puck. This is handy in the two player split-screen modes for burying upstarts in the final moments.
Play around for a while and you can build up some credits, which can then be spent in the Hockey Shop on the main menu. The items in the shop are useful mostly for Custom Teams, with bizarre replacement heads and jerseys on offer amongst other things. Earn enough credits and you can even unlock All-Star teams for use in the Exhibition and Championship modes. Once you have a good-looking team you can start building them up in Franchise mode, eventually fighting your way through the fictional Midway Cup and conquering the game properly. Franchise is also a far more agreeable tutorial than the Skill mode, Hitz' excuse for a training area. Its several levels of increasingly frustrating and unpleasant tests, all of which are set against an unforgiving time limit, do little to encourage casual players to persevere with it. Ultimately NHL Hitz 20-02 can be deep, but it can also be meaningless. The graphics are certainly very nice, and unlike EA Sports titles the crowd is modelled in 3D and animated nicely. There's a hint of slowdown in places, particularly when players are 'on fire' or hurled through the protective barriers, but in general the pace of the game is unrestrained. It would perhaps have been nice to see the game tweaked a little to iron out some of the blemishes, and the 'blitz' gameplay wears thin eventually, but the Tony Hawk-like array of extras to be unlocked and hidden aspects of the game like the cheat codes written on banners in the crowd all add up to a nice little package. Whether ice hockey games are all that relevant to anybody in Europe is difficult to say, but I doubt we'll run out of them any time soon, and this is certainly an above-average one. Perhaps it's time to give in and see what the fuss is about? There are better things to buy on the Xbox, but NHL Hitz 20-02 is worth renting for the multiplayer mode and if you get that far, you may just find that you like it enough to buy it.