After the releases of NFL Blitz 2003 and NHL Hitz 2003, Midway decided to change things up with their flagship arcade sports game series for the sixth console generation. While the earlier games had been fairly well-received, the decision was made to push Blitz and Hitz a bit closer to being simulations– but not so close that the pick-up-and-play arcade feel would be lost. Since Hitz developers Black Box Games had moved over to developing games for Electronic Arts, Midway tabbed Next Level Games to work on Hitz Pro… and the results were better than many fans could have hoped for.

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Next Level Games managed to carry over what was so loved about the earlier Hitz games while moving to a traditional 5-on-5 team structure and implementing a light version of hockey’s rule set. The action on the ice is as fast and action-packed here as it ever was in the first two games in the series; players can still be checked through the glass, one-timers are still extremely effective, and scoring opportunities are plentiful. Adding icing and some penalty calls don’t interfere with the action too much, but checking players without the puck too many times will attract attention from the referee and lead to penalties.

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Offense is improved in NHL Hitz Pro, with the additions of wraparound goals and deflections. These improvements reward players who stay close to the net, and are great ways to break through on a goaltender who has been stopping a lot of shots from distance. It’s tempting to load up slapshots and fire pucks at goaltenders, but goalie AI is a bit smarter here and more varied approaches to offense– especially in the harder difficulty settings– are important to execute.

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One notable difference from past Hitz games is the fighting engine. In NHL Hitz Pro, a random face button is selected for both combatants, and each must rapidly tap the respective button until a meter fills. The player that fills the meter scores a flurry of hits on the opponent, and the process begins again in another round. When a player wins three rounds, the fight ends. Both players go to the penalty box, but the team whose player won the fight is awarded a period of “on fire” time.

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These “on fire” states, as has always been the case in Midway’s arcade sports games, can make a team deadly. These states allow for unlimited use of Turbo, increase shot power and accuracy, and make hits on opposing players more punishing. They can lead to comebacks for teams that are losing by several goals, or they can lead to further separation for teams that are already out in front. Aside from winning a fight, drawing a penalty is another way to jump into an “on fire” state– which is enhanced by a short period of power play time. Having an extra player on the ice in NHL Hitz Pro is a serious advantage, especially for teams that know how to pass the puck well. Just like in real hockey, capitalizing on power plays is key to winning games here.

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Franchise Mode is the big attraction for solo NHL Hitz Pro players. It allows for a good deal of customization, from player names and faces to stats and equipment. Hero Equipment, which boosts player stats, can be earned in Franchise games by completing assigned tasks before the final horn sounds. There’s a nice variety in these tasks, and they often require players on secondary lines to achieve them. For example, one task challenges players to score three points with a left winger on the checking line; these players usually aren’t scorers, so strategy and skill are needed to pull off this goal and earn the piece of Hero Equipment at stake. There’s also skill by the player needed to carefully juggle lines for each faceoff. This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it does often encourage players to play all of their lines instead of the same two every game. Winning enough games with a team in Franchise Mode boosts that team into the NHL as an expansion, and that’s when the real competition begins as contests become harder to win against stronger opposition.

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Franchise Mode may be the highlight for solo players, but NHL Hitz Pro offers several other modes of play to maintain interest. For example, there’s a Season Mode, which allows players to step into the skates of their favorite NHL teams and play through a full season in Hitz fashion. This mode has fewer bells and whistles than the Franchise Mode, but is still fun to play through–especially for fans of particular teams. Full stats are kept for all teams, and there are enough features within the mode to make it moderately comparable to other NHL hockey games. For players looking for quick Hitz, without the depth of Season or Franchise play, there are also single games that can be played for knocking players around and netting a few goals.

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Next Level Games delivers a pretty solid visual package with NHL Hitz Pro. On the ice, action is fast and remarkably smooth, thanks to consistent framerate. Some of the player faces are a bit muddy, but this is passable given the technology and time period. There’s some decent animation, including wraparound shot routines, big hits, and goaltenders sprawling to make big saves. The PlayStation 2 version of the game has a few occasional stutters and bouts with slowdown, though this happens more during replays and not during in-game action.

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In the sound department, NHL Hitz Pro returns Tim Kitzrow to the booth to call its games. Kitzrow delivers his usual over-the-top commentary style here, with the only disappointment being that some of his lines are recycled commentary from past Hitz titles. Joining Kitzrow in the booth is Harry Tienowitz, a former goaltender. Tienowitz serves as the color commentator and analyst here; while his banter with Kitzrow in the pre-game is pretty funny, the rest of his work is rather unimpressive. This doesn’t take away from the quality of the game at all, but if Midway’s intention was to skew more toward simulation with Hitz Pro, then this aspect of the game falls a bit short. Aside from the commentary, the sound effects are well done and the music is decent. Midway licensed Kernkraft 400’s Zombie Nation for use in this game, and hearing it as the players hit the ice before games raises the intensity level just a little bit.

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The presentation in NHL Hitz Pro is bolstered by some relevant stat lines during stoppages in play and a replay system that can be user-controlled, if desired. The stat lines show some interesting notes, including how close a goaltender is to pitching a shutout to faceoff stats for both teams. Other hockey games from EA Sports and SEGA Sports don’t use stat lines as relevant as these. The replay system isn’t the smoothest, but being able to control the camera on automatic replays– as opposed to player-initiated replays– is a nice touch. There’s also an automatic replay of the biggest play of the game at the end of each contest. Within Franchise and Season play, stats for individual players, team leaders, and league leaders can be accessed to see who’s hot and who’s not.

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Overall, NHL Hitz Pro successfully straddles the line between arcade sports and simulation sports. 5-on-5 play is executed well, and other introductory aspects of hockey– fatigue monitoring, line changes, and a few penalty calls– make Hitz Pro into the interesting hybrid that it is. Personally, it’s my favorite game in the series, and one of my favorite sports video games for its generation. It’s a logical evolution from the purely arcade-focused experiences that NHL Hitz 20-02 and NHL Hitz 2003 delivered. Most importantly, NHL Hitz Pro is just fun to play for pretty much anyone.

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If you’re interested in picking up NHL Hitz Pro for yourself, pricing ranges anywhere from around $6 for a loose disc for the PlayStation 2 up to nearly $11 for a loose Gamecube disc. Complete-in-box copies usually run between $10 to $15, depending on the console that you’re interested in buying it for.

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