Full Review: It's sooooo reeeeeeeeal! /Sosa
If there's one game franchise that has blossomed on the PlayStation 2, it's the High Heat Baseball series. For years, the PC versions have been the best in the business, with hardly any competition to be had. However, the console incarnations on the PlayStation have been poor, lacking not only decent graphics (even if it was the PlayStation), but also terminally wrecked gameplay. While the final PSX version finally made some strides, it was overshadowed by the realization that 3DO's first PS2 baseball game, High Heat 2002, was an incredible representation of baseball ? despite the wrecked, last generation PS2 graphics. The 2003 version saw only a handful of improvements, like better (but not perfect) graphics and a more polished gameplay engine, and HH demonstrated staying power.
For the 2004 version, 3DO went out of their way to expand the PS2 feature set, as well as vastly improve their graphics engine ? and generally succeeded. The Franchise/Career mode has finally made its way to consoles, and the graphics and presentation are finally at least passable as decent graphics on the PlayStation 2. The end result is, yet again, the class of PS2 baseball games, and easily the best bet for die-hard baseball purists who don't want batting cursors and cheap homer tricks, but instead want a realistic game of baseball.
High Heat maintains all the great features the game is known for, along with much-needed new ones. Most important is the inclusion of a Franchise mode, something lacking on console versions but has been a staple of the PC editions. There's actually a pair of different flavors of Franchise modes ? one where you don't have to worry about being a small market team with no money, and one with. So in the latter, you have to not only play well on the field, but also figure out how to manage cash to keep your team competitive year in and year out. Each Franchise type has deep minor league systems, letting you keep your eye on the farm system and call up players as necessary, or even use them as bait in a trade for an established star. More than anything, baseball is a game of strategy and this portion of that strategy is outstanding.
The rest of HH 2004's options are retained from HH 2003 ? including the addictive 2 on 2 showdown where you pick one pitcher and one hitter and take on another twosome in a fast game of baseball. Unfortunately, there is no online play (probably due to the fact that lag would kill a timing-based game like baseball), but also no downloadable rosters on the Xbox version (not that it matters since there hasn't been any roster downloads as of this writing). The incredibly deep Franchise mode makes up for this omission though.
When it comes to the on-field action, High Heat 2004 is largely similar to 2003 ? which means, the most realistic game of baseball around. It's hard to improve on near-perfection, which is why HH feels similar to last year's game in this element. As always, HH's most important features are the hitting and pitching engines, which both are largely unchanged from the outstanding engines of 2003.
Hitting the ball, again, feels more like the real thing, due to the lack of a hitting cursor. Instead of lining up your cursor with the ball, then hitting to see where it goes, you're in control of where to hit. Just by pressing the stick or d-pad in the direction you want and swinging you'll make contact if it's right. Sometimes, you'll be able to burn a bad pitch for a homer, or just a double in the gap or down the line ? it just depends on the pitch and how the contact is made. It's a lot more interactive than a cursor-based system, but admittedly the results of the at-bat are fairly random unless you're able to figure out the pitches.
One thing that has changed is the speed of delivery. It seems that 3DO slowed down the speed of the pitches, so even if Randy Johnson is tossing a 100 MPH fastball to you, time is there to figure out the pitch and make contact, or just let it go by. On the other hand, it does help you make snap decisions on whether to swing, or not. This means, whoa, you can actually draw a walk and start rallies and that sort?like real baseball.
The pitching engine, despite the slower on-screen pitching, is the same as 2003 as well. Instead of picking an exact location and pitch (which I would actually prefer, it lets you nibble corners manually and precision-place a pitch), you pick one of a handful of pitches and pick a pre-set location. It's a bit non-interactive, but it does have some nice elements that help. The best thing is, sometimes a pitcher just misses his location and will wind up missing the strike zone and possibly walking the batter. This usually means that you have to pitch over the plate, which is a risk and could lead to trouble. The better the pitcher, the less often this happens, so it's realistic in that respect.
The rest of the intangibles are just as good as in the past, though it seems the computer AI has been dumbed down a bit. On the other hand, the game does contain exhaustive sliders a-la Madden which lets you fine-tune the gameplay to your own tastes. You can even bump up or lower the simulation aspect, creating a complete baseball sim, or a nearly arcade experience. Either way, High Heat not only manages to maintain authenticity, it also maintains entertainment value. It helps that you can still play a game in about a half hour, depending on whether or not it's a 10-8 hitters duel or a 3-2 pitchers duel. This makes playing a full season and beyond actually possible, unlike some games that usually take forever (like All-Star Baseball).
The one place, as said so many times, that High Heat needs the most improvement, is the graphics. Thankfully, 3DO did a good job of enhancing things to look like the game belongs on the PS2. Admittedly, HH 2004 looks a bit faded when compared to the much more polished Xbox version, but despite some weird animations and a grainy look, it still is passable and not ugly. Personally, the best improvement is the in-game presentation, which looks more like a TV broadcast now and less like it was programmed on Intellivision. The rest of the graphical touches are just that ? highly improved touches. The players look better, even though many have the same batting stance, and outside of a handful, all look the exact same and maintain the same height and weight.
On the other hand, the stadiums look excellent with all the unique details in and outside of the diamond. While all the various signs around the stadiums are fake, it still stands out as good looking. Unfortunately, the fans in the stands look like cardboard cutouts ? though in a nice touch, some stadiums are empty throughout the season, unless the home team is performing well and contending for a championship.
The audio is largely unchanged from HH 2003, but this means it does a solid, if not great job. The announcers do a good job calling the action, even if the color commentator barely chimes in and the play by play guy manages to repeat himself early and often, many of the lines coming directly from past HH games. Thankfully, the crowd noise has improved, with not only the voices of vendors selling their wares, but fans taunting opponents or encouraging the home team ? or even exclaiming ?oh no!? when the enemy hits a home run (even if you are up 10-0). And in some places, the fans in the stands will actually toss the ball back, such as Wrigley Field in Chicago, which the announcer duly notes. Now that's a nice touch!
With stiff competition on the PS2, High Heat 2004 steps up to the plate and holds its own against the other hardball games out there. While it's not loaded with huge improvements besides graphics, it's very hard to improve on what already was damn good. With that in mind, High Heat might seem like a casual upgrade to less hardcore baseball fans, but those in the know will see all the little touches scattered here and there, creating yet another fun and addicting baseball simulation. If you don't need updated rosters or a Franchise mode, or are okay with the substandard graphics, you could manage to stick with High Heat 2003, but baseball junkies should waste no time acquiring a copy of 2004, if they haven't already.