Baseball Bash 2003: So many games, so little time, so few chances to bean Barry Bonds upside his fat head.
Now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, sports fans have hit what's called the Dead Zone. This period of time is when sports are usually slow for news, and sports fans turn into bored lumpies waiting for the next big thing. As usual, the next big thing is March Madness, and of course, America's Pastime, baseball and its spring training. While March Madness is a short, but sweet 3 weeks of college basketball, the MLB season is also the first indicator that the long winter is finally coming to an end, and for sports fans, this time of year is virtual torture.
Thankfully, baseball loving fans who play video games don't have to wait quite as long, since the rush to release the latest in the line of baseball games for the 2003 season starts as early as February; right about the time pitchers and catchers report for practice. This year in particular is a doozy ? no less than five multi-console baseball games are releasing, along with 2 platform-exclusive 1st party hardball simulations. Naturally, not even the hardest of the hardcore baseball fans will pick up every one of them (up to 6 on one console!), so we at Gaming Target took liberty to give an inside look at what's to come, for every game console ? PS2, Xbox, GameCube, even the Game Boy Advance. While we can't decide for you, we can give you a look at what makes each game stand out, helping you make a decision for yourself as to which game is worthy of your $50 bill.
The Multi-Platform Contenders
Believe it or not, All-Star Baseball is the longest running yearly series of baseball games now (World Series would be the longest, but it took some time off in the Saturn/Dreamcast lull period). Starting only on the Nintendo 64, then later moving to the PlayStation 2, the ASB series is now truly platform-agnostic, spanning all consoles. Arguably, the ASB series is also the most ambitious product this year, feature-wise. While the gameplay itself will probably not be much different than previous ASB games, the features included in the 2004 update are definitely enough to make you stand and take notice.
||All-Star Baseball 2004|
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, GBA
Release: February 28, 2003
First off, Acclaim went all out to get over 100 different hall-of-fame baseball stars, including many Negro League players who dominated that era. They can't be used in most modes of play, but exhibition, sandlot, and pickup modes will let you use these legends. The Franchise mode also is revamped from an already solid 2003 mode, complete with the newest kicker ? building newer, bigger stadiums as you play deep into the franchise. While it's unknown how this will work, it should be interesting (and a note to EA Sports...please implement this in your Dynasty mode in NCAA Football 2004, thank you). The rest of the Franchise will consist of having minor leaguers to call up and demote, a robust general manager mode for trading, releasing, and signing free agents, and a deep statistical tracking engine.
For those not in the know, ASB is a slower-paced game of baseball, with many simulation features such as warming up pitchers and realistic fatigue levels for starting pitchers. It also features a dual-use batting cursor that lets you pick between power and average swings, to hit singles, or to hit home runs.
Online features will be included in the PS2 and Xbox version (this is the only thing the Cube version lacks). While Xbox Live play will not be supported, you will be able to download content such as roster updates continually throughout the regular season, to keep your video game rosters as up to date as possible. The PlayStation 2 version also has this, but it's supposed to feature actual online gameplay against other humans. This hasn't been verified in a while, but at one time was announced, so we'll see how it happens.
Finally, the Game Boy Advance version will largely be based on last year's version, so expect a solid game without a whole lot of bells and whistles. It is a little cartridge, after all.
Formerly a PlayStation 2 only product, High Heat 2004 is the first foray into multi-platform dominance. High Heat 2003 was easily the best hardball game on PS2 last year, and arguably the best baseball game period (with World Series Baseball neck & neck with it). This year's version hits all the consoles with a thunderous bang, and 3DO has gone all out to break on through to the other side, and push this game from cult status to full-fledged superstar.
||High Heat Baseball 2004|
Platforms: PlayStation 2, GameCube, Xbox, GBA
Release: February 18, 2003
High Heat is a pure baseball simulation ? the game prides itself on letting you tweak nearly everything, from the skills of the players to even the level of authenticity. It also has no hitting cursor or gimmicky features in the actual gameplay ? instead it relies purely on your ability to swing a virtual baseball bat as well as possible. Naturally, HH 2004 will appeal most to the super-hardcore baseball fans, which is the audience 3DO aims for, anyway. This is represented in the Franchise mode, which forces you to learn how to deal with real problems, like injuries, minor leaguers, and how to work a bullpen and understand the strategy of warming up pitchers. The Career mode itself is completely overhauled, with all kinds of minor league issues, from Class A rookie ball to AAA leagues. This is actually the first edition on a console to have multiple season play, finally putting it in the same category as the tremendously deep PC edition.
What is getting a big overhaul is the graphics. While last year's game was decent looking on PS2, 3DO decided to leave the already excellent gameplay alone and instead tweak the graphics. And this they have, as they've created a nice looking baseball game that finally looks like a genuine next-generation product. While it won't be the best looking game on the Xbox or Cube, it will still be able to hold up to the competition.
Online features are nil, unless you're an Xbox owner ? like ASB, High Heat 2004 will have downloadable rosters available on Xbox Live. PlayStation 2 owners, apparently, will have to suffer with badly outdated rosters, since High Heat ships in late February ? nowhere near final cut day for the regular season ballclubs. Of course, if you own a GameCube, the game ships in mid-April, so perhaps you'll have the most up to date rosters ? for a while, anyway.
Like ASB, the GBA version of High Heat is most likely going to be based on the same version that's been out the last two years, so while it probably will be high quality, it won't be high on deep features.
After a couple years of mediocrity on the Dreamcast, Sega's esteemed World Series Baseball made a stunning comeback with WSB for the Xbox last year, garnering a 9.4 right here at Gaming Target. Like High Heat, it was the best baseball game for its console (it was an Xbox exclusive), and perhaps the best baseball game of 2002 for any system. Thanks to an in-depth Franchise mode and excellently balanced gameplay, WSB was a big hit for Xbox baseball fans.
||World Series Baseball 2K3|
Publisher: Sega Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts/Blue Shift
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Release: March 11, 2003
This year, Sega has decided to go multi-platform with the WSB series, in the form of World Series Baseball 2K3. While it seems apparent that very little will change from last year's game outside of some minor additions and tweaking, it shouldn't matter because WSB was an amazing baseball game as it was.
What we do know is some nice additions will be included ? naturally, the ESPN license is in full-force, so it's as realistic as humanly possible. The Franchise mode will be tweaked to perfection, with better fleshed out minor league stuff and better stat tracking. Finally, on-field enhancements are sure to be around, including more animations, better animations, and finally, you can jump and rob someone of a home run if you can get there in time. Going in to this year's baseball sweepstakes, this, along with High Heat, are the 2 biggest sure bets, and they hardly need much changing from last year.
Unfortunately, as of now, neither the Xbox or PS2 version will feature online play ? the first Sega Sports game in a while to not be online. Most likely Sega was a bit concerned about baseball being played online, due to their experience with the troublesome online play in World Series Baseball 2K2 on the Dreamcast. Hopefully, next year's game will feature some sort of online, whether or not it's downloadable rosters or actual gameplay.
By now I'm assuming you've noticed a lack of a GameCube version listed. Unfortunately for GCN owners, Sega has decided to cancel the Cube version of WSB, due to market conditions (read: sports games sell terribly on GameCube, thus it's like throwing money away to sell a game on a system that has no audience for sports, it seems), along with the rest of their sports line for GCN. If you're a sports fan with a Cube, High Heat and ASB are still around, but this sad demise of Sega Sports games on Cube is a telltale sign of the market for sports games on Nintendo's console.
Triple Play is no more. Thanks to what was the worst baseball game in ages, Triple Play 2002, EA Sports did the smart thing and scratched the TP series, instead deciding to start over, hand the series over to EA Canada, and begin fresh with a brand new name. That name is MVP Baseball, and while this is probably the biggest dark horse, it's also the most ambitious of them all, due to the total redesign. If EA plays their cards right this could wind up being the most surprising entry of them all.
||MVP Baseball 2003|
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Canada
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox
Release: March 11, 2003
The revamping starts squarely in the gameplay, which features some creative stuff in theory. The pitching engine will come with a complete overhaul, using an old-school PGA Tour Golf-style pitching meter. Basically, the meter lets you decide between power or accuracy, giving you control of how you want the pitch to go. Get it right down the center and it will come at a high speed and be dead-on accurate, or let it go for an even more powerful pitch, at the risk of being way off with the location and winding up in trouble, or even a wild pitch. The hitting engine is going to be similar to High Heat, where aiming the bat in the direction you want to swing is the norm. There won't be a hitting cursor, which is always a very good thing ? it's not really necessary to baby-sit the batters with it.
The other big change is in the fielding, where a meter similar to the pitching one lets you alter either power or accuracy. Need a pinpoint throw? Just ease up on the power and watch it land in the right spot. Need more power, even with a risk of being way off? Then just chuck it like we're in high school and see where it goes. While it's a different thing for a baseball sim, it actually should work and bring strategy back to EA's baseball games, which have become blatant homer fests the last few years.
Also, the Franchise mode has been created from the ground up with some very neat additions. The Franchise is goal-based ? performing tasks will give you job security. Do well and keep your job; perform poorly and you'll be looking for a new job. The goals vary on each team; for instance, the Yankees goals are much more demanding than the Detroit Tigers, since the Yanks are supposed to win a lot, and the Tigers are usually only good for cleaning out the toilets at Comerica Park. Tweener teams like the White Sox and Montreal will have varying tasks as well, so you never know what to expect when picking a franchise to represent. This feature alone makes MVP well worth a look this year.
Like World Series Baseball 2K3, however, there isn't a GameCube version on the horizon. While it hasn't outright been cancelled, it hasn't been announced either. It could come out later, but for now, it seems that MVP is MIA for the GCN. And that's fun with acronyms, ISYL.
Lastly, the final multi-platform baseball game is Midway's yearly farce on sports games, MLB Slugfest. In the same vein of NFL Blitz, NBA Jam, and NHL Hitz, Slugfest is an arcade style baseball game where beating the crap out of a pitcher is encouraged and high scores are a necessity. It's not really a deep game, given the subject matter, and the audience is very limited, because baseball purists would probably rather re-instate Pete Rose instead of play this.
||MLB Slugfest 20-04|
Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube
Release: March 17, 2003
As it is, Slugfest is lighthearted and brutal ? 2 words that don't usually go together, but in this case, it's that silly violent goofiness that appeals to casual baseball fans and non-sports fans in general. There's no real big features, or anything like that, it's just a basic game that's not intended to be a baseball sim whatsoever. Hey, at least it's coming out for the GameCube!
The MLB series was around on PlayStation for a long time, beginning as MLB Pennant Race back in the early days of the PlayStation. However, the series hasn't been shown yet on the PlayStation 2, with Sony deciding to keep the series going on PSX instead. This year though, Sony and 989 are ready to unleash their first PS2 version in MLB 2004. So far, 989's latest, looks to be a solid baseball game and maybe the first really good game from their camp since the PlayStation days.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: 989 Sports
Platform: PlayStation 2
Release: March 18, 2003
Most of the features of MLB in the past are back, like Total Control Batting and Pitching, which lets you basically swing where the ball is headed, and pitch where you want to throw the ball. So really, it's just like any other baseball game, only it has a totally cool name behind it. Anyway, MLB was great on PlayStation, so as long as this maintains all that gameplay goodness, it should turn out well.
The features are all the usual trimmings like exhibition games, season mode, general manager (franchise) mode, and basic playoff modes as well. Online play will not be included this year, unfortunately, and neither will be any kind of downloadable content. Perhaps next year ? this year it's all about Sony and 989 finally kicking it into gear (hopefully) and getting back on track on the PlayStation 2.
MLB Inside Pitch
Release: May 20, 2003
Despite baseball season being reasonably close to starting, there is hardly any information at all about Microsoft's first entry into Xbox baseball. There's only been one screenshot so far (and it was such a wide shot that you couldn't see anything useful), and play modes haven't been really fleshed out. Knowing Microsoft though, you can expect a deep franchise mode with good stat tracking and some form of DPP (Dynamic Player Performance), and Xbox-specific graphics. More will obviously be known soon, and when we do know, you'll hear all about it right here.
The one huge thing we do know, however, is that MLB Inside Pitch will feature full online play over Xbox Live. It's the only hardball game on the Xbox with online play, and will certainly feature roster updates as well. While baseball is a tough game to do online (the split second timing means lag is a major no-no, even if it's miniscule), hopefully the Xbox Live service will pull it off and we'll have solid online gaming with no hiccups. Naturally, this game is your pick if you are a big Xbox Live player ? for better or worse, since so little is known. Be a smart gamer though, and make sure it's worthy; because online play isn't a substitute if it's a poor game.
As you can see, the choices here are tremendous if you just want one baseball game this year. While most are sure bets, others are definite question marks, so picking wisely is also proceeded with caution. If you're a fan of the veteran series, you'll be right at home with this year's games, but newcomers will find themselves struggling. However, this guide will hopefully be of help, to make your ultimate decision on a baseball game for 2003. Despite advice here though, your best bet is to play all of them through the rental route to see which is right for you.