All-Star Baseball 2005 Review (Xbox)
Take me out to the game store…
Take me out to the Mall…
Baseball season is upon us. The “Boys of Summer” are back on the field. The contenders are already being separated from the pretenders as America’s game has kicked off yet another season in the sun. Before the first official pitch is even thrown, the game developers have lined up to battle for your gaming dollar. The field is a little thinner this year with the “contraction” of the team from 3DO. The Yankees and Red Sox of the baseball gaming industry (EA Sports and ESPN Videogames/Visual Concepts) have retooled in the off-season and are waiting to unleash their firepower on the league. However, like in real baseball, there is always room for THAT team. You know, the team, like the Florida Marlins of 2003, who look the empires right in the face and laugh. Acclaim and their baseball franchise “All-Star Baseball” want to play the Marlin role with this year’s release “All-Star Baseball 2005”. It’s a long season. Does “ASB2005” have the talent to take it to the big boys? Play Ball!
Before we touch on the actual gameplay, I need to mention the two biggest additions to “All-Star Baseball 2005”. First, borrowing a bit from the third-person gaming genre, Acclaim adds the new “Fieldercam”. On any batted ball, the camera takes focus on the selected player (chosen by the AI) that is best suited to make the play. Using the left analog stick to control the player’s movements, gamers can use the right analog stick to rotate the camera view. The ball glows and a series of halos are used to indicate the landing area of the ball, but tracking it is still a challenge. I found the “Fieldercam” innovative, yet frustrating. A learning curve in playing defense is not a problem for me. However, this camera view does make it very difficult to play the infield unless the ball is hit directly at you. It’s still very playable and enjoyable, but Acclaim may want to spend a few weeks in the off-season on better implementation for playing infield.
The other major addition to this year’s release is full Xbox Live functionality. Anything you can do in an exhibition game can be done on XBL. Choose your play level, batting style, camera, team, stadium; it’s all there. I found it very easy to find a random opponent at just about any time of the day. Gameplay was smooth was no major hiccups in frame rate or game quality due to lag. I had no problems with disconnects or freezes. All in all, “All-Star Baseball 2005” provides a very pleasurable online experience.
So now that we’ve seen the new side dishes; what about the meat and potatoes that have made “ASB” the game of choice for stat fans and people in “High Heat” withdrawal? The depth of “All-Star Baseball 2005’s” franchise and expansion modes are there and are as good as ever. The franchise mode has been given a small facelift and sports a smoother interface. Where you’ll see the most noticeable addition, however, is in Spring Training. This year, would-be managers can earn points by reaching certain gameplay goals that can be added to player ratings. The tougher the task, the more points you’ll be able to earn. A great addition that all baseball (and other sports) developers should take note of.
The rest of “ASB 2005’s” franchise mode fell squarely under the header of “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Rule 5 Draft, arbitration, winter meetings, retirement, free agency, if it’s in the game it’s…well…you. Theo Epsteins of the world unite. “All-Star Baseball” blows the competition out of the water in this department. You could spend hundreds of hours playing “All-Star Baseball 2005” without ever taking the field. Oh, and if you don’t like the teams that MLB has to offer, Expansion Mode is back; allowing you to build your own dynasty.
Having said all this, you still bought the game to take the field, right? Unfortunately, while improved, there are still some issues with “ASB 2005” that do slightly take away from the on-field experience. While I personally did not encounter any major bugs or glitches, I did notice a few quality issues that stood out to me. The detection between the fielder’s glove and the ball is still shaky at best. What I’ve heard referred to as the “phantom catch” is still in the game. Sometimes it’s very difficult to know whether or not you made the play. Sometimes when you think you got there in time, the ball bounces past you, while other times your fielder appears three steps away and a frame later he has the ball for the out. Not a major issue, but it probably should have been caught in testing. You’ll also notice that sometimes a safe base runner is standing about two scale feet off of the bag after finishing his slide.
Those issues aside, this title plays a pretty good game of baseball. The pitcher/batter match-up is almost identical to last season’s. The batting modes range in difficulty from simple timed hitting to the most challenging 3D cursor. While I am not usually a fan of cursor hitting, “All-Star Baseball” makes it fun and challenging and really adds some depth to the game while learning your way around the batter’s box. Pitching, on the other hand, is a little bit more mundane. The AI is a little too smart with the stick, making it very difficult to strike out a lot of batters by using real baseball strategy. You can’t really set a guy up, so to speak. You almost reach a point where you start grooving pitches just to play the field with the “Fieldercam.” While definitely a stronger title off the field, the on-field performance is still solid overall.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
I have to start by giving “All Star Baseball 2005” major props for holding onto the title of “Best Stadiums” among it’s competitors. The team at Acclaim does this so well that most baseball purists and casual fans will find themselves spending a lot of time just previewing all of the great fields. All 80+ stadiums are the most accurate, well shaded and detailed on this year’s console releases. Even the crowd, while far from perfect, is the best in any release.
The players themselves are an interesting mix of good and bad. The animations are far more crisp and clean than in previous versions. I specifically noticed a very clean look and feel in the pitching and batting animations. You’ll still see the occasional awkward transition in the field, but all and all, it’s one of the strengths of “ASB 2005’s” overall visual experience. On the flip side, the player models themselves still leave a lot to be desired. The detail and texturing is just not there. The scaling is pretty generic and gives an impression that there are only three body types (skinny, medium, and fat) and they are all used to the extreme. In fact, in “ASB”, Ivan Rodriguez may want to consider changing his nickname from “Pudge” to “Big, Fat Cow”.
A treat to the ears as well, “ASB 2005” uses all the audio tricks of the next-gen consoles to make for a great experience. The two-man booth of Thom Brenneman and Steve “Psycho” Lyons is used in a very wise “less is more” technique. Like real televised baseball, the commentary lets the action tell the story in certain areas. I find myself playing “All-Star Baseball” in a very similar fashion to watching a game on TV. I know the commentators are there. I know they’re talking. I’m just not really paying attention unless something big happens. I like that about this title. It makes it feel very real. They’ve even utilized Arizona Diamondbacks’ Spanish play-by-play voice Oscar Soria to provide a full experience for Spanish-speaking fans.
The atmosphere in the ballparks is top notch as well. Each home field has its own specific chants and feel. The crowd AI (if there is such a thing) seems more accurate this year, as well. The virtual patrons seem to cheer, boo, and heckle at the appropriate moments this year. That just helps create a really full and complete sound to the game.
I’ll be honest, “All-Star Baseball 2004” lasted about three weeks in my library last year. The only redeeming quality I could even find in it was its depth. To me, “ASB 2004” was the Detroit Tigers of the baseball release season. Like the Tigers, management started tweaking the team. Adding a little something here, fixing a little something there. “All-Star Baseball 2005” is a completely different team. The depth is still there, the gameplay is improving, and XBL functionality has been added. Could it be a “worst to first” situation? Maybe. This is not only a good baseball title; this is a good video game - period. It’s deep enough for the expert, but has the “pick-up-and-play” functionality for a beginner. Is it a grand slam? Not quite. But, at minimum, I’d call it a two-out single with the bases loaded.