All-Star Baseball 2004 Review (Xbox)
Last year was a very mixed season for baseball games. If you could have put all of the best parts from all three titles; All-Star Baseball 2003, World Series Baseball 2002 and High Heat Baseball 2003, you would have had one heck of a baseball game. Unfortunately none really captured the spirit of baseball.
In terms of All-Star Baseball 2003, the game was very loose on the field but had a franchise mode to prop it up. This year ASB 2004 promises to have solidified game play and add even more goodies for your baseball pleasure.
Without seeing what WSB, MVP and HH have to offer, it’s going to be hard to top ASB’s extras. They have the standard options in terms of gameplay. You get exhibition, career play, expansion career play, home run derby, batting practice, and a pick-up game to spend your days fiddling with. The game also comes with a slew of extras that are like the bonus DVD features. Here you have a trivia game, stadium tours and multimedia movies. ASB seems to have stolen a page right out of EA Sports in believing that gameplay will only take a game so far but it’s the goodies that put it over the top.
I think most of the features are self-explanatory so I’m going to dive into the areas that most might not know about.
Last year ASB showed off a small group of Cooperstown Classic players. This year they hit you with 50 or more all time players. It is also refreshing to see the stars of the Negro Leagues in this game. There’s so many all-time players that you get a lot of teams from the different eras; deadball, post-war, AL and NL All-Time are just a few examples. I know it must be difficult to get legendary players but many of the teams are a bit redundant. Missing are some of the more famous names of each baseball era, like Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Rollie Fingers and others. It’s not a big deal because there are a lot of players. But when the AL Post War team and the Post War team is almost identical you do feel a bit cheated.
Also continued from last year is the amount of ballparks in the game. They included more of the legendary parks like Baker Bowl and Shibe Park and coupled them with future Wrigley, future Fenway and others. The ballparks are impressive and really bring the old-time feel back to the game. It’s a little disappointing that you can’t use these in a franchise or select them as your expansion stadium.
Speaking of an expansion options this year you have more cities and more mascots. There seems to be over 20 cities from N. America and more than 30 mascots for you team. When you fire up your expansion franchise you can also choose around 7 ballparks. Each are fantasy ballparks but nothing silly. In fact I’m sure many of the real major league clubs would love to have a ball park that looked as good as these.
The franchise mode is the deepest I’ve ever seen in a sports game period, excluding text sims. It’s so deep that it could probably run a very competent text sim with it. And if that’s not deep enough, the developers have had to include an expansion rulebook that explains all the faucets of the game. These features are also available if you choose to play as an expansion team.
I’ll try to quickly sum up what’s all there if you play this way. Your team will consist of a Major League team, high minors (triple A) and low minors (single A). The breakdown will be a 25-15-15 split and you are able to have a 40 man active roster. Each team has a budget and that’s dependent if you want it to be realistic thus major markets get more money. Or if you are a Twin or Royals fan you can see what would happen if every team had an equal budget.
In a season, you have a plethora of options to try a pull a Wayne Huzienga and win it all now, at all costs. The area that ASB shines is in roster management. Should you choose to make your franchise be as realistic as possible then you will have to deal with such features as players’ options, waivers, active rosters and more. Should your players get injured you have the option of a 15 or 40 day disabled list. In the off-season you have FA signing, negotiations, a 4 round draft and an exhibition season in either Florida or Arizona.
I don’t think I even included everything that ASB offers in terms of features inside your career mode. And when you start your franchise it tends to get a bit overwhelming of all the options available to you. It’s a good thing there’s a simple mode unless you are willing to put in the time to micromanage your roster.
A detractor however is the interface. It’s just plain bad. I wish it were easier to zip around and find player stats or change players’ options in the game. Instead you always seem to be one or two screens away from the right information.
This is where ASB fell flat last year and it falls a bit short again this year. The first thing you will notice is the difficulty of hitting. That is until you get used to it then it turns from a game about strategy baseball to just hitting the ball whenever your cursor is close. As many of you know, ASB offers the ability to use four different batting systems, Zone (High Heat System), Normal (3D where the cursor will tilt), Classic (your normal cursor system), Easy (Timing based). The problem doesn’t lie in the cursor system as it did last year, the main flaw in the speed of the pitches and the ball locator. The speed is too fast plus the ball locater to tell you where the pitch will be located shows up too late in the process. All leads to hitting becoming extremely difficult if you use normal pitching. Luckily ASB offers the option of showing exaggerated break on pitches. This not only allows you to distinguish a splitter from a sinker but it slows it down you actually have a snowballs chance to make contact. If you don’t use the exaggerated pitch option you must be able to pick up a pitch when it leaves the pitcher’s hand or have reflexes like a cat.
Like I said before if you use the cursor-based system this game has a breaking point. In a few short days from release I have gone from Pro-mode striking out 15 times a game to All-Pro and no aids except exaggerated pitches where the strategy is just to hit the ball whenever my cursor is close to the ball. My complaint with hitting is that the strategy of hitting the ball and waiting from the right pitch is minimized. If you’re lucky in the majors you get a great pitch to swing at maybe every few at bats. In ASB it’s not about swinging at the times where the pitch is going to be in a players sweet zone instead it’s a matter of just moving the cursor correctly. To elaborate you can hit a fastball low and away with the same ease you could hit a hanging curve all because the cursor system doesn’t care where the ball is in the strike zone as long as the cursor is in the proper spot.
My second problem with batting is that ASB feels a bit canned at times. In many of my games pulled homers will be hit from a low and away trailing slider. That says to me that it’s a matter of cursor location and if the CPU says it’s time for a ball to hit well or not. There are games where you will have your cursor over every pitch yet you will get 3 hits yet the next game you still have the same capability hitting and you rake in 15 hits.
Regarding CPU batting tendencies I should note that the batters are a little jumpy and will swing at too many pitches. This leads to a rather low pitch count but nothing that is a game killer.
Pitching is next up and while I think the CPU pitching is generally good and unpredictable human pitching needs work. Just like last year the pitchers are too accurate. You will miss your spots more often and with a greater degree of error but it’s still accurate when your pitcher isn’t tired. Tired pitchers seem to be the most realistic. Even if you are aiming straight down the middle you might end up seeing two balls outside the zone.
Secondly the strike zone is based off a 2D zone and not a 3D zone. Real simply, it turns pitching into hitting a glass plate instead of trying to clip a box. You won’t see curves that barely catch the front part of the plate or sliders that seem to catch the back door.
ASB also has a rather difficult learning curve with hitting but it loses many of it’s graces with unrefined gameplay. Fielding is the area that makes you wish they didn’t include all the fancy options and just worked on tightening up last year’s version. To sum it up the game has made great strides in the fielding and base running department but still comes up short.
Fielding is too loose in my book and there’s just too many times in a game when I think, “hmm that’s interesting”. The CPU can handle common situations easily. Say you have runners on first and second and you hit a deep single to right field. Your runner from second, more times than not, is going to score. The AI gets in trouble in the gray areas of baseball. However I would say that they should have gotten this right. Let’s say you bunted to right side and the 1b picked up the ball, the pitcher should make an effort to cover the bag. Many times the AI leaves it up to wrong players to finish the play leading to an unrealistic result. The plus to fielding are that throws are offline. Sometimes throws will pull players off a base or it will be a bit high. In ASB, and this is one of the few games that does that, no longer is catching a ball enough for an out. A tag is applied in the correct situations.
Base running is okay, to sum this area simply. The CPU is ultra-aggressive. If there’s any chance from the CPU to take an extra base it will do so without hesitation. There are some kinks in both human and cpu baserunning. There are times that the CPU will make mistakes and stack up runners. You might see two guys piled up on third because the CPU didn’t know what to do. With regards to humans, I’ve noticed that sometimes they’ll clamp your player to a base and not let him advance even though you are clearly pressing that button.
There are also many one-off quirks in the game play department. In my time with the game I’ve seen throws to first which should have been sure outs but result in a hit because of an animation that looked alright but when I get back to the next pitch there wasn’t an out. Sometimes a catcher will try a pick-off to first, where the base runner doesn’t move. Instead of the AI recognizing that a tag is needed it will either sit there waiting for the game to time out for the next pitch. Or it will throw to second allowing your man a safe trip back to base.
My main complaint of the game play is that ASB hasn’t advanced enough to grab a hold of you. While I think the game is much improved it still has an unpolished feel to it. And it’s even more unsatisfying when the team puts all these extra features but seems stumped on how to tackle the gameplay issues.
Lastly I want to talk briefly on game length. I think in this age of next generation gaming that how long a game takes to play is important. In my library most of the sports games that are played frequently are either ones that are all engrossing or I can advance my seasons rather quickly. ASB still plays a little slow and leads to that dreaded work feeling when playing it. Games will range in the 35-50 minute category and that’s if you don’t watch replays, don’t make too many substitutions and it’s not a hitting frenzy. If both teams have 10+ hits you are looking at a rather long game. ASB did include a save game feature that does help cut the boredom. But where’s the fun in having to come back some time later because it took too long to finish one game in the first place. I hope the team works on making the game in 25-35 range next year.
GRAPHICS AND ANIMATIONS
Graphically speaking ASB is no slouch and until the other big titles come out for all the systems we won’t know exactly how this one ranks. I will say that there aren’t any big problems with the player. Some will nit-pick because Pedro Martinez leg kick isn’t 3 inches higher or some of the batting stances aren’t accurate down to the waggle. I guess the point of the graphics is to make you think wow this is a great looking game and you aren’t always complaining how it looks. ASB doesn’t have any real snafus in the graphics department. You will be able to distinguish most of the players by their real life faces, stances or deliveries. Many have said that the game looks a bit dull and drab with the colors. I guess if I had to say one negative about the graphics it would be that, but they look fine to me.
The ballparks and extra jerseys are all faithfully created. I haven’t visited all the ballparks in the country so I can’t tell you if they are all faithfully recreated but if you have to look hard for them then they must have done a great job. As for the jerseys, no complaints here as well.
Let’s talk about animation for a moment. A great videogame is when you don’t have to fight the animations to get a game to do what you want. If you press a button then on the screen you should see an immediate result. ASB on the other hand is a battle all the way. It’s like playing movie baseball. In almost every area of the game there seems to be a momentary delay before you see a response. There’s something to be said about the satisfaction of responsive controls and when you don’t have them it really kills the mood.
There is no doubt there is a lot of animations in the game. Us gamers get so used to it that we take it for granted so only the negatives stand out. But graphics and animations in video games should bring you closer to the action and make you feel, as any achievement is a result directly from your fingers. ASB takes a lot of getting used to because at times it just feels as if you queue up an animation and wait for the CPU to show you a result.
The announcing is done by Thom Brennaman and Steve Lyons. I think it’s absolutely fabulous. Some of the calls are a bit off at times but I can overlook that fact because Thom and Steve have a few “conversations” in the game. I’ve actually stopped playing to listen to them because it was insightful. Steve will sometimes talk about the inexcusableness of left-handed pitches without a pick-off move or about the “conspiracy” of juiced up balls. I really hope to see more in this announcing in future games.
For you Spanish-speaking baseball fans out there, this might be the first game to have a SAP button. Okay you have to select the Spanish commentary but ASB definitely gets points for accommodating this group.
Ballpark sounds are a little weak. No game that I’ve played seems to do a great job of crowd sounds. I wish the crowds would be more involved but since no video game has ever gotten this right there’s no real complaint from me.
One line – it’s that pretty girl you’ve been waiting to take to the big dance. She looks good you are ready for a great time but you find out she’s a bit dull and getting to like her will take some work. ASB looks great and has enough options to make you go nuts. The problem once again is an incomplete feeling when you throw that first pitch.