I can't recall in recent memory a console launching with a sports franchise the likes of Sega Enterprises' Sega Sports. From the very beginning these sports titles showed off the power of the console at launch, and more to the point, they set new watermarks in their respective genre. Needless to say, with such stellar products like NBA2K, NFL2K and to a lesser extent, NHL2K behind them, gamers couldn't wait to get their hands on the baseball line of the Sega Sports brand. It didn't hurt that the new baseball title was a continuation of one of the most regarded console baseball franchises, Sega's own World Series Baseball. With such high expectations and Sega's proven ability to deliver, I was certain this would be the defining baseball game of the year the way Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2000 was last year. It pains me to say that after putting World Series Baseball 2K1 (WSB2K1) through its paces, it is actually a step backward for the prolific developer and a game truly unworthy of the Sega Sports moniker.
Sega's sports titles have universally had one distinct advantage over their competition: the surreally authentic in-game graphics that fill the games. From the opening intro, where real-time animated scenes are used in place of live-action full-motion video, WSB2K1 is a veritable feast for the eyes. Everything in the game is rendered with a painstaking attention to detail -- from realistic player models to the authentically modeled 3-D ballparks. It was truly impressive how well the developer captured the look and feel of playing in the big name ball parks like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, as well as the lesser known ones like the Arlington Ballpark. There are a few hard to ignore blemishes, like player faces that rarely resemble those of their real-life counterparts, as well poorly rendered fans that are nothing more than low resolution 2-D, cardboard cutouts. While these points aren't horrible missteps on the part of the developer, they are still noticeable while playing.
Sega's most damaging mistake was deciding that its graphical presentation was not going to be sullied by silly things like gameplay and player interactivity. If you watch even a moment of footage of the game in action, you'll see outfielders dive for the ball and infielders perform the most acrobatic catches and throws that would make the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Roberto Alomar jealous with envy. But if you think you'll be doing any of that while playing then I've got some bad news for you. Maybe it was to justify the use of motion-capturing throughout the game or to hide the fact that they didn't implement solid defensive AI, but whatever the reason, as soon as a ball leaves the bat, you're reduced to nothing more than a spectator as the computer automatically does the fielding. Well, that's not completely true, because unlike a spectator at a real-life game, you can at least control which base the ball is thrown to.
Sega only makes things worse with its choice of camera angles. While such a tight camera angle works great to showcase the action in a replay mode, it is not at all conducive to gameplay. Many times, a bloop pop-up might as well have been a moonshot because I could not see it nor which fielder was going to get it until it was too late. Often times, neither the fielder nor the ball were on screen at the same time -- making it hard to tell when, where or if it would be caught. If there were any runners on base after a hit like that, I always had to try to hold them back (the computer advances runners on contact for some reason) and this was never an easy task.
As annoying as these issues may be, they could have been overlooked had the hitting and pitching interface been better. While I did have some control over the direction of pitches thrown, and to a certain extent, their velocity as they hurtled toward the plate, there was no clear way of knowing what kind of pitch I was throwing and therefore where it would end up. This is only a problem because Sega choose to throw away the more tried-and-true formula of assigning pitches to specific face buttons. Instead, Sega designated each pitch to a direction on the analog stick (i.e. down for the curveball and down-left for the changeup). It may have sounded great on paper, but in action it is very problematic. For one thing, there was no on-screen indicator of which pitches were which -- leaving me to either commit the designations to memory or play with the instruction manual in hand. The second thing is that the analog joystick can be touchy, resulting in the wrong pitches being thrown regardless of how often I carefully checked.
In baseball videogames, hitting is a matter of following the ball into the strike zone and making contact by either moving the player, the contact area of the bat or both, as the pitch is delivered. WSB2K1 does not afford the player this option so things are needlessly difficult. And since there is no contact area to speak of, I had no idea where the bat would pass through in the strike zone. If the pitch was on the outside or inside, I was left to hope that I could time the swing and somehow make contact. If there were an option to move the hitter around in the batter's box for better plate coverage, this wouldn't even have been an issue. What's worse is that this limited any offensive strategy like advancing runners with opposite field hits or pulling off a sacrifice-fly or two to drive in a run. In Sega's obvious attempt to simplify the interface, it wound up making things more difficult.
As features go, WSB2K1 is lacking (there is no Home Run Derby or Franchise mode) and aside from its above average create-a-player mode, there's nothing I haven't seen a hundred times before. The trade feature is also silly as it allows any trades to be performed regardless of the disparity -- I went through a good portion of the game with Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwuire on my team, and all I had to do to get them was give up some relief pitchers. The other peeve I have is with the inability of the outfielders to throw anyone out at the plate. After seeing the hefty slugger, Mo Vaughn, chug around second and make it to home before Barry Bonds could chase down a ball and get it to homeplate -- this happened on more than one occasion -- I dropped the controller in frustration. This is not what I've come to expect from Sega Sports.
After playing through WSB2K1, I'm surprised this game was even released. Graphics aside, it is nowhere near the level of quality of past Sega Sports releases, and I would hardly call this a decent game if it came from any other developer. To be sure Sega wasn't misleading gamers, I checked the advertisements and press releases for the game and noticed WSB2K1 isn't heralded as a baseball sim so much as it is a fawning tribute to the great Pedro Martinez. In that regard, it is successful, as he is the most realistically represented of all the players in the game. But that doesn't excuse Sega for releasing a game that is obviously not ready for the big leagues.