Welcome to another edition of Play Under Review. This time around, we're throwing you a, ahem, curveball, devoting most of our coverage to a sport that's mostly dormant right now. As basketball, football, hockey and European soccer rage on, baseball fanatics feverishly analyze and over-analyze every aspect of the Hot Stove League, rocking back and forth while they dream wistfully of walkoff homeruns and diving catches in the outfield.
One of the great advantages of having a videogame system to a sports fan is being able to recreate the action on the field regardless of whether the sport's in season or not. To help those of you who might be getting a little itchy thinking about spring training, we offer up some looks at videogame representations of America's Game. We also have our first look at an extreme-sports title, as Jon Cadoche offers up a look at the latest Mat Hoffman title.
High Heat Baseball 2003
by Thom Moyles
Baseball games have come a long way since RBI Baseball on the NES. 3D, player's faces on the models, realistic ballparks, the option to play multiple seasons, the list goes on and on…it's just a pity that few, if any, games are as good as RBI was in terms of gameplay. High Heat Baseball 2003 definitely continues the trend of improving everything except the experience of actually playing the game.
The most aggravating feature of High Heat is actually the lack of a couple comfortable features that have been around in the genre for a long time. First of all, the pitcher has no actual control over the ball. The player selects a pitch type, whether he wants it to be a strike or a ball and then picks a general direction for the ball to go in. The game then decides where the pitch actually goes, depending on how tired your pitcher is. The lack of ability to control the pitch in the air is incredibly frustrating. Additionally, there is no way to move the batter in the batting box, taking quite a bit of strategy away from the hitter-pitcher match up. And once the bat meets ball, the problems don't stop. Like the modern game itself, High Heat is far too homer-happy, to the point where even today's wild games start to resemble a pitcher's duel. Thankfully, fielding is better than it usually is in recent titles, although using a single button to both dive and jump winds up showing off a few bugs in the code.
But not everything is the fault of the game. The problem lies with the fact that translating baseball to a videogame is a difficult task. Baseball is a game of tensions, and it's hard to replicate that in a setting where the players have complete control over when things happen. There are some attempts to reproduce this, but they wind up coming across as laughable, especially the 'Visit the Mound' option. When selected, the manager walks out to the mound, and there follows a short interlude of the manager and the infielders standing around the pitcher, then the game starts up again. There's no reason given as to why you can do this, and the only reason you will do this is possibly to taunt your opponent or to come up with MST3K-style witticisms at your pitcher's expense: 'Don't worry, Bob, I've convinced them to let my grandmother bat. Considering she's dead, you might be able to get her out.'
The graphics in High Heat are hit-and-miss. The player models are a little blocky, but they look like the players they're supposed to, and that goes a long way. The stadiums are also close to their real-life counterparts, but the effect is largely ruined by the crowds. The 'crowd' consists of a fuzzy bit-map of people all wearing the same color shirt yelling the same cat-calls over and over. This might distract the player from the repetitive and annoying commentary if they're lucky.
High Heat can only wind up being a disappointment for the dedicated fan of videogame baseball. If you're checking this one out at the store, I'd advise you to go right home and fire up RBI Baseball, Bases Loaded, Baseball Stars, Baseball Simulator 2020 or any other outdated, but still-fun version of the grand old game.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
Home Run King
Developer: WOW Entertainment
by Chi Kong Lui
Between the misleading title and the trademark Sega arcade look of the graphics, my preconception was that Home Run King for the GameCube would be an over-the-top diamond alternative more in the vein of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz than Sega's own World Series Baseball simulation series. Boy was I WAAAY off.
Home Run King may be intentionally trying to position itself as an arcade-style game, but I found it to be a legit baseball simulation as any other, albeit with less features. There isn't an expansive franchise mode, but there are create-a-player options and a full season mode complete with the usual trimmings like pitching rotations and statistical league leaders.
In terms of how the game plays, there aren't any extraordinarily outlandish physics, making the game of the more realistic variety and, contrary to what the title might imply, hitting homeruns aren't a dime-a-dozen. In fact, despite the engaging pitcher/batter interface that allows for a decent amount of strategy and control without being overwhelming, I still struggled to hit with any sense of consistency. Even when batting with the reigning MVP hit machine, Suzuki Ichiro during the season mode and correctly guessing pitches, I struggled to keep his batting average above a head scratching .150.
The other thing that really bugged the heck out of me about Home Run King was the defensive fielding component. Like a majority of the baseball games on the market, fielders are automatically activated and player controlled according to where the ball is hit. When hits are in-between gaps, the computer must make a determination and activate the closest fielder to the ball. In Home Run King, the computer would routinely make an unpredictable choice on fielding. No matter how many games I played, I regularly gave up shallow bloop and in-the-gap inside-the-park homers because I couldn't gel with the computer's logic of who should be fielding the ball.
The sum of Home Run King is that it isn't a bad game of baseball. It captures the game of baseball right in most areas, but it has several problems that are difficult to ignore and keep this title from rising above its competitors in this tightly packed market of baseball titles. If hitting consistency and fielding issues were improved, Home Run King could be a surprise sleeper. As it is now, it's destined to dwell in the minors no matter how it's marketed.
by Mike Bracken
Some of my fondest memories of the Nintendo era were nights spent hanging out with my friends playing R.B.I. Baseball. While almost primitive by today's standards, R.B.I. was a fairly cutting edge gaming experience back in its day. It featured real MLB players, pitchers and batters that could be moved on the mound and in the batter's box, and a decent amount of complexity for an 8-bit title.
In the intervening years, baseball videogames have gotten far more advanced-but advanced doesn't always mean better. While games now track stats, feature all kinds of fancy batting and pitching interfaces, and do a fine job simulating the game as a whole, few of the current crop of baseball games are just simple 'pick-up-and-play' fun.
I suppose it's almost fitting then that the coolest baseball game since R.B.I. Baseball is on the Game Boy Advance. Given the GBA's penchant for ports of older titles and newer games that emulate old school gaming aesthetics, Baseball Advance is a perfect fit for the handheld's fledgling sports line-up.
Featuring all the major league teams and players, a relatively complex batting and pitching interface, trackable stats, season modes, and more, Baseball Advance has more than enough to satisfy the hardcore baseball fan on the go. However, the simplicity of the controls and the gameplay, coupled with a penchant for a less sim-heavy presentation make the title a fine one for more casual baseball fans. The learning curve here is tiny-players will be belting out extra base hits in no time.
Unfortunately, the game does have a few flaws that ultimately affect the final score.
First off, the title only features four stadiums. So, if you're the Pirates and want to play at PNC Park, you're out of luck. At least the stadiums featured are faithful recreations of their real-life counterparts. Just wait until you smack what looks to be a sure homer only to see it hit the Green Monster at Fenway...
The other complaint I have is that the game is very stripped down in terms of play modes. There's the standard exhibition, season, playoffs, and All-Star game, but that's it. There's no home run derby, no multiplayer support through the link cable, nothing. Granted, this is a minor complaint at best, but when one experiences just how good Baseball Advance is, one can't help but think how much more awesome it would have been with just few more additions.
Despite the flaws, there's no denying that Baseball Advance is an excellent title, particularly for players on the go. While it's not as glitzy and gadgety as the titles on the consoles, it's one hell of a portable title that will bring back fond memories for anyone who grew up with the 8 and 16-bit era baseball titles.
Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2
Developer: Rainbow Studios
by Jon Cadoche
There is an unwritten guideline to which most companies in the movie and gaming industry more often than not abide by. It states that if a product shows itself to be a financial success, than it is only logical to follow it up with a sequel. After all, this would be a reasonable explanation as to why Activision's Tony Hawk franchise now counts four games. Another trend, to be in fashion in the two industries previously mentioned, is to create spin-offs loosely based on the original formula while presenting something entirely new. This just happens to be another strategy Activision has adopted, releasing titles for five other extreme sports, all of which bear the same basic elements as Hawk's skateboarding games while each offers the "adrenaline rush" in its own special way. Here I'll take a look at what Activision O2 offers in terms of BMX stunt riding with the recently released Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX 2 for PlayStation 2.
Mat Hoffman 2 consists of guiding a BMX rider through an environment favorable to this type of activity where he can attempt special tricks that in turn award him points. The gameplay section of this title is divided into four menus: road trip, session, free ride and multiplayer. The road trip however is where lies the meat of the game, awaiting to be unlocked. The adventure starts off in an Oklahoma City warehouse and by accomplishing certain required objectives; players earn points which in turn make new areas available. It should be noted that these same objectives quickly become repetitive, as it's mostly "knock this over, collect that, and score this many points"… Fortunately, points aren't the only thing to be earned however, as each level bears quite a few hidden surprises, whether it be a hidden character, an extra song to add to the play list or a special bike among other things.
As the title implies, Mat Hoffman 2 involves, at its core, riding around on a bicycle and pulling off stunts. Sound simple? Anyone playing the game for the first will find this to be quite the contrary. Also, two problems make this an even more daunting task for players to master. First, contrary to the Game Boy Advance version, this title doesn't offer the option of learning the basics of BMX stunt riding through a tutorial before embarking on the road trip. Instead, it immediately sends you into the action, expecting you to have already been told everything you need to know from the instructions manual, which brings me to the second problem I had to deal with while learning how to skillfully perform BMX stunts. As it was the case with the Game Boy Advance version, the fact that I've never been briefed on "BMX jargon 101" made it even more difficult at times to understand just what was expected of me. Once players learn how to "ride like the pros", which takes a bit of time but not an eternity, the fun factor quickly rises and shows just why Activision is so successful in this game genre. In fact, the rider will spend more time attempting one stunt after another than simply pedaling.
Having previously played the Game Boy Advance version, I was surprised to see how little differences there are between the two games. Granted, it's basically the same game but there should have been more significant differences between a portable and a home console version. Both have the same number of areas and the objectives found in each of those are almost identical. Putting the obvious home console exclusive extras, such as videos and the map editor aside, I would have expected the PlayStation 2 version to be a bit heavier in terms of gameplay content.
Most people will often associate Activision's O2 division only with its Tony Hawk franchise. However, for anyone looking for a change, Mat Hoffman 2 is a sound choice that will not disappoint.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.