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During the time this review is being written, I am listening to a radio broadcast of today's game between the Pirates and the Red Sox. It may only be the preseason until Monday, but I am already looking forward for this season to start.
Despite only winning 72 games last year, I feel that it was still a successful campaign from the previous year's 100-loss disaster. What I have seen last year was a significant improvement on pitching (thank Kip Wells and Josh Fogg for that, not to mention a save record season for closer Mike Williams) and defense (who could forget the game-ending double play by Jack Wilson and Pokey Reese against the Cubs?). However a league low batting average stuck out like a sore thumb. New acquisitions such as Randall Simon, Reggie Sanders, and Kenny Lofton will hopefully assist Brian Giles in terms of hitting.
It will be interesting to see how the season turns out, and now that I am a subscriber to MLB Extra Innings on my satellite system, in addition to having opening night seats up at PNC Park, I will be keeping a close watch on the Pirates. After all, keep in mind that they started off the season 12-5!
The new season has also given me the opportunity to test out three of this year's baseball titles coming out to the home consoles: the long-time legend High Heat 2004, the follow up to last year's surprise hit World Series 2K3, and the newcomer MVP Baseball.
(Note: Since I did not receive a reviewable copy of Acclaim's All Star Baseball 2004, it will not be mentioned in this review. Acclaim fan boys, and this means YOU, Game Informer, do not send me any hate mail on this matter.)
OPENING DAY REMARKS:
I have been following the High Heat series since I first played the PC version in 2000. I immediately fell in love with its realism. Heck, I was supposed to have a High Heat matchup against Rob Smolka (formerly of PC Gamer) a few years ago at E3. Sure it had several crippling bugs (remember the Wrigley Field bug in HH2002?), but the most realistic gameplay, and the best pitcher/batter interface made up for it. HH was also not a homer fest, as other baseball games (previous ASB and Triple Play titles) seem to be.
Thus, games might end up becoming 1-0 pitchers duels. This is what baseball is based on, and HH 2004 continues the tradition with a vast graphics improvement, the long awaited addition of a franchise mode complete with team budgets and a full minor league system (ranging from AAA to Rookie teams).
Sega Sports came out of nowhere last year with World Series Baseball. The last version on the Dreamcast was good, although having some gaping bugs and flaws, but when the Xbox follow-up was released, they were all gone, and came within an inch of dethroning the mighty High Heat. This year's release features new features such as drag bunts, wall jumping, double switches, and of course, Sega Sports' trademark ESPN license.
Lastly, the biggest change comes from EA Sports. FINALLY realizing that the Triple Play series was way past its prime, their development staff set up a whole new baseball engine from scratch, changing the name to MVP Baseball 2003, and promising a more realistic baseball experience. Did they succeed? We'll find out:
As I mentioned before, High Heat set the standard for excellent batting interfaces, and this year it stays the same as before. There are no batting or pitching cursors used. Select a pitch, then select whether the pitch will be a ball or strike (along with the location). Batting is all about timing, and selecting the right location of where the ball will be pitched. It worked successfully in the past, so if it ain't broke"
Of all the titles being reviewed, World Series 2K3 is the only game which still uses a batting cursor, but now adds the use of a power swing, and the option of a drag bunt which can be executed by hitting the bunt button right before the pitch hits the plate. Pitches are selected before the actual delivery, and are later controlled by a pitching cursor (which can also be turned off). The location of the strike zone can also be felt via the controller's vibration feature.
MVP's interface is a little touch of both HH and WSB. Pitching takes the cursor concept of WSB but each pitch is controlled by its corresponding controller button. Pitch delivery now involves a power meter previously seen in golf titles. Hold the button down to reach the peak power level, release and then hit the pitch button again when the meter is in the green control zone. Batting controls are very simple, as there are no batting cursors similar to HH, but the location of where the ball will travel can be controlled. Pushing up on the thumbstick will force a fly ball, while a downward motion will trigger a grounder. The only catch is that this makes MVP a little bit on the arcade side, but nowhere near as bad as Triple Play was.
ADVANTAGE: HIGH HEAT 2004
Both High Heat and World Series have similar base running controls, while MVP uses a new base running method. Since only the A button is used for batting, the other buttons can be used to select a base runner, and the D-pad advances the runner. The L and R triggers are used to advance/retreat all the base runners. While it is innovative, I feel more comfortable with the classic method.
ADVANTAGE: TIE BETWEEN HIGH HEAT AND WORLD SERIES
Again High Heat and World Series are similar in terms of fielding. However World Series does not have an option for CPU fielding assistance, which has led to some frustrating events at times. Maybe they are still shell-shocked about fan response pertaining WSB2K1's automatic fielding.
The fielding in MVP on the other hand is nothing short of impressive. Not only does it offer the choice of manual or automatic fielding, but throwing meters are now added. Too much power will increase the possibility of errors, so a sense of control is needed. Another feature I have heard complaints about, but I actually like is that on critical plays the CPU will automatically jump or dive to recover line drives. I find it easier to field with this option turned on.
High Heat finally adds on a Franchise mode complete with budgets. It's a little on the simplistic side as far as budgets are concerned, but implementing a full farm system (Rookie all the way up to AAA) helps out.
MVP's Franchise mode can best be described as unique. For each season, a set number of goals is listed, and they must be completed while maintaining a strong manager rating (which is displayed during the entire season). Fail to do so and you will be fired and that's it for the season.
Last year, World Series won the crown for best Franchise mode ever, and this season adds onto it. Starting with drafting an entire coaching staff (I only wish I could change their names to match the real MLB counterparts), you can use this same staff to build up your prospects and get advice on whom to bring up and/or call down. Awards such as Player of the Week/Month, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and MVP can be obtained as well. WSB also has enough stats to come close to toppling High Heat.
ADVANTAGE: WORLD SERIES BASEBALL
The High Heat series was always the dark horse when it comes to visual quality, and although this year has made significant improvements (the jersey's are more accurate, particularly in the numbering, and the stadiums look more realistic), the faces are still low quality. Animation is smoother than before but there are still some jumps between transitions. In addition for some strange reason the version I tested out on the PS2 suffers from serious frame rate loss at times (something I've never seen in a HH title)
EA's move from Triple Play to MVP removes the nasty frame rate drop the series had on the PS1 after the ball was hit, not to mention the big heads that TP 2002 suffered from. The players are now very realistic, facial detail is authentic, and the stadiums look gorgeous and authentic (they even included the Pepsi logos in the right field of PNC Park). My only complaint is the Pirates jerseys are not completely accurate.
The gorgeous environment of World Series returns and looks better than ever with the ESPN interface. Even better, the faces that looked a little strange at times last year now look more realistic. The only catch is at times I noticed some distortion on the jerseys, but not much.
ADVANTAGE: WORLD SERIES BASEBALL
High Heat's audio package is simple, yet effective. The team of Dave O'Brien and Chuck Valenchez (from the Triple A Nashville Sounds) are back, but the commentary is almost identical from last year. Crowd noise, hecklers and vendors are the same as before.
Ted Robinson returns for World Series 2K3 and is now teamed up with Anaheim Angels color man Rex Hudler. While Robinson is in his usual play by play demeanor, Hudler sounds like a madman at times. He gets crazy but thank God he is nowhere near the level of Don Taylor from NHL 2002. The crowd is impressive as well as they give the loudest reactions of all the games, and hecklers even yell out personal insults (similar to NFL 2K's trash talking).
MVP comes clean with a new commentary team of Mel Kuiper and Mike Krukow (formerly of World Series Baseball fame). Their commentary is good, but still sounds the same as in Triple Play. The crowd however is a different story. While they don't do player-specific remarks like in WSB, they do chant for their home team. The best chant came when playing in PNC Park against the Giants. Barry "Backstabber" Bonds is at the plate, and the entire ballpark roars in a chant of "O-VER-RAY-TED!" Priceless!
ADVANTAGE: WORLD SERIES BASEBALL
In addition to all the standard modes, High Heat returns the 2 on 2 showdown. Basically it's a pitcher/batter duel earning runs for successful pitching and hitting. Every aspect of the roster can be altered which is perfect for fantasy players.
World Series includes the Home Run Challenge, which is similar to the Challenges presented every All Star Game in a tournament formation. Rosters can also be altered here as well. However for some strange reason, there is no online play available, not even on Xbox Live.
MVP's special feature is the Home Run Showdown. Two players compete simultaneously in a battle of measurement. Score is determined by how far the ball is hit (foul balls count as negative distance), with bonuses awarded for home runs and penalties for strikes. It is a fun little head to head competition. Unfortunately for fantasy players, the actual MLB rosters can't be altered, so recreating roster updates can be difficult.
ADVANTAGE: TIE BETWEEN WORLD SERIES AND HIGH HEAT
This year's baseball competition was very close. Usually it was High Heat running away with all the honors, but with two other superior titles on the market, it is hard to pick a winner, but I will give each game its own award. For MVP Baseball, I will give it an MIP award for Most Improved Program. High Heat will get the Lifetime Achievement Award for following a tradition that makes the series a success, and World Series gets the special honor of being the first ever High Heat Killer.
It looks like, finally, the World Series franchise has returned to the glory that it had during the Saturn days, but you can't go wrong with any of these titles. For simulation purists, go with High Heat, for a fun baseball experience, go for MVP. For the perfect combination of both, World Series is for you!
Todd Hargosh is GiN's Product Testing Manager. He enjoys any game that gets his adrenaline pumping. Todd can be contacted at : email@example.com.