Major League Baseball
Baseball is to the Americans what cricket is to the English. Ask anybody on the other side of the Atlantic, and you will almost certainly get laughed at if you even whisper the word 'cricket'. Similarly here in England, baseball is hardly the most popular of sports.
Personally I prefer the hotdog and beer fuelled atmosphere of baseball to the rather sterile game of cricket though. This also has a knock-on effect when playing computerised versions of the sports - I've yet to find a cricket sim that has managed to lift the game to the level of entertainment.
Baseball on the other hand is different - things are looking decidedly rosy for baseball enthusiasts, with the recent release of Microsoft Baseball 2001, and now Sammy Sosa's latest outing with 3DO. Making a baseball game easy to use is perhaps the toughest challenge for a developer, and 3DO have certainly done their utmost to make all the batting, pitching and fielding moves as simple as possible.
Pitching is startlingly realistic. Your pitcher begins in a crouched position, and then once you are standing tall for the pitch you can issue special instructions to your pitcher. This can be to 'pickoff' a cheeky base runner on first, second or third base, or maybe intentionally throwing the ball at the batter. This 'Bean Ball' will result in a disgruntled batsman getting a free walk to first and, if you persist in doing it, your ejection from the game!
When you are ready to pitch, select the 'Pitching Key'. This lists all the types of throw which a Pitcher is capable of. Push your directional keys in the relevant direction, and pitch the ball. Using a combination of stalling tactics and deliberate low balls, you will soon be striking out the batters.
Batting adopts a similar system to Pitching - the left and right keys determine the angle of your bat swing, while the 'up' direction will do a high shoulder swipe, and 'down' an up and under full swing.
When you receive a ball you can choose to guess what type of throw it is going to be, which is made easier by calling up the Pitchers Key for that particular thrower, although you can only display this once. Usually you will receive one of three or four different types of pitch.
Fielding has been made relatively easy to perform too. If a ball can be caught, a yellow crosshair moves to where it will land. If you get a fielder within that cross hair, chances are you will catch the batter out. Getting the ball from the outfield to the bases is a simple case of throwing with the directional buttons representing a mini grid - the up key throws to second base, the left to third, and so forth.
There are some times where you would kill for a method to increase the power of a fielder's throw though. I lost count of the times a base runner would sneak home, purely because my throw to fourth base was painfully slow. A fair few times I have been victim to some ludicrously poor decisions too - one of my basemen receives the ball, quite clearly before the runner gets to base, but fairly often they get a 'safe' decision. Infuriating, especially in a tightly contested match.
Sammy Sosa offers a full 162 match season, but I warn you now that I can't imagine anybody playing this for the first time and succeeding. I seriously recommend that you head for the 'Batting Practice' option first, and stay there until you have mastered the system.
If 162 games seems a bit over the top, you can create your own custom league with anything from two to thirty teams in it. And if this is still too much to take in, you can opt for the 'Exhibition' option, allowing you to play a single match between any two teams of your choice. You can also select the 'Playoffs' option, which allows you to play in the post-season World Series. This negates the need to play the whole season to get to this stage.
There's also a fun game variant called 'Home Run Derby', which adds a little bit of arcade variety to the proceedings and is best played with two or more players. You take it in turns to bat, each receiving twenty pitches, and the idea is to get as many home runs and/or clean shots as possible, with a score kept as you go along.
Finally, the game can be played over a network via the 'NetPlay' option, with both IPX and TCP/IP supported. Internet play hasn't been left out either, with full support through Heat.Net, Mplayer and the MSN Gaming Zone.
Graphics and Sound
Graphically I have no real qualms about High Heat Baseball. The impressive list of stadiums are all nicely rendered, presumably looking like the real thing - I certainly know the Chicago Cubs one looks the part, because I've been there. The scoreboards are a really nice feature; it's just a shame that they don't actually display anything to do with the current game!
The players look fantastic, clad in their respective team colours and badges. The movement of the batters and pitchers is worth particular note for its smoothness and realism. Body language plays a big part too, with despondency being clearly visible in a struck-out batter, and elation after smacking a home run. The fielders could have done with a little more work though, often standing like a Sumo wrestler, and running along like they have got hot coals in their pants!
On the downside, the sound is merely above average. Every effort has been made to recreate the baseballing atmosphere of the real game, and the crowds cheer along, with the odd heckler saying their Granny could do better, and such like! The announcers bellow out of the cheap and cheerful tanoy systems, often accompanied by a chorus of cheesy organ music. On top of all this you have the commentator and the sounds from the game itself.
The problem is that a lot of the samples are not of the best quality. Things aren't helped by the default sound levels making the whole multi-layered audio sound confused and muddled, and you can't hear the commentators clearly until you turn down some of the other sound. Even when you do get a level you are happy with, the whole thing still sounds like it's playing from beneath a cushion.
If you're looking for a baseball simulation you can't get a lot better than this at the moment. In an effort to cater for all tastes, you can even choose to play the game as a team manager only. Or should that be coach? I get confused.
Sammy Sosa's Baseball's database is pretty amazing, and even goes as far as to have most of the top players' mugshots along with their statistics. There are a few bugs though - twice I have played a season game only for it to be aborted by the program not being able to calculate a part of the database.
Mastering batting is probably going to be the biggest factor in whether you persevere with this title or not though. It's been made a simple enough task to perform, but you will often find that the kind of batting you pulled off in practice mode simply doesn't happen in the main tournaments.
All in all it's a competent enough baseballing package, but not one which I will be coming back to in the near future.
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7 / 10