All-Star Baseball 2002
Acclaim has been working on this one for almost two years and the results are evident on the playing field. The unfinished version we played was a few months from completion (due out in April), but already boasted over 5,000 polygons per player (rendered to weight and height) and animated with over 100 batting stances. The realistic stadiums are impressive: Pitchers warm up in the bullpen, scoreboards update in real time, the crowd animates, and almost every nook and cranny in the ballparks have precise collision detection, making for wicked ball bounces. This didn't appear to tax the game engine either, as almost everything moved briskly. In fact, the developers are adamant on having the action move at a silky-smooth 60 frames-per-second--something they think rival baseball titles will never reach. For hardcore fans, the gameplay is being infused with deep "PC-like" stats and number-crunching that games such as Tony LaRussa Baseball had. Hopefully this marriage creates a great sim that's also fun to play.
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The All-Star Baseball series has been a staple on Nintendo systems for some time now and returns to make an appearance on the GameCube. Ported from the PlayStation 2, All-Star Baseball 2002 makes an attempt at becoming the standard in baseball games for the GameCube, as they managed to reach the market first. The question is whether more time should have been spent fixing the known problems from the PlayStation 2 game or if it can stand on the feature set with bugs included.
The feature set is almost identical to the PlayStation 2 game including Hall of Fame teams, all thirty MLB stadiums with active dugouts and bullpens, over 130 unique player batting stances, and 50 different pitching deliveries. There are also improved features including two new stadiums, one in Puerto Rico and the other being the All-Star Safeco Field. Although it's nothing to get overly excited about it is a sign some attention was given to the game before the port was made and since the original feature set was already bursting at the seams, most gamers won't take issue with it. Unfortunately, many gamers may take issue with the execution of these features, as some are still buggy and could have used some tweaking.
Gameplay, Controls, Interface
As with most sports games released in the last couple years, numerous different play options are available. Options like quick play, season or career play, player or team creation, managing a team, and others are included and give the game great flexibility and improved longevity. Frankly, if any of these options weren't available, many gamers would feel like they didn't get their money's worth. However, since almost all developers are including them, standing out in the crowd is becoming more difficult.
One of the ways Acclaim has attempted to achieve this is by increasing the options available in the various modes. Almost any issues that pertain to baseball can be adjusted or there are options given to add control. When setting a lineup for instance, the user can switch the lineup, sub a player, and swap a player's position in the field and batting order. Other things like setting the pitching staff, trading players, dealing with free agents in the off-season, etc. can be used to increase the realism of the game. One other point is that these options can also be ignored if you find that it's too realistic of a baseball experience. Some gamers may just want to play ball and that can be done as well.
Unfortunately, the actual gameplay carried the bugs from the PlayStation 2 version. Most are minor AI issues but the amount of them adds up and detracts from the game. Issues such as how, after a fielder throws or catches the ball he immediately crouches down as if he's waiting for the batter to hit, may not affect the gameplay, but they look odd. This gives the appearance that the game is not finished and, to make it worse, players often won't even face the correct direction, staring off into the outfield. Other issues show a buggy AI, such as when there aren't any outs and the batter hits an easily caught pop fly, the AI sends its base runners anyway without tagging up .
With that said, the fielders also catch the ball in a variety of ways. The infielders may perform a one-handed catch or backhand a ball in an attempt to throw the runner out at first. Outfielders also will put forth extra effort, as they will slide or dive trying to catch a pop up that would have been out of their reach otherwise. The physics of these moves appears accurate, as well, and you can get a sense of how hard the players are working on the field.
As far as controlling the players of the field, it's straightforward with a few areas that could have been better. Like most baseball games, having fluid and intuitive control of the players in the field is critical. It can be quite annoying when trying to make a quick play to first and the ball is thrown home. The chance of this particular issue happening is greatly reduced as the direction the ball is thrown is governed by pushing one of four buttons on the top of the controller. Each button corresponds to the appropriate base as if a baseball diamond was placed over them. Other controls like the pitcher's commands cover almost any action an actual pitcher can complete and can be executed without difficulty. There are some issues that can be problematic like the length of time it takes outfielders to throw in balls. Their animation seems too long, as base runners often get half way to the next base in the time it takes the outfielder to get rid of the ball.
When at the plate, batters will notice the process is challenging enough to keep home run derbies from breaking out during baseball games, but not so challenging that hitting becomes frustrating. Base running, however, can be slightly annoying especially when multiple runners are on base and you only want the first runner to go. Usually they both end up going and one gets thrown out.
When there are a number of unique players some are bound to look nothing like the original, but in this case it falls into a 50-50 situation. Some of the more popular players, in particular, like Mark McGwire and Jason Giambi are far from accurate with their incorrect body structures. Others, however, are closer to the mark but have slightly generic features. As far as the different batting stances, you'd expect generic stances with most players not being represented. If you followed the playoffs last year, however, you probably noticed Craig Counsell's unique batting stance. That erect stance with the bat waving in the air is included and adds to the realism of the game. One last issue has to do with the animations of the players on the field. The first part of the motion is extremely well done but near the end of the animation, it appears as though a group of frames is missing as the motion skips to the finish.
For a baseball game, the sound effects were best described as bland. The announcers' comments weren't dynamic and sometimes they followed plays after they were over. For instance, when a foul ball was hit directly into the stands, the announcers went on to follow a base runner on first as he rounded second base. Having the announcers describe the base runner heading to third when he would obviously have to come back is confusing.
Although this may not be the baseball game of the year, it still has some redeeming qualities. The control system holds its own and the graphics aren't comparable to other games on the market. Some of the issues with the AI and lack of quality sound definitely hold its potential back. Gamers may want to wait until this spring to see how All-Star Baseball 2003 turns out.
Pitching is very straightforward and relatively simple in All-Star Baseball. Each pitcher has an arsenal of pitches that matches their true-to-life pitching abilities. Randy Johnson has a wicked fastball and Greg Maddux will never overpower you. The pitching is as simple as selecting the corresponding symbol on your controller -- X for fastball, square for slider, etc. Once you have selected the type of pitch, you then select the location. It basically follows the standard tried and true formula of baseball games past. To give players the ability to gauge how much is left in the pitchers proverbial tank, a stamina number from 100-0 is displayed. The number goes down as your pitcher tires and if you try to pitch with 0 stamina, you will get burned. Some games have minimal effect when a pitcher is out of gas but All-Star Baseball handled it very realistically. One final note -- All-Star Baseball does have a bullpen option, which is neat but could have been better. If you select to get someone up and throwing in the bullpen, you will actually get to see them get up and start throwing. The downside is that you never really have to warm the pitchers up before bringing them into the game so the bullpen is more for show than anything
Hitting is always one of the most difficult things for baseball games to master. You want to try to convey the skill that is involved in hitting but you also want to keep it fun. If you make it too easy, the games are not realistic. Make it too hard and people will not play. All-Star Baseball did a pretty fine job finding a nice medium. You have the choice of batting interface that you can use. The easier of the two is based more on timing the pitch and judging balls and strikes. I recommend that novices use this first. The other type of batting is cursor batting. This means that you control a batting cursor that you have to line up with the pitch when you swing. All-Star Baseball did a great job of evaluating hitters and adjusting the cursor size depending on the hitter. For example, the cursor for Edgar Martinez is much larger than the hitting cursor for Rey Ordonez because Edgar is a great hitter and Ordonez is lousy. Another added wrinkle is the ability to select hitting for average or hitting for power. If you hit for power, the cursor gets even smaller but if you make contact, you stand a much better chance of hitting the ball out of the park. Overall this system works well but I did find it a bit on the difficult side. Hitting a ball with any movement on it is very difficult and sometimes borders on impossible. I did get a little better the more I played but this is going to cause frustration for a lot of gamers out there. One minor item of note: I found it annoying that when a homerun is hit, the game goes on autopilot and all I could do is watch the ball go out. This takes away any suspense and I really didn’t care for it.
What the hell happened here? So far, things have been going great for All-Star Baseball but then I got my first base hit. I had a guy on first and I hit a solid line drive over second base. The runner on first decided to take two steps off the base and stop. I frantically hit buttons trying to get him to go to second (which he should have automatically done in the first place) but all I managed to do was get the batter who hit the single to keep going past first and get tagged out at second. Okay, that was frustrating. Another instance: I had a man on second base with nobody out. My batter knocked a double in the gap. I couldn’t for the life of me get the runner that was on second to move. He just stood there and here comes the batter so I now have two runners standing on the base at second and have no idea what happened or how it happened. Plus, all runners seem to move at the same speed -- SLOW! In all of the games that I played, I never had an infield single. There was never even a close play at first. Double play balls were frequent and unavoidable. All in all, I was never able to get a handle on how to control my base runners which adds up to sheer frustration.
What the hell happened here, part two. The controls are simple enough in that they use the buttons on the controller to represent the diamond, and to throw to a specific base, you merely hit the corresponding button. The game also has an innovative feature that allows you to decide where you want to throw the ball before your fielder picks it up. You simply press the button for the base you wish to throw to and when the fielder gets to the ball, he will automatically throw to that base. Where things start to go wrong is with the selection of the fielder. There were numerous times that a ball was hit between third and short and it was closer to the third baseman but the game selected the shortstop as the fielder I could control. The problem with this is that I was expecting it to be my third baseman so when I actually took control of the shortstop, I was moving him away from the ball. Another problem was that there seemed to be a magical spot where you must stand to catch a fly ball. This spot is represented with an icon but the icon is not always accurate. I would stand where I thought the icon was directing me only to have the ball drop at my feet. Nothing makes me more upset than being in the correct position to catch the ball and having it drop. One final complaint I had was that the fielders were always slow to throw the ball. For some reason that is beyond me, they would always do a little skip before throwing the ball, which ate away precious seconds, often allowing the runner to take an extra base. Did I say that last complaint was my final one? Okay, I lied. I have one more. The fielders seemed to have a magnetic field about five feet around them because that is usually all the closer they need to get on ground balls. It is so bad that it is almost amusing to see the ball heading in to the hole at short only to see the fielder who is still five feet away magically have the ball appear in his glove. This happened on some throws as well. The ball looks like it is going to sail over the infielder's head only to have him catch it with the air above him.
To be honest, I am still a bit undecided in this area. At first, I was prepared to label this section "what the hell happened here, part three" but I just don’t feel right in doing so. The first two games I played against the computer on rookie level, I lost 24-0 and 23-3. I was ready to get out the pinata because this section was going to take a beating but then a strange thing happened. I played a game pitting St. Louis against Colorado in Colorado. I expected the score to end up in the 30's but I was shocked when it was 2-1 going in to the 8th inning. It was a good, solid pitchers' duel in Colorado, of all places. The realism went downhill from there as Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire hit back-to-back homeruns in the top of the 9th inning and Larry Walker and Todd Helton did the same thing in the bottom of the 9th. Playing against the computer, the realism factor is much lower mainly because the computer rarely swing at pitches outside of the strike zone and always hits homeruns with the big sluggers. I had Jason Giambi go 5-5 against me with four homeruns and that is just not right. Play with your buddies though and it is another story. Since pitching greatly dominates hitting, you will have nice, low scoring games.
All-Star Baseball has some pretty nice looking graphics, I must say. The stadiums are all accurately recreated and the players look good. Some of the proportions are off (i.e. Frank Thomas is not much bigger than Ray Durham) but they did a good job of nailing down the batting stances so this can be overlooked. There are lots of neat little touches like seeing the breath of players on cool nights and watching the mascots dance around on the dugouts between innings. If you really stop and take a look at the details and animations, you will be very impressed. One minor complaint is the players look unnatural at times. They will be in a crouched position ready to make a play and if the ball is hit to them, as soon as the play is made, they hunch over again immediately and it just looks odd.
For the most part, All-Star Baseball grew on me. I think it is full of bugs, the base running sucks, the pitching overmatches the hitting, and the fielding is shoddy at times, but for some reason the more games I played, the more I enjoyed it. I think I would have to give the nod to All-Star as the winner in the graphics department but EA Sports' Triple Play Baseball (reviewed further down) runs a very close second. You will find that it is a much better and more realistic game if you play against another human instead of the computer.