Opening Day for the baseball season just passed. Barry Bonds is already off to a ripping start and my hometown Astros raised the price of a bag of peanuts to $6.50. Homeruns and escalating prices - two guarantees for baseball fans. At least the price of baseball video games hasn't gotten out of control. You can still pick up the latest baseball game from Acclaim on the Nintendo Gamecube for half a Franklin.
Presentation/Graphics : 70
On the surface, ASB 2003 for the GC sure looks nice. The presentation has a soothing look to it, much like it did on Nintendo's previous hardware. The player models are done very well with detailed uniforms, shoes, and helmets. Many of the players are modeled after their real life counterparts and adopt the size and stance of them, though the faces just don't cut it. While the players look great, the animations are only average. The pitcher and batter animations are smooth, but once the ball is retrieved by a fielder the animations flip between poor and good. The good comes in the infield where catch and throw animations are fairly diverse. In the outfield the animations just aren't of the same quality.
Another aspect from last year's version on the PS2 rears its ugly head once more in the Gamecube version of the game. Once the ball is put in play, the camera angle doesn't always provide a satisfactory view of the ball, field, and fielders. This mostly affects balls to the gaps in the outfield where the camera focuses on the ball in the air rather than the position of your player in the field. You have to frantically look for a small arrow to figure out which fielder is tagged to catch the ball. It can be frustrating to use manual control of the fielders, but if you switch to automatic, there's a substantial drop in fun. New for this year is an equally annoying feature - instant replay. But this replay occurs after every freaking play and slows the game to a crawl. You can button press out of the replay, but there's no way to turn the replays off.
Presentation/Audio : 80
The audio talent in ASB is satisfactory. Steve Lyons provides some decent color, and the play-by-play is by the book. The sparse color commentary stays fresh during the game with little to no repeated comments. If you perk your ears up you'll hear the chants and heckles of the crowd. Unfortunately the crowd is subdued. There are some good cattle calls to be heard, but they are too low in volume compared to the rest of the game. There's not much to be said about the sounds of baseball - the bats crack when contact is made.
Interface/Options : 75
When it comes to Nintendo, they certainly don't have sports gamers in mind. There are issues with the controller that make sports gaming tough. Acclaim deserves no fault for that. Nor do they deserve blame for the inexplicably small memory card capacity. I can't even play a franchise mode in the game since it requires more memory than the standard memory card provides. Good move Nintendo. Nonetheless, Nintendo's stupidity does affect the play of the game and for this points must be deducted.
If you can scrape up a memory card with more space the franchise mode is available to you. For all others, you'll be restricted to the season mode (which takes up the entire card), single game play, the home run contest, or a trivia game. The trivia game is actually one of the cooler features of the game. Correctly answered questions are rewarded with base hits or home runs on a two-dimensional field. Acclaim borrows a page from EA and has implemented player cards. During regular play you earn points for various tasks (striking out the side, homers, etc) and can trade points for packs of cards.
The ability to tune to the game to your desires is non-existent. Aside from adjusting the difficulty or turning batting or pitching cursors off, there's no fine tuning of the AI or speed of the game. Fortunately the game provides a decent representation of baseball complete with accurate seasonal stats in most every MLB category.
Gameplay : 76
The first thing I noted about the gameplay is the unbearably slow game it plays. You can get through a game of High Heat in about half an hour. All-Star Baseball requires a much longer time commitment on the order of 45 minutes to an hour. The constant replays and slower animations make for a game that plays at a snail's pace.
One thing that isn't slow is the speed with which pitches come. The default batting interface is a batting cursor which requires you to track the incoming pitch. The default cursor size can change depending on the abilities of the player and your ability to guess pitch type and location. By the way, one thing Acclaim does well with is scouting hitter's hot and cold zones, which are shown as shades of blue and red. In the first few innings of a game the heat is often too much to overcome. Moving the cursor trying to catch up with the pitch just doesn't happen for me. After a few innings I am more accustomed to a pitcher's tendencies and can make contact. I know some out there detest batting cursors, but I always felt the All-Star Baseball series had the best of the bunch. You can tilt the cursor about 2 axes to try to place the ball, and you can also move your batter in the box. If you don't want the cursor you can switch it off and use an interface based more on timing.
Equally detestable to some is the pitching interface. While not every pitcher is a Greg Maddux, more than not have incredible control. So why can't a game emulate this control with a pitching cursor? The interface in ASB requires you to select a pitch (types are dependent on the pitcher) and then locate it. As the game progresses pitcher fatigue sets in. Unfortunately it seems to be based more on innings pitched than pitch count. I notice my pitchers' fatigue levels drop while sitting in the dugout. Also, pitchers can still bring the heat and have good control even when heavily fatigued.
On the basepaths running can be tricky. The clumsy Gamecube controller makes controlling individual runners difficult. Also, the CPU tends to control your runners and will always send them running on fly balls to the outfield. Fielding is likewise troublesome at first. Several times I've missed a fly ball due to my fielder being just slightly off target. A red dot marks the target for catching the ball. I've been extremely close to the dot but missed the ball. You have to find the right spot at which time the CPU locks your fielder in and takes over catching control.
The AI of the players is generally good, though baserunning abilities are below average. AI runners are too aggressive on the paths and stupidly attempt to stretch doubles into triples. Once they round second they never seem to hold up. I've picked off many runners at third by a mile. In pitching and batting situations, the AI does pull ineffective pitchers or pinch hit late in the game.
Replay Value : 75
Perhaps I've been spoiled by the likes of High Heat too much, but I don't have the patience anymore for slow baseball games. I'll take realism any day, but a more realistic pace is exactly the reason I can't stand watching baseball on television - it puts me to sleep. The game would be fine if you just had the ability to dump the replays after every pay.
Overall : 76
As with any sports title you're bound to find bugs or other issues. For ASB 2003 its questionable baserunning AI, lack of tuning options, and some fielding issues. However, the points system which allows you to collect cards as well as the trivia game are both positive features of the game.