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All-Star Baseball 2004 (PS2) Review

Publisher: Acclaim Sports

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The boys of summer are definitely back, and the MLB season is in full swing. The Yankees are the Yankees. The Royals and Giants are on fire, much like many teams who are off to their best starts in recent memory. While all the major league clubs are battling through their early unbalanced schedules with division rivals, so are the major baseball game makers now digging in and swinging for the fences against one another. It's the bottom of the ninth, and the bases are juiced -- every major game maker has released their latest baseball title. Just like the real MLB season, this year's titles are off to a roaring start, making it one of the most competitive video game seasons ever. The question is, who will walk away with the title?

All-Star Baseball 2004 is the latest installment of Acclaim Sports' baseball franchise, and they believe their game to be tops in the market. While past ASB games have showed tremendous innovation and wonderful potential, the game always seemed to lack that killer instinct you see from championship-caliber teams in October. While ASB04 has clearly improved from last year, this game still needs that clutch hit in the bottom of the ninth before it can consider itself the last game standing.

Presentation/Graphics : 75
This is probably the single biggest improvement of any aspect of ASB04. Last year's player models were weak at best. Their movements seemed very stilted and jerky, and the faces barely resembled the players unless you were looking directly at them through close ups. I also felt the swing replicas were merely adequate, and the graphics in the field were nothing to get you jumping out of your seat, either.

However, this year is another season, and just like hope springs eternal for every team in Spring Training (yep, even my Padres have a chance then), ASB04 offers vastly improved graphics. There are more swing models, the player's faces resemble their real-world counterparts much more accurately, and the numerous throwback and alternative uniforms really look nice. In addition, the player movements all around are smooth and fluid. The stiffness has softened, and you really get a better sense of the rhythm of baseball. As to be expected, the stadiums are gorgeous, though I'm still not in favor of the fans. To me, they still remind me of those cardboard replicas you can get of famous actors and sports idols, only these have moving parts.

One complaint I have is that there is an overall blur to all aspects of the graphics, especially the uniforms. It seems the pixelization is a bit light, leaving ASB 2004 with a look that falls short of the caliber of Electronic Art's MVP Baseball 2003. Considering the poor graphics are what turned me off of the previous installment of ASB, I have to admit that the improved look has me playing this game much more frequently than last year.

I suppose one other criticism I might offer would be in the field. As you make plays on defense, you'll notice it's as though you're watching a game from the cheap seats because all of the players are tiny, making the action seem very far away. Otherwise, the player movements are right on, especially the throwing and running mechanics.

Presentation/Audio : 85
The audio in ASB04 has its ups and downs and doesn't fully utilize the Dolby surround it advertises. It certainly competes with any of the other titles out there. You don't hear the witty criticism from the fans like you do in Sega's World Series Baseball 2k3, but you get enough of a feel from the crowd to make you think you're at the park. I've said this before, but the sound of the ball hitting the bat is one of the best in all of sports, and Acclaim has done a nice job here. If you get jammed or cue-ball one off the end of the bat, you'll hear it. The same is true when you lay into one on the sweet spot. If you happen to swing so lame that you break your bat (as I have done on many occasions), you'll hear it splinter into pieces.

The color commentary and play-by-play is provided by Steve Lyons and Tom Brennaman, and they do a nice job of giving you the game. At the same time, they enrich it with supplemental information about players, baseball theories, etc. While they may have a tendency now and then to get off on tangents, they often are entertaining and insightful. I was also happy to see that, unlike the quick redundancy in EA's MVP, the commentary doesn't repeat too often, and they seem to have a relatively strong script to work with. As a bonus they are also able to recognize created players' abilities. While they aren't able to speak the names of your created players, they will discuss whether your player has a cannon for an arm, as an example.

Possibly one of the brightest spots as far as sound goes is that you'll get to listen to the theme from The Natural as you cruise through ASB04's numerous menu screens. You can't help but get excited to play once you hear the music. I'm not one to speak of warm, fuzzy moments, but this is close.

Interface/Options : 90
I just mentioned how the music gets you excited to play. Unfortunately, you'll find out that getting a series, franchise, or expansion started to the point where you can start playing games will really wear on your patience. This is because the menus are not at all intuitive, and they are unnecessarily complicated. Expect to spend a lot of setup time should you decide to start a franchise, especially if you create your own team and players. The large variety of options in this game is an incredible strength; however, getting to them is a maneuvering nightmare.

Probably the single most frustrating thing about the interface is how quickly it forgets what you're trying to do. One example to illustrate my point is that I created several players and saved the roster with the idea of using that roster for a new expansion team. I surfed through the menus and finally started selecting my team. I picked the city, the mascot, the league, the stadium, and I even completed the expansion draft. To this point, I've been "playing" for about an hour and a half (granted, a lot of that down time was because of my indecisions on stadiums and mascots), so you can guess that I'm eager to get started playing games. Well, I'm finally putting the finishing touches on my roster by going to the free agent screen to sign my created players, when I discover that my created players are nowhere to be found! I had to start all over from the beginning. While I saved the roster initially, it wasn't kept in memory so I had to re-load it. I found this to be entirely too frustrating.

[As a side note here, I'm not sure how buggy the PS2 versions of ASB04 have been reported, but for the first time in the life of my PS2, I had a game tell me a saved file was corrupt. I created several players and saved the roster, only when I tried to load it later, it was unable to load because it said the roster file was corrupt. I've logged endless hours on my PS2, and this is the first time I've ever heard or experience memory card files being corrupt. Keep in mind, I was using the same memory card and I didn't remove it once between the save and the attempt to load the file. Strange happenings, indeed.]


Of course, one of the reasons the interface is a bit tedious is because there are so many options. ASB04 gives a more interactive presentation than any other baseball game out there. The main menu includes: Quickplay, MLB Play, Bonus Play Modes, Saved Games, Special Features, and Download Rosters. Quicklplay is self-explanatory: a game between two teams of your choosing. MLB Play is where you'll find the setup for the franchise, series, or expansion modes. Bonus Play Modes include: Pick-up Game, Scenario Mode, Trivia Menu, Batting Practice, and Home Run Derby. The Pick-up Game is a really unique mode where you have a pre-selected set of players (varies each time) that you pick against the computer for your team. It's basically sandlot ball with major leaguers. The guys even play in jeans and tee shirts in a backyard, and it's really a refreshing twist. The Scenario Mode is also interesting in that players introduce key moments from last season's games that you get the chance to play out. Again, I have to give innovative kudos to Acclaim here. Trivia, Batting Practice, and Home Run Derby are just what they say they are. Saved Games are where you'll find your saved rosters, franchises, settings, etc. Special Features is a game mode that includes last year's tremendously popular Player Cards (similar to the Madden cards from EA Sports' NFL franchise), your User Profiles, Roster Management, Options, Stadium Tours, Multimedia, and Credits. 8888

The Stadium Tours continue to be an excellent way of checking out all the stadiums in baseball, including some of the old ones like the Polo Grounds. What completely blew me away about this game was that it not only includes all the current and many past stadiums, but it also has tours of future parks like Petco Field for the Padres, set to open for next season. Acclaim doesn't stop with just tours of these new parks, as they are completely playable in exhibition modes, and should you be able to handle your franchise well enough, you'll be rewarded with these new fields. This feature is an outstanding aspect of ASB04, and really separates it from the other games out there.

Another feature of note is the Multimedia mode. Here you'll get to check out commentary by Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Jr. and even Negro League legend Buck O'Neil, among others. This mode certainly makes the game more of a multimedia experience than any other baseball title.

Another option worth mentioning that is done well is the Create-a-Player. There are a lot of ways to customize your player, and the process is very straightforward and easy. You're even allowed to make some adjustments to your player in the middle of a season, much like you can do in World Series 2k3. That can be huge because the only setback as far as creating a player is concerned involves the faces. You can choose from over 570 different faces. Obviously, this is both a strength and a weakness, in that the variety is incredible, but the time and the process it takes to go through each and every face is absolutely miserable. The other problem is that the faces are so small on the screen that sometimes you'll choose a face thinking you like it, only to see it larger during a game and find out that it's nothing like you thought it was. Fortunately, you can edit the player's face later in mid-season. The bottom line is that in ASB04, this feature is nicely done.

As far as options go, this game is virtually unlimited. There are tons of supplemental teams to play with in addition to all the MLB teams. You have All Speed teams, All Power teams, MLB Legends, Negro League Legends, MLB All-Stars, Post War Hero teams, and the list continues. The number of players and teams in this game is endless, and that is really a feature that speaks strongly to hardcore baseball fans. ASB04 truly paces the rest of the field as far as staying true to the sport and paying homage to its history as our National Pastime.

Gameplay - Pitching: 80
The pitching interface is relatively static in comparison to other baseball titles, especially MVP's revamped batter/pitcher interface. It's probably time ASB04 took a look at a major update for it's pitching as well. Essentially, you point and push: place the ball cursor where you want it to go, press the button of the pitch, and then press the X button to pitch the ball. I must admit, though, it is nice to have the ability to put a little bit of motion on the ball after it's pitched. While the pitching certainly isn't a weakness in the game, it definitely isn't a strength, either. Granted, you can tweak some of the pitch settings in the options, but the pitching engine has now become ordinary next to what MVP has done.

I have to admit that a positive of the pitching aspect of this game can be seen in the motions of the pitchers. The movements are very lifelike, and there are a large variety of pitching styles that replicate most of the popular pitchers today. I am also a huge fan of the idea of having to warm pitchers up in the bullpen. That is a great reality check and makes you work harder as a manager. The mound visits are another realistic touch, and they even have nice recaps of how the pitcher is doing and whether he should stay in or probably come out (though, you're likely to have made that decision already). There are a lot of subtleties that make this aspect true to form, but it doesn't stand out as a feature in this game.

Gameplay - Hitting: 70
To me, the hitting is the black eye of ASB04. It is ridiculously difficult to hit, no matter what level you play on, and no matter what hitting interface you use. There are several hitting mode options: normal, classic, zone, and easy. The normal is the standard batting cursor that ASB uses, and it has taken a lot of heat for its ineffectiveness. The same criticism holds true for 04. The classic cursor is a bit better than the normal one, but it's still a batting cursor and, therefore, a weakness. The zone is probably the most realistic in that there's no cursor, and you adjust your swing based on the direction of the pitch; however, I have a feeling it will be relatively easy to master. All I know about how the easy setting works is that it produces far too many pop ups to be considered "easy".

My biggest problem with the batting cursors is that they don't hold water as far as simulating a baseball swing goes. In order to even get a bat on the ball, your swing becomes a disjointed, two-piece process, rather than the smooth, fluid motion it should be to imitate a real-life swing. With the use of a batting cursor, your first (and main) focus has to be trying to find the ball indicator to tell you where the pitch is headed. The second is to try and time the pitch with your peripheral vision because you have to keep your focus on the ball cursor in order to connect. If you try and hit by viewing the flight of the ball from the pitcher's hand to the plate, you'll never get the batting cursor over to the ball in time, especially on fastballs.

My other biggest pet peeve of the hitting is the trajectory of the ball coming from the pitcher. Do the folks at Acclaim have any idea about ball physics? These balls dance up, around, over, and through the zone like a ping pong ball on steroids. Since when did Ismael Valdes get a curveball that can drop 2 feet through the zone? The ball trajectories in this game also contribute to the hitting insanity.

Gameplay - Baserunning: 75
The baserunning is another small weakness of ASB04. Sometimes your baserunners are completely clueless. They'll stop at first on balls hit off the wall, and every once in a while they'll stay at third on singles. You really don't get the sense that you have much control, and that may be a result of the controls being a bit unnatural. The more runners you're trying to control, the more the difficulty of the controls becomes immediately apparent. Plus, you don't have an option to slide when you decide the time is right. I have to admit, after playing MVP I've become a big fan of being able to actually see your runners, rather than try and guess how aggressive to run them based on a meaningless circle from a baserunning display that was innovative when Bases Loaded came out for the NES back in '88.

Gameplay - Fielding: 85
The fielding is definitely one of the stronger points of ASB04. The players move very smoothly and quickly, depending on their ability, of course. The throwing mechanics and ball trajectory look great. The fielding is also very realistic, especially when it comes to errors or when the first baseman digs the ball out of the dirt on low throws. It's also nice to see players make charging, bare-handed plays on softly hit grounders or bunts. You even get the occasional wild pitch, a rarity among baseball games. The other rarity in ASB is the fact that you can foul pitches back behind the plate, a great realistic touch that no other game can boast.

My only problem with the fielding is the diving. ASB has wisely chosen to offer a dive button for the player (unlike MVP), but the problem is that the dives are excruciatingly slow. They're too slow to dive, and even slower to get up. I've gotten to the point where I don't even dive anymore. I simply concede the hit. If the gurus at Acclaim could improve on this feature, the defensive play would be one of the strongest offerings out there.


Replay Value : 90
The replay value of this game is extremely high. With so many options to play with and so many incentives and control in the franchise and expansion modes, you'll be coming back to this game time and again. That is, as long as your hitting improves. If you can't get past the shoddy hitting engine, you won't return to this game. Then again, for those of you who love to be challenged to your limits (as most hardcore gamers do), you will love the sadism involved with hitting in ASB04.

Obviously, the tremendously deep franchise mode is the trademark for ASB. You have more control over all aspects of the business of running a baseball team than any of the other games on the market. Plus, the ability to move into new stadiums (should you prove your worth as a manager) as the seasons go by is an amazing aspect of this game that will keep you interested for many an hour. Just like in the real big leagues, it's difficult to play through that grueling 162+ game season; however, ASB04 is one of the stronger games on the market to keep you hooked.

Overall : 85
There were two reasons I shelved this game last year: one was the graphics; the other was the hitting. ASB04 has made some very good strides on the graphics side, but I have to admit that, for me, the hitting is still too much of a chore. However, at the end of the day, I think I'll find myself playing ASB over MVP, High Heat, and World Series 2k3 simply because it stays truest to the game of baseball, and it gives you limitless options for gameplay, especially in the franchise and exhibition modes. Still, there isn't a game out there this year that stands above the rest. I think if you combined the best features of ASB and MVP, you would have the perfect baseball franchise, but I guess that's why you don't see perfect games thrown in the bigs very often because perfection is elusive. However, it's great to see so many baseball titles in such tight contention with one another. That can only mean good things for the years to come. I suppose the clear winner this year (as it has been in years past), depends on the features that float your boat the most. As for me, I'd decide on a tie between MVP and ASB04. Call me Bud Selig.

By: Chris Kelly 4/29/03

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