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Hardball 99 (PSX) Review

Publisher: Accolade

Background Info





The Hardball series has long been a staple in the gaming library of many PC game players' collections; it was also a success on the Genesis. However, recent editions have not proved nearly as successful, in part because of the emergence of several worthy competitors, notably Sega's World Series family for the Saturn, the Triple Play and Pennant Race/MLB series for the Playstation, and a number of PC titles. Especially difficult for Hardball has been its efforts to establish a niche in PSX owners' collections. Now, a month after the New York Yankees popped the corks to end a wondrous season, comes the curiously-timed latest edition of the Hardball series, Hardball 99. Is this a case of too little, too late?

Graphics : 60
The opening sequence consists of the typical clips from games accompanied by music. Frankly, I could not care less, for few players view the same introductory reel every time they play the game. But it does offer one important bit of information, visible in the opening sequence: although HB99 appeared after the 1998 season, the image of Kevin Brown in a Marlins' uniform reminds us that the game is a mishmash-mash of the 1997 and 1998 seasons bearing a 1999 date. Player stats are from the 1997 season; rosters are from mid-August 1998. Scott Brosius fans will have to be content with his .203 average (unless, of course, they edit his ratings-- see below).

Players used to the detailed backgrounds and stadia offered in Triple Play 98/99 and MLB 98/99 will be disappointed by what they see when they first view the field of play for Hardball 99. At best they are first-generation 32-bit graphics, and some players may actually prefer the stadia presented in editions of the PC version that ran on 486s. Nor are the players any great shakes. Here and there a few animations catch the eye--batters taking pitches and following the ball into the catcher's mitt, runners brushing off their pants after driving back to first--but on the whole the players lack the details of their PSX counterparts. Teams have a number of uniforms, and on the whole they are almost acceptably rendered, although no game designers seem to realize that the Yankees do not wear their names on their jerseys. The game cameras are also rather limited, especially when it comes to the pitcher-batter interface--a real shame, given the game's attention to this encounter.

One of the time-honored debates among video sports gamers is that of gameplay versus graphics. To be sure, lush, colorful, and beautifully- rendered players and stadia, complete with numerous animations, cannot overcome atrocious gameplay; but good graphics do help create an illusion of immersion, a feeling that augments the sense of vicarious participation we all seek in playing video games. Here the contrast between HB99's audio and graphics is palpable. While the sounds of the crowd and the organ bring you into the game, one look at the screen reminds you that you are staring at a screen--albeit in a curiously nostalgic way, for playing the game took me back years to its PC and Genesis predecessors, when for many of us Hardball was the only game in town. However, a memory of a more recent horror flashed across the screen when I brought in a reliever versus a switch-hitter, for the screen first showed the famed batter standing on the wrong side of the plate--but only for a moment. Whew!

Audio : 70
Much of the ambiance of a baseball game is caught in the sounds of the ballpark. And if the player can forgive the endless looping of mind- numbing tracks in the pre-game menus, there is a reward, albeit a minor one, when one commences play.

That reward is not to be found in the game's play-by-play announcing, which is frankly mediocre and choppy. Often the announcer's comments lag behind events on the field, to the point that the narration may be describing events from the previous at-bat. Mind you, I have tired of Buck Martinez's repeated references to "can of corn" and mindless banter in Triple Play 99, but for those players who value game narration, HB99 falls short.

What I did enjoy was what I heard from the stands. The roar of the crowd rises and falls and changes in mood as appropriate: the catcalls are distinct and amusing. That they are not always appropriate might be a problem for some players, however. Finally, the ballpark organ reminds one of an earlier age in baseball where the PA system did not blare out the same canned tracks with boring predictability. In contrast, the music played during a homer by the home team does not exactly inspire anyone.

Interface/Options : 92
HB 99's great pre-game strength is the ability to customize the game to meet player preferences. The game excels in this respect, from multiple levels of difficulty for each player to a large assortment of managerial and gameplay options that enhance the game's appeal and flexibility.

The game does automatically load a file upon loading, a timesaving device unless one is trying to play multiple seasons or is manipulating multiple roster arrangements (made possible by setting up but not playing a new season). Game menus appear fairly straightforward at first, although load times can get irritating, and at times players must patiently work their way through a series of steps or even (gasp!) consult the manual. Players have the option of playing an exhibition game, participating in one of several season formats (including a construct-from-scratch option), or going to spring training just to practice various skills or the traditional home run derby. You may buy a team, set managerial preferences, engage in the normal activities of a general manager (with an unlimited bank account), and even create players through editing faceless minor leaguers and then bringing them up to the big time. The latter function allows players to insert themselves or their friends in the game or to make roster changes not present in the game, such as adding a few young Yankee outfielders who starred this past postseason. Hate your roster? Then engage in a player draft, again with multiple options. Want to play in the rain or the wind? You can do it.

In either season or exhibition mode players may choose to play against or to manage an all-time team of dubious construction. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Or, for that matter, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays? Brooks Robinson? Hank Aaron? Ted Williams? And so on. But Brooklyn Dodger fans will love the inclusion of Gil Hodges, Leo Durocher, and Jackie Robinson, whose contributions to the game, great as they were, do not automatically make him the game's all-time best second baseman. Frankly, the player choices are highly questionable. Far better for the game to have offered a roster of 200 all-time greats and allowed players to construct their own rosters.

The in-game menu options are also clear and useful, although I found the load times involved in making key managerial decisions (warming up relievers, lineup substitutions) frustrating. At least you can make the double-switch--no minor matter to many of us. The in-game screens include the usual basepath map when runners are aboard as well as cutaway cameras for runners at the corners. Players can choose from several gamepad arrangements, and these are straightforward. The memory card utility is also straightforward and easy to use; you can even save the game in mid-game.

Finally, stat-tracking is remarkably deep and extensive; simmed stats are on the mark; however, it is easier to deal with individual players than with league leaders. The Hardball tradition continues. You can also save and replay game highlights, another traditional feature.

Overall, HB99 deserves high marks for its intricate series of menus and options, allowing players an abundance of choices.

Gameplay : 85
Ah, the graphics may be pretty (or, in this case, not), and the vast number of customizing options most enticing, but in the end the play's the thing, right? And, on the whole, HB99 holds up well in this regard. The game moves along at a good pace, making it possible for people with normal lives to contemplate playing a longer season in a reasonable amount of time. The pitcher-batter interface is at the heart of this game. I enjoyed the pitching interface. There is a bar meter measuring your pitcher's remaining energy; you choose from one of several pitches (the game apparently assumes that all pitchers have four pitches, chosen from a larger number of options). Then you attempt to place what is a floating cursor that is not totally under the player's control, which I find superior to the "throw it here" concept in other games.

For those players at the plate who simply want to press and swing, too bad--unless you direct the cpu to pitch to the center of the strike zone. Batters choose from one of four swings (contact, power, opposite field, or bunt); they then must anticipate where the ball might be thrown (a 3x3 grid for high, low, in and out, in various combinations) and then must choose whether to attempt to hit a grounder, fly ball, or rest content with a "normal" (level) swing. I wish that the grid could be toggled on and off without going to the extreme of pitching down the middle (thus putting an end to walks), but others will like the added challenge.

The usual fielding options are also present, from basic alignments (accessed from the pitching menu) to toggled options for fielding and throwing. Fielders can jump, dive, and hit the cut-off man or throw through. The camera does not always do a great job of following balls hit to the outfield, and one detects a sort of jerkiness at times. There is also nothing unusual about baserunning options, although I have been able to pull a runner back on an attempted steal a bit too easily in several instances--as when the ball is already in the middle infielder's glove.

Difficulty : 85
There are multiple levels of difficulty for both teams, and a number of other options, especially the pitch to center option, fielding options, and game speed, can also affect difficulty. However, what is key is that the adjustable levels can provide a challenging game for all levels of players. In addition, the batting routine may prove a little too much for some players, at least at first. The computer AI is realistic, responding to player decisions. The CPU will bunt if the infield plays back, for example. Except for a little too much interest in holding runners on, the CPU defense works well, too.

Overall : 79
Some of Hardball 99's faults are not due to the game's merits but to its release date. If one is going to wait after the 1998 season to release a game, then use the 1998 season stats that would have been an improvement. And the game's graphics are not simply a matter of eye candy: the camera angles and blocky graphics impair the game's playability. In other areas, though, the game shines. A little tweaking here and perhaps an intermediate batting mode there would have helped. At its price ($29.99 at most outlets), it's a good buy, but it could have been a better game, forcing its competitors to take notice. Instead, much like other games with promising beginnings Bottom of the Ninth and the first Faceoffs come to mind Hardball has not exploited its earlier advantages to maintain its place as the best representation of its sport for console play. Some players will love it, others will dismiss it; for those people who are willing to give a little on graphics in order to enjoy the game's better qualities, try it.

By: Brooks Thompson 12/14/98

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