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Microsoft Baseball 2000 (PC)
Hands-on Preview

Publisher: Microsoft
Release Date: Spring 1999

My, my, my, what a surprising platter of plastic this turned out to be. When I received Beta 2 of Microsoft Baseball 2000 (MSBB2K), many thoughts passed through my mind. Realistic gameplay, excellent graphics, believable AI were not among them, though. After all, last year's feeble effort (Microsoft Baseball 3D) was an infuriating, slow-moving, buggy mess. So, expectations were low as I opened the package.

One quick aside: Microsoft, you are the wealthiest software company in the world. Would it kill you to put a CD booklet insert into your damn jewel cases? Man, I hate looking at those exposed CD ROMs through the clear front cover.

On to the actual game, however. I'd have to say we have an early contender for most improved player of the year. This game is a lot of fun! I was pleasantly surprised by how much I looked forward to playing this game again and again. Microsoft has a very promising product on their hands.

First, the graphics. I think I was one of the few who didn't just swoon over the graphics in last year's game. I thought that all the players looked fat and out of shape (no, not just the designated hitters!) and that the facial expressions and movements of the players typically were extremely creepy. MSBB2K, however, really looks wonderful. The players have different body types and the slender, athletically-built people really looked that way. Motion is very smooth, and the stadiums (except the crowds) look wonderful.

The outfield walls, however, I'd like to comment on for a second. I didn't see anything in the game or the documentation about multi-player. However, the walls are festooned with ads for the MS Gaming Zone, so they may still have a trick up their sleeve. On a less encouraging note, WizBang! also has their logo splattered on the walls...their animated logo...on the left-center field wall, right in the batter's view of the pitcher! Flashing, changing, exploding. There's no way even a double A league official would allow something that distracting in the batter's view. I used to go to games at Busch Stadium all the time growing up, and I remember being fascinated by the rotating ad board in center field. It had triangular (I think) slats which would rotate a couple of ads between innings, but they would always rotate back to a dark green which blended in quite well with the shrubbery planted in what would have been the bleacher area. This, of course, was so as not to distract the batter trying to pick up the tiny white ball moving 90-plus miles per hour toward his head. WizBang! ought to try this idea...

The gameplay is enjoyable, albeit a bit simplistic. Try as I might, I couldn't throw a wild pitch. I'd line up the pitch five feet outside, throw the heat...and the catcher would still snag it. In the dirt, high, wide, didn't matter. Eli Marrero is a good catcher, but he ain't that good! Pitching in general is easy enough. I really came to enjoy the visible ball cursor inside of the strike zone box. It seemed goofy at first, but I became quite accustomed to it. My pitchers, however, always seemed to tire markedly faster than the AI hurlers. I would even steer clear of the super-speed pitches. These are a really strange, and wackily entertaining, option to artificially increase the speed of a fastball by holding down the A button until just before the pitcher releases the ball. When the ball is released, it is accompanied by what sounds to be a sonic boom. One of my staff threw a 111 mile per hour fastball! Realistic? Not unless you're the Big Unit...and even then you'd need quite the prevailing tail wind. Fun? Hell, yes!

Batting is harder than I, at first blush, thought it was. I was playing on the beginner level and this provides you with a ball circle inside of a strike zone rectangle. I played several games before I brilliantly caught on that the actual placement of the pitch was much more precise than the general location of the ball circle. The circle was more of a hint than an actual giveaway. My hitting improved greatly as I started watching the ball all the way into the bat (my dad, who was also my Little League coach, is no doubt giving a small cheer as he reads that!). Stats seemed pretty realistic, in terms of batting average, home runs, doubles, triples, etc. I only had one walk, however, despite playing 20 or so games. This may just be due to my impatience at the plate, combined with the AI pitchers' frequent desire to groove pitch after pitch.

I really enjoyed the fielding in this game. It was easy to control the fielders and move them into position to receive a batted ball. Also, the button-based throwing (as opposed to using the D-pad) was easy, quick, and intuitive. Running, jumping, diving for balls was all possible, and all believable.

They have also fixed one of the major complaints from last year: the speed of the game. Not the speed of the gameplay; rather, the speed of all the extraneous stuff between plays. Last year, you had to watch the catcher catch the ball, stand up, throw to the pitcher, pitcher steps on the rubber, looks for the sign, shakes, shakes, shakes, got pretty old. This year, you can hit the space bar or the left shoulder button to skip any single scene, or you can set an option to play a quicker game which removes all of the extraneous stuff. A very welcome addition.

There are a couple of things which I hope are addressed before release:

    1) The AI of your runners. These guys are brain-dead. I hit a hard ground ball which went for a single and was finally fielded deep in the right field gap. I watched, horrified, as the runner on second stood there for the entire play! Needless to say, I quickly figured out how to manually advance the runners as they rarely did it when I wanted them to.
    2) Stats. The choice of stats displayed during the game is bizarre, at best. Mark McGwire is at the plate...and the box is showing me his numbers for today in stolen bases, at bats and average. I often got to look at the pitcher's pitching stats at odd moments, as well.

Two additional notes of interest: a 3D card is no longer required, and Microsoft claims this is one of the first games optimized for the Pentium III chip.

All in all, I'm looking forward to the final release of MSBB2K. The company gave us a very flawed offering last year (and promised a wonderful patch...which was never released), but they seem to have their stuff together for this season.

By: Rick Worrell 3/26/99

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