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Out of The Park Baseball 5 (PC) Preview

Publisher: .400 Software Studios

Long Live the King!

Screens (15)
March is one of those times of year where everything seems to be going great. My Jacksonville Jaguars season tickets renewal form comes; it's still cool down here in Florida; baseball teams start spring training; and the college semester is on auto-pilot.

PC baseball fans know this is also when video game baseball hype reaches its highest height - and we love every minute of it.

Some years bring good news while others shatter hopes. Not too long ago the Goliath-like Triple Play ruled the earth and only a David-like High Heat was available to fans wanting something other than one of the many historical replay baseball games that exist.

But those days are gone (as is Triple Play's dominance, thank all that is holy). Now we chat about High Heat, a number of console baseball ports, PureSim 2003, and the latest and greatest version of the Out of the Park Baseball franchise.

I just want to let you know up front that I am biased - I love Out of The Park Baseball. There isn't a single computer game that I play more than OOTP4, and before that OOTP3. When Markus Heinsohn and Steve Kuffrey first started talking about developing the first game in the series, I nearly wept tears of joy to see a game I had been fantasizing about for many years.

I wanted a deep text-based game that modeled as much of the real baseball universe as possible. Markus and Steve seemed to understand there were people like me who were interested in a Championship Manager-like game for Major League Baseball. Slowly through the years, OOTP has become an incredible product for career management fans.

The latest version addresses many of the complaints I have written about in previous reviews, and I am happy to say OOTP4 is shaping up to be something very, very special.

What's New?
If there is any sort of trend in these next generation text-based games, it is that they all are getting more of a web page, hyperlinked feel.

OOTP always felt like a DOS game that was prettied up a bit to appease a windows world. The new interface is very Windows-like, and there are even individual windows that will open. And if you can believe it or not, they actually open more than one window in OOTP5. While these changes don't solve all of the interface complaints that people have made about the game over the years, OOTP5 has the best interface to date.

Unlike other PC baseball games (see High Heat 2004 PC), OOTP5 is now much more mouse friendly than previous versions. You can even use the scroll wheel!

The preview version I received did not include many features that will be in the final version. The on-field management portion of the game wasn't complete, nor was a new "Manager Mode" role-playing feature. There is also a "team strategy" and new manager strategy functions that were not working in the build that I'm previewing.

One of the first things I looked at were the new statistics tracking features. An "Almanac" now provides a much more detailed collection of historical information about leagues. The usual team records are present, but a much more detailed list of all-time career leaders in various categories is a very nice addition.

The roster page is re-designed to include the much requested team ranking comparison stats. The interface limits your ability to do direct team-by-team comparisons in one table, but your team ranking for homeruns, stolen bases, earned run average, and other categories is right there for you to see on the roster page. Minor league statistics and post-season career statistics are tracked for each player.

The look of the roster page is streamlined and an interface change makes this possible. An envelope icon on the bottom right corner of the interface indicates e-mail messages are available to be read. Instead of scrolling through the drop down menus at the top of the page, there are buttons on the bottom right corner that quickly open the pitching rotation, depth, lineups, and front office screens.

Another big change is found on the transaction screen. There is more information available about each player, including a new star rating system that grades both prospect and major league overall talent. Speaking of ratings, there are quite a few new wrinkles in the league setup feature that allow much more control over what is shown in the game. Ratings can be set to reduced, traditional, or only talent for those that want a real challenge in picking those hot prospects.

Advanced league setup includes the usual fine-tuning settings, including a new "option years" for minor league players. The new arbitration system that is now part of the financial model is a welcome addition and further refines what was already a pretty good system.

The biggest overhaul is evident in the minor league system. These are now complete and fully functional minor league teams. Rotations and lineups are set pretty similarly to the major league rosters except that there are no depth charts. It still does not appear as if these rosters need to be filled with enough players to cover every position. Teams still can get away with playing only four position players in a minor league lineup. So the system is much deeper this year, but still not quite perfect. A rumored option to require full rosters was not in the build that I received, but would be a very welcome addition.

Another huge improvement this year is the reporting system. This is across the board a gigantic step forward for the series. Reports are easy to read, nice to look at, intuitive, and just about everything that previous OOTP reports were not. Multiple reports can be opened at once and I cannot overemphasize how much more enjoyable reports are to read in OOTP5.

Can't Wait For February 28th! There are lots of other improvements that should be mentioned briefly. The spring training system and how players develop over time has been tweaked so that there is more realistic variation in player improvements. Those of you interested in historical leagues will find a number of new tweaks that will make it easier to set how players develop through different eras. A "player tracker" is included that allows individual performance to be followed for selected players. There are new ratings and even a team power ranking system. The online features seemed to remain untouched in the build I received, but that isn't a bad thing since OOTP4 has the most robust online commissioner options available in any baseball product.

The jump-in game play from OOTP2 to OOTP3 was quite large and the improvements were substantial. The jump from OOTP3 to OOTP4 was much more incremental in comparison, although there were many nice features added to the product. OOTP5 is not quite as big a jump as OOTP2 to OOTP3, but it is more than an incremental upgrade. It's as if Markus and .400 Software Studios read every complaint about the game and did their best to address each criticism point by point.

I spent some time simulating a number of seasons using the preview build and was generally impressed with the results. Those of you that find the game too easy probably won't be much happier with OOTP5. My tried and true dynasty building strategy still worked in this version of the game, although the computer opponents seemed to make better decisions. Those of you who didn't like the interface in previous versions of the game won't be happy with the lack of more functional statistics sorting, but will be much happier with the reporting system.

Other than these two specific issues, Out of the Park Baseball 5 is an absolute must-buy for anybody interested in career baseball management. This could be the first Championship Manager-level baseball product ever created - both in terms of the game's presentation/interface and the strategic/tactical depth. PC baseball fans are really going to be spoiled this year with all of the very fine offerings from both the text-based and graphics worlds. OOTP5 has the potential to be the best product of a very good crop of games.

Previewed by: Chris Johnson

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