A late-season call-up in baseball is usually a promising rookie or second-year player, whom a losing club decides could use a little seasoning in The Show, or a winning club decides could provide the extra needed punch to put their pennant-contending club into the playoffs. VR Sports has chosen to release its latest baseball offering, VR Baseball 2000 (VRBB2K), as a late-season call-up...late 1998 season, that is. VR Baseball 2000? Does this mean we won't see another offering until after the new millenium (yes, I know: the millenium doesn't actually start until January 1, 2001. Thanks for the tip, Sparky--you and your three friends can celebrate the new millenium then; the Sports Gaming Network has its millenial junket to Australia already planned...)?
As you've probably read, VRBB2K uses the Messiah technology, created by Shiny Entertainment. According to the hype:
All this may be true, but what's missing is point number 4: The graphics look terrible. The polygonal players are a noble effort, but what good is a jigsaw puzzle if the pieces don't fit together? The seams in the polygons are unbelievably bad. You can see what are the distinct parts of a player's body (my wife was quite impressed by the firm buttocks most of the batters exhibited) because the seams between the pieces are HUGE! You can see the dirt of the batter's box, the chalk of the lines, the white of the plate. Can you say "visible butt crack"?
- Player models created from over 100,000 polygons.
- See muscles flex and jerseys stretch.
- Runs at 30+ frames per second.
Not only are the seams readily apparent, and quite distracting, but the overall "mood" of the graphics are terribly depressing. I'm not sure why this is, but the game felt very gloomy. Baseball is a summertime game, and even the night games should seem more alive than this. Daytime, nightime, indoors or out: VRBB2K is a depressing game to look at.
One other graphical point: although VR Sports claims to have real, current rosters, I have never seen a ballplayer in the 90's who's as camera-shy as these fellows are. It's impossible to get a good look at the players' faces in VRBB2K. In this era of mapping real players' faces over their on-screen avatars, it's a strange omission. As an aside, I often find those mapped faces pretty creepy, so maybe VR Sports just shares that opinion and decided to reduce the whole "horror-factor" of the game.
VRBB2K provides a slick-looking and easy-to-use interface which a player should have no problem becoming accustomed to. The menus are a series of tabbed dialog boxes, which is much better than the endless succession of menus encountered in other games. Options are neatly grouped according to game, sound, controllers and so on.
Also, the gameplay interface is very well done. Pitching (although each pitcher has a maximum of 4 pitches) is especially easy to work with. Your first joystick button press selects which of the 4 pitches you want; the second, in conjunction with the D-pad, determines speed and placement. What's really nice is that each button press is confirmed by a soft clicking noise: a very nice touch, as in general it's sometimes hard to tell if games have received your input. Additionally, throwing to a base is based on the D-pad, with right representing first, up representing second, and so on. The best part is that these representations are absolute: right always means first, no matter which way your fielder is facing. This is much better than some implementations which are fielder-specific (like High Heat before its brilliant patch).
Hitting is supposed to use button 2 for contact, button 3 for power and button 4 to bunt. Note the word "supposed." In spite of its name, the power button seemed to do nothing for me. Every home run I hit was hit using the contact button. The power button never did anything but cause pop-outs and foul-outs. And bunting: neither I nor a friend ever once successfully laid down a bunt. We were grooving pitches to each other, trying to figure out the technique: the batter would square around, bat at the ready, and then...nothing.
Running was also easy to use. Forced runners automatically advance, but you can use the advance runner button to try to take an extra base. You can advance all runners, or only a specific runner. If you have Delino DeShields on first and Mark McGwire hits one in the gap to right-center, here's a tip: don't advance all runners. Send DeShields on to third, and let Mark enjoy his single. You can even skip bases on the advancement, if you'd like. No, this doesn't mean you can run from second to home: what it means is that you can, with a runner on second, choose to advance him to home by hitting the advance button with the D-pad down (for home)--you needn't advance to third, then advance again to home.
The gameplay of VRBB2K is incredible (wonky ball physics aside). The game feels like real baseball, with a lot of subtle touches to add to the enjoyment. Cut-offs are well implemented, as are throwing motions and player movement on the field. One really strange thing is that you can position your outfielders defensively however you'd like...but your infielders are out of your control. Sounds like the Mets of the early 80's...
The ball physics, as mentioned above, are a little strange. Balls which are hit into the ground in front of the plate sometimes rebound so much that I was certain that the hit was actually a fly ball--even on real grass. Balls which are hit into the corners or against the walls react as though the walls were made of foam or something equally absorbent: they just stop dead. Some of those domed stadiums with Astroturf can cause a ball to shoot around like a superball in a pachinko machine, but not in this game.
One other thing that drove me nuts was substitutions: the players just appear on the field. When the AI changed their pitcher from a right-hander to a left-hander, I never even had a chance to respond before he began pitching. I couldn't adjust mentally, nor could I substitute an appropriate pinch hitter. Very poor implementation on VR's part.
The audio is minimal, but what's there is well done. There's a PA announcer, who really works himself into a frenzy announcing hitters, but there's no play-by-play in the game. The crowd and vendor effects are very muted, and not nearly as noticeable, or enjoyable, as High Heat or Triple Play.
The sounds of the game are very well reproduced. The crack of the bat, the thwonk of the ball into a fielder's glove, all seemed very realistic.
Since it is so minimal, that's about all I have to say about it.
Surprisingly, the game really grew on me. One important thing to note: do not make a judgment on this game based on the demo. Not only is a home run derby about the stupidest way to demo a baseball game (does anyone really care about a home run derby?), but a poorly implemented home run derby is even worse. High Heat and Triple Play also chose to use a derby demo, and they also both sucked. Microsoft and Hardball allowed you to play a 3-inning game (if I recall correctly), which gives you a much better feel for the game. The VRBB2K demo was terrible; so bad that I was dreading reviewing the full game when it actually arrived. You know what, though? It's a pretty damn good game. I admit I still have a preference for High Heat, but this game is easily the second best of the '98 season (Y2K game names aside). If they cleaned up the graphics and improved some of the ball physics, VR Sports would have a real winner on their hands. They are promising roster updates throughout the year, which is great if provided (as of this writing, none are currently available). Let's hope they provide a patch as well...and let's hope the name doesn't preclude another version from arriving prior to the year 2000.
Pentium II 400,
128 Megs SDRAM,
Voodoo 2 12 Meg,
Gravis Xterminator/Microsoft Sidewinder