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All Star Baseball 2003 (PS2) Review

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Last spring Acclaim Sports brought their All-Star Baseball series to the PS2 after a dominating stint on the N64. With a change in console came a change in their level of success as ASB 2k2 received lukewarm reviews. However many fans and critics alike brushed off the off-year giving ASB 2k2 an "it's their first year on the PS2" amnesty. With that being said, the pressure was on Acclaim Sports to follow through with the 2k3 version. The graphics were improved, the game options were increased, and even a spin-off of EA's Madden Cards was thrown into the mix. Did ASB take a step backwards last year to take two forwards this year?

Presentation/Graphics : 90
In the eye candy department ASB 2k3 does not disappoint. For baseball games I break up the graphics aspect into three main areas: player models, stadiums, and animations.

The player models are very impressive. On Acclaim Sports' website, they stated that the game would have "the most realistic representation of player faces ever seen." Although Acclaim wasn't able to hold up to that promise (Triple Play barely edges them out as they personally modeled every player's face on a player-by-player basis) the players are spectacular nonetheless.

You will be treated to Derek Jeter's 'five-o-clock' shadow, Randy Johnson's scowl, and Mo Vaughn's gut. In ASB the star players are nicely represented. It is the lesser-known every day and most of the bench players that are carbon copies of each other. You might be asking yourself, "What the hell does it matter if Miguel Cairo's face is in the game?" Well it matters when another game is doing it and the title of Sweetest Looking Game is on the line.

The stadiums are equally as solid as the player models. The level of detail that is paid attention to in the stadium models are mind-boggling. Everything from the correct placement of the stadium flags, to the placement of skyboxes, and even the location of the bullpens are all portrayed in ASB. There is even the spa in BankOne Ballpark!

The one thing that I liked about the stadiums was the level of interaction. In the other PS2 baseball games the outfield walls had poor ball physics. In High Heat you could pretty much stand your outfielder next to the wall knowing that even on a diagonal portion of the wall, the ball would bounce right back at you. Triple Play wasn't much better. But in ASB you really had to read the spin and trajectory of the ball. I was burned many a time in my first days of gameplay watching the ball carom every-which-way but my glove.

When I took my Florida Marlins (don't laugh at me) to Houston's Enron Field, I understood the nightmare that Astro center fielder Lance Berkman must go through 81 games a season. The funky dimensions made me look like an old man chasing his hat down the street on a breezy day. In other words, I was a young Jose Canseco.

The place where you'll find yourself drooling is in the player animation. There were some plays that were made that literally made my jaw drop. The sheer, seamless fluidity of a routine ground ball being fielded and thrown to first base is in one word, perfection. ASB comes the closest to any of the baseball games to duplicating in isolated incidents a SportsCenter highlight.

Batting stances and pitching motions are implemented in the game, but I would venture to say that only a handful of players are noticeable. One gripe I have is that after you field or catch a ball you immediately are placed in the "Tom Emanski perfect-form" glove position. Not only does it look goofy, but in some instances slows down a relay throw.

Presentation/Audio : 85
I really loved the audio portion of this game. My compliments mainly go to the play-by-play trio of Thom Brennaman, Steve Lyons, and Bob Brenly. When I first read about the three-man booth I wasn't sure if they were going to be three times the fun or three reasons to turn off the color commentary. Too many sports games, no names mentioned, have awful play-by-play. The trio provides tidbits of information (such as how a certain player did against left-handed pitching last year) and does a great job of color commentary. Before the game the announcers will comment on what pitches a certain pitcher throws and maybe a comment on his strengths and weaknesses.

The only drawback I found was that the trio is a bit weak in the actual play-by-play area. Strikes and balls are not shown as an on-screen message and sometimes are not announced. Some of the routine players were not announced. Since the play-by-play was not broadcast over a radio, I didn't find this to be very detrimental.

Even the crowd is impressive. For example, I had my closer in the bottom of the ninth and two outs and the count was 0-2. After I got my second strike the crowd just went nuts. The crowd remained loud even after I threw a ball on my next pitch.

Interface/Options : 95
The overall game options package ASB offers is the gold standard for baseball games. With Triple Play and High Heat not having multiple-season modes, ASB was instantly given a leg-up on the competition when it announced it would have a 20-year Career mode. But that is not where the options list ends. There are nine other game modes aside from the Career Mode: Exhibition, Season, Franchise, Expansion, All-Star Game, Series, Manager, Home Run Derby and Batting Practice.

The most entertaining game mode was the Franchise mode. In that mode you can select a city and a team mascot (I created a team based in Puerto Rico) where you then select a team from a pool of players. It was very cool to see my progression from a first-year team to a playoff contender.

There are a number of cool features within the Career and Franchise mode. There is a Who's Hot and Who's Not list, weather reports on the current day, and my personal favorite, a Going, Going...Gone, Baseball Tonight-esque list of the day's homeruns.

There are a few faults in the Career Mode that I find worth mentioning. There is free agency, but there is no player draft so if you have a player leave or retire you are pretty much screwed. The farm system does get new players every season, but their ratings are so low it's not even funny. This of course puts an emphasis on re-signing your players. As Puerto Rico, I was given an allotment of 75 cap points to use. I had six free agents and I was only able to sign three of them. Maybe the game was trying to simulate the inability of a small-market team (which I was) to re-sign their players, but I thought this could have been done in a better way. I wouldn't mind losing my star player to the Yankees if I knew that I had a chance in the future to bring up a minor leaguer.

The Donruss trading cards are worth bringing up. You buy packs of cards that enhance player abilities and unlock game goodies by gaining points from playing the game. For instance, you get one point for retiring the side. The cards are fun, but I am a gamer that doesn't really use them. There is also a very entertaining Trivia game.

Gameplay : 50
The gameplay of ASB is by far the weakest element of the game. As I did for the graphics, I will divide the gameplay into three main areas: hitting, pitching, and fielding.

In ASB 2k3 there is not a batting icon, but a batting cursor. I think this could be a good idea, as the batting cursor does not come standard for every player. Some batting cursors are bigger than others. The batting cursor of an all-star is much bigger than that of a rookie's.

With the batting cursor (which is also referred to as the "contact" mode) you can also tilt it up, down, left, or right. This gives you more control over how you want to hit the ball. This simplifies the sacrifice fly and hitting behind the runner. I liked those things about the batting cursor.

The main drawback I found about the cursor was its dominance of the pitcher-batter interface. You have the option of having the strike zone outlined (which is a MUST in this game) and on average the cursor takes up about 2/5 of the strike zone. Some of you may think this simplifies the game and makes hitting too easy, but it makes it the complete opposite. Since the cursor is so gargantuan, you can't pick up the ball out of the pitcher's hand. This makes an 80 m.p.h. changeup seem like a 100 m.p.h. fastball and a 90 m.p.h. fastball nearly un-hittable.

You can turn the cursor off, but you sacrifice all the area the cursor takes up for one small triangle. Even then hitting is a burden because you have to match up a small triangle with the fast moving pitch (even when you can see the ball out of the pitcher's hand, it still seems ultra fast). I wish I had High Heat's ability to use a tune file to tweak the speed of the fastball because even with hours of batting practice hitting is very frustrating.

What I was forced to do was really take full advantage of the Guess Pitch option and focus in on my at-bat. Case in point, if the pitcher just threw fastball away I'd expect something soft and in. While this wasn't a bad thing, I still wasn't getting more than four or five hits in a game. What I finally resorted to was setting my batting cursor, slightly tilted up, and just swinging away and I had much better success.

As complex as hitting is, pitching is the converse. Like with hitting, you have a pitching dot that you place in the imaginary strike zone. What is frustrating is that if you place a pitch on the outside portion of the plate, odds are that it will not end up in that spot. What I found was that the icon is simply used as an aiming guide. You can point the pitching icon to an area, but to pitch to a certain area you still have to negotiate the break of the pitch. This only sets you up for being brutally shelled by the CPU because you essentially have to guess how much break your pitch will have. If you under or over estimate the CPU will crush the ball into the next millennium.

Don't get me wrong; I am not saying that in real-life pitchers can pinpoint their pitches. They can't, but I would love to just pick an area and have the ball go there. Pitching with Pedro Martinez was much tougher than pitching with a John Doe. The reason being was that Pedro's pitchers had much more movement. So if I wanted Pedro to throw a pitch low and away, I would almost have to set my pitching icon in the middle of the plate to compensate for his nasty movement.

Another gripe I have about pitching is the quickness towards fatigue, especially in relief pitchers. In one inning, I had a relief pitcher come in and get three quick outs. When he came into the game he had been properly warmed up and was at 100% endurance. After one pitch and one batter the meter was half gone! Nine pitches later his endurance bar was almost empty. I know that ASB probably scales their endurance by inning, but that was too much.

The main problem with last year's game, the camera angle while fielding, has unluckily not been improved. The problem lies within the time between the ball being hit and the camera angle of the fielders. The time difference is almost simultaneous. In High Heat, the action is delayed for a split second so that you could see not only where the ball was going, but what player you are controlling. So if a ball were hit between third and short, you would know what direction to move your player. In ASB you don't get that chance. Unless you guess correctly, the ball is going through the infield. So I had to manually pull a "World Series Baseball 2k1": turn on auto fielding.

Maybe playing 30-minute High Heat spoiled me, but games took about 60-75 minutes to complete. Even when I turned the game pace to fast, games still took about an hour. I got used to the game's timing, but it was a major burden at the beginning.

I'll get off the soapbox and say a couple of things that I loved about ASB's gameplay. This was the first game that I had ever seen an effective slide to break up a double play. It happened in my first game and I thought it was awesome! I know there is a similar animation in High Heat, but it never seems to alter the throw. In ASB my runner forced the second baseman to hold onto the ball.

Continuing its trend of great ball physics, ASB was the first game I had seen a ball deflect off a pitcher's body. I was used to simply seeing the ball metamorphosis through the pitcher's body, but I was stunned to see the pitcher promptly pick the ball up and then throw me out at first.

The gameplay was overly frustrating, but I see where ASB is close to getting something special. I don't think an overhaul is needed, but some major tweaks are needed.

Replay Value : 80
Despite the frustration of playing the game, I still found it very appealing. For a console gamer, the sim aspects of ASB are the best you are going to see. As stated above, ASB is the only game with a multiple season mode, but unless you are simming games I don't see how you could play 162 games. The replay value would be much greater if the Career Mode didn't have so many kinks.

Overall : 78
The graphics, the game options, the audio, and replay value for the most part are very solid. Acclaim Sports has the making of a great sports game, but certain aspects of the gameplay need to be tweaked for next year's game. The gameplay really hampers the overall score of the game and probably prevents it from achieving what it is capable of.

With the second incarnation of the PS2 series, ASB has found its niche as the "more realistic Triple Play" and the "better looking High Heat." While I believe High Heat is the better game on the PS2 this year, the ball is in their court (or diamond) as to if that will change for the 2004 gaming season.

By: Tim Martih 4/25/02

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