Sega bring the nations pastime to the greatest
console on Earth. The Phoenix has risen (and slid home).
For a while there, it looked like World Series Baseball
was becoming the Stephen Baldwin of the Sega Sports family. The most
recent games in the franchise suffered by comparison to the good looks
and obvious talent of their siblings (Alec and, er, Billy). Like Stephen,
the games appeared destined to star in straight-to-video movies like "The
Stiletto Temptress," spending lonely nights getting dissed by hookers
and drinking cheap beer at pizza parlors only to wake up in the women's
restroom in a pool of their own vomit.
Yeah, things weren't looking so good for Sega's baseball
But now, when it seemed like all hope was lost, something
miraculous has happened: World Series Baseball for Xbox has arrived.
"The beauty of the interface is in its customizability."
This game is good. Damn good. It doesn't just resurrect
the WSB franchise; it breathes new life into the sport itself. Let me
put it this way: WSB does for baseball games what J-Lo does for the thong.
Naturally, it's time to grab some wood.
The core of any sports title - the beating heart upon
which it lives, or suffers horrible cardiac arrest - is the gameplay.
Fortunately, WSB plays like a dream. And not just any dream. It's the
kind of dream in which you see Halle Berry at a movie premiere and she
winks at you and slips a note in your hand with her phone number on it. That kind
The basic interface is nothing innovative - we've seen
this approach before, but rarely do we see it implemented this well.
To pitch, you move the analog stick and press the "A" button to select
one of the throws in your pitcher's arsenal (indicated by a diagram).
Then you choose the location of your pitch by aiming a cursor and hitting "A" again.
You can stick with your original placement, or you can move the cursor
to relocate the pitch before it leaves the pitcher's hand, and thus try
to outsmart the hitter (which is not hard if the hitter's name happens
to be "Ricky Henderson").
An overlay on the strike zone shows the batter's hot
and cold areas (indicated by red and blue squares). Serve up some high
cheese in one of Sammy Sosa's hot zones and the ball might not land until
Labor Day. Naturally, the goal is to mix up your pitches, change speeds,
and concentrate on the hitter's cold spots.
On the flip side, the batter aims an oval-shaped cursor
at the incoming pitch. It's all about timing and hand-eye coordination,
just like the "Big Show". Of course, more hitting ability corresponds
to a larger batting cursor, which in turn translates into more hits (unless
you really suck).
The ball responds very realistically to the point of
contact. Swinging over a pitch will result in grounders, and connecting
early on some inside stuff will pull the ball. Some people (read: morons)
lament the ability to angle the plan of your swing as in All-Star Baseball,
but in real life there is nothing to angle. The level of your swing is
based on the location of the pitch, and - news bulletin - the bat itself
cannot be angled because it is what scientists call "a cylinder."
The beauty of the interface is in its customizability.
You can tweak almost every facet of the batter-pitcher interface to your
liking. Are the pitches bearing down to fast? Okay, grandpa, take some
heat off that fireball (four pitch speeds are selectable). Are you hitting
an obscene number of 4-baggers? The game doesn't allow you to control
for rampant steroid usage, but at least you can resize the batting cursor
(small, medium, or large).
Players also can manipulate whether they see the pitching
cursor when batting (only for absolute ninnies), and they can toggle
the strike zone on or off. Rounding out the other options are errors
(on/off), wind (on/off), pitcher fatigue (on/off) and variable pitching
(with this on, your pitch, like a nice fat curveball from Todd Van Poppel,
won't always go where you aim it).
All of these options are in addition to the basic difficulty
settings, which range from Rookie to Pro to All-star. This depth of customizability
is a pioneering effort in console baseball games, and it truly makes
the gameplay hum.
"The realism is simply unreal."
The only problems lie with those things that are not customizable.
Most notably is the ball/strike ratio. Sure, guys like Schilling and
Maddux have more control than a priest at the Playboy Mansion, but the
merely human pitchers in baseball tend to throw a ball every once in
a while. Unfortunately, someone forget to tell the computer this, because
it rarely throws balls, and almost never serves up a walk. Part of the
problem might be the strike zone, which is rather large (approximately
47 square feet). A lot of times, a pitch will appear to sail by the batter's
shoulder - and possibly into orbit around earth - only to be called a
These two factors combined - the large strike zone and
stingy pitchers - can make for some frustrating plate appearances. You'll
exhibit god-like restraint on a 3-2 pitch that clearly would be a ball
in any league, only to have the ump call a strike. It's enough to make
the normally reserved player utter a few curse words, and I'm not talking
about just any curse words, but the kind that contain multiple syllables.
When you add it all up, everything else about the gameplay
is so good that most players will barely notice these minor oversights.
But the truly anal among you - and I know you exist, because you always
post on message boards with threads like, "They have Tom Glavine chewing
the WRONG sunflower seeds I'M RETURNING THIS LOUSY GAME TOMORROW" - you
guys might want to sit this one out. Then again, you may want to quit
playing videogames and go become an accountant somewhere.
Sega's hot streak continues in the field. Controlling
players, and thus fielding balls and making plays, is practically second
nature. It's actually fun to field in this game. This does not
mean the fielding is unrealistically turbo-charged. Fielders throw about
as hard and move about as quickly as they do in real life, but the control
is so intuitive that you can almost feel the leather in your hands and
the spongy grass beneath your feet.
Players occasionally take too long getting a throw off,
and there is no unique animation for turning double plays, but again
this is a case of the bad being dwarfed by the good.
Overall, the artificial intelligence of your computer
foes is pretty solid. People have complained about the computer's reluctance
to advance from third base on a single, but this is not always the case.
Occasionally, the computer shows a little too much restraint, especially
when coming home, but for the most part it knows how to put runs on the
board (unless the difficulty is set on "easy," but what kind of sissy
plays on the kiddy settings?).
In terms of gameplay options, WSB steps to the plate
with exhibition, season, playoffs and franchise modes. It also features
some longball in the form of a Home Run Derby. Hardcore sim freaks will
want to skip the fluff and head straight for the franchise mode. It is
no exaggeration to say that WSB has the best franchise mode in any baseball
game, ever. Those who like to draft, trade, and micromanage
an emerging dynasty will wet their pants when they see this franchise
mode, and I'm not talking about urine.
"...WSB plays like a dream."
The franchise mode is simply too deep to discuss in any
detail, but a basic overview conveys its greatness. First, it contains
all of the goodies any self-respecting franchise mode is bound to include:
a player draft, free agent signings, trades, and complete control over
your rosters. Second, it boasts comprehensive stat tracking. Everything
from the basic (runs, hits, strikeouts) to the advanced (batting average
with runners in scoring position, pitch effectiveness against left-handed
hitters) is well represented here. The only drawback, and this is nearly
inexcusable because of the hard drive, is that career stats are not recorded
from year-to-year. Third, player coaches are actually meaningful in WSB.
In fact, the franchise mode begins with the assembly of your management
team: a minor league director, scouting director, batting coach, pitching
coach, and manager. They expect to be paid, and the good ones demand
to be paid well.
Try to cut costs by hiring a cheap pitching coach, and
your pitchers might never reach their potential. Pinch pennies when it
comes to your scout, and you might get a very inaccurate picture of the
upcoming draft prospects (e.g., journeymen schmoes being rated like all-stars).
The realism is simply unreal.
Coaches also will suggest trade options, encourage the
promotion of a minor leaguer, and provide feedback on the development
or performance of your club. There are even fairly detailed profiles
of almost every player in the game. You will indeed wet your pants.
It's not perfect, especially when it comes to unknowns,
who often get the same profile and really remain faceless through several
seasons, but as I said, it is the best franchise mode in existence.
After playing WSB, I only have one thing to say: self-shadowing
should be mandatory in all Xbox sports games. Any developers who deviate
from this rule should be hung upside down from their private regions
and beaten with studded whips.
Overall, the game looks pretty excellent, but the brilliant
self-shadowing - so nicely articulated when the hitter shifts and shuffles
in the batter's box - is the coup d'etat (literally, "cup of that").
Few people realize how much self-shadowing adds to the overall look of
a game until they see it in action.
The player models and textures practically scream "Xbox
exclusive." There are no ugly joints or seams on the bodies as in some
other baseball games, and the uniforms are brought to life in crisp detail
(complete with creases and scuffed pants). The color palette is a little
too bright and pastel-oriented, giving the game a slightly cartoony look,
but it's hard to argue with the visual feast WSB serves up.
If I have a gripe, it is with the player faces. They
look fairly realistic, but in some cases not at all like their real-life
counterparts. Visual Concepts brags about their "revolutionary 3-D head
scans," but whose heads were they using?
On a general note, most of the Latino players have much
darker skin than they do in real life (don't ask why), and some specific
blunders are too obvious to overlook. Randy Johnson, for example, doesn't
look particularly tall, nor does he sport his trademark trailer-trash
mullet. Also, everyone in the game apparently spent some time in a Weight
Watchers program, because there aren't any fatties here. Even David Wells
almost looks like Orel Hershiser.
But again, this is something that will only ruin the
game for the severely anal (future accountant) types. The rest of us
will just wonder why Visual Concepts didn't play closer attention to
idiosyncratic player details.
The quality of the animation more than makes up for the
lack of heft in David Wells' midsection. Player movement is extremely
fluid, with nice transitions between different actions (e.g., jumping
up from a sliding catch to gun someone down at home plate). Also, the
collision detection is pretty solid, and - this seems like a miracle
- when a player catches a ball, the ball actually appears to enter
Thankfully, most of the proper batting stances and pitching
styles are in place. Not every benchwarmer in the majors gets his style
represented, but most of the top players exhibit their signature mojo.
"This game is good. Damn good."
As for the stadiums, they look good, but they are not
on the same visual plane as everything else in the game. For some reason,
they just lack an element of scope. It's hard to put a finger on it,
but they seem more like a mural in the background than an immense structure
surrounding the action (NFL Fever is a good example of the latter). Still,
the stadiums are rather detailed, and seem fairly accurate to my amateur
eye. Of course, little touches like birds that fly over the outfield
only add to the ambience and bolster the realism. All in all, the game
does a good job of putting you there among the cheap bleachers and the
corporate seats along the third baseline.
Like almost everything else in the game, the sound is
mostly spectacular, with the odd imperfection thrown in for good measure.
All of the ambient baseball sounds are perfect - the crack of the bat,
the slide into home plate, the smack of ball against glove.
Another nice touch is the catcalling of hecklers. The
insults are tailored to specific players (but only the well-known ones),
and are very reminiscent of the real thing, only without the use of four-letter
words. I won't ruin it by revealing any of the barbs, but some of them
are pretty damn funny.
On the slightly weaker side is the commentary. It doesn't
detract from the game, but it also doesn't add anything, either. When
the commentary is spot-on, as it is in the NFL2K series, it actually
infuses the game with an added jolt of realism. When the commentary is
completely off, as it is in the Madden series, it drags the entire game
down a notch.
In WSB, the commentary simply exists. The announcers
tend to repeat themselves, but not to any terrible extent. Like Tim McCarver,
they often have trouble finding something interesting or intelligent
to say. Occasionally you will hear something insightful, but for the
most part the commenting team is something to ignore while you focus
on getting hits and K's.
Overall, this is the complete package. Sure, it has flaws,
but we'll grow old and arthritic waiting for someone to make a flawless
baseball game. The important point is that the strengths far outweigh
the weaknesses. No other baseball title performs so well in so many departments
- from visuals and animation to control and replayability. Clearly, the
World Series Baseball franchise has regained the luster of its days on
the Saturn. The champ is back, and better than ever.
Shortstop for the 1986 Midget League Baseball Championship Team. Emphasis
World Series Baseball: The Scores
There isn't a better baseball game on the market. Visual
Concepts should be commended for actually listening to
the complaints levied at last year's game and fine-tuning
this one to near perfection. There are few better ways
to part with 50 beans. Buy this game, start a franchise,
and learn what's like to experience the thrill of victory
and the agony of defeat.