Reviewed: June 15, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Acclaim Studios Austin
Released: February 26, 2002
Baseball has always been one of the sports that I never really cared for. Perhaps it was just too slow or boring to watch on TV. I have always enjoyed taking my place on the pitcher's mound for my local pub or office softball team. Like most sports, I would rather play them for real than watch them or play computerized versions of them. So no one is more surprised than me to find myself doing a review for All-Star Baseball 2003, and actually finding out I like it. In fact, it is now my second favorite GameCube game bested only by Resident Evil.
My electronic baseball experience dates back to the early 90ís where I began my rookie career with the Hardball series from Accolade. Time warp to the mid-90ís and you would have found me dabbling with Microsoftís Baseball game, and most recently I played the atrocity called World Series Baseball 2K1 for the Dreamcast Ė a game so bad I couldnít even bring myself to play the 2K2 sequel.
Once I got past the generic low-budget menus, All-Star Baseball 2003 took me totally by surprise with its slick presentation and feature-rich gameplay that rivals any network broadcast of Americaís favorite pastime. And who better to bring this game to your living room than Acclaim. These wizards have repeatedly delivered quality baseball games that have managed to mix challenging gameplay with realistic simulation qualities. Combine all that with MLB licensing and you get to experience this gorgeous game with all the current players, teams, stadiums, and stats.
After you get past the real teams, players, and stadiums it all boils down to how playable this game really is. There are 10 modes of play to choose from including; Exhibition, Season, Career, Home Run Derby, Series, Manager, and Practice. Throughout the course of these games you can earn and collect a huge variety of baseball cards. This is a great way to extend the replay value of this game. There is even a baseball trivia game to challenge your baseball knowledge and let you compete against your other baseball-loving friends.
For you diehard baseball lovers, you will drool over the new Expansion and Franchise modes. The Franchise mode in ASB 2003 has to be the most intricate and complex in computer baseball history. Your GameCube will track your stats for 20 seasons and the AI will always be tweaking the other teams, trading players, signing on new ones, etc. If playing an entire 162-game season threatens to alienate your wife, kids, or friends, you can always opt for the computer to play any or all of these games to speed things up.
Frequently overlooked in sports titles are the awards, and baseball certainly has a lot of awards to offer such as Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, MVP, Cy Young award, and many others. If you are playing the Franchise mode the game will track all your teamís awards over the entire 20 seasons.
Of course, all this complexity and detailed data comes at a cost. About $30 to be exact, as that is how much a 16x memory card is going to cost you, and itís the only way you are going to be able to save your game in mid-season. While hardcore baseball fanatics probably wonít have a problem shelling out $30, this extra cost may turn off the more casual gamer. Of course, everyone needs a memory card sooner or later, and considering you get 16x more storage for only $10 more than a conventional 59-block card it may not be that big of a deal. And while many will blame Acclaim for their short-sightedness, Iím more inclined to blame Nintendo for offering such small memory cards in a day when 8mb cards are pretty much the standard.
Never before has a game controller been more suited for a game than ASB 2003. The 4-button layout maps to each respective base when fielding the ball while the D-Pad maps to those same bases when controlling your runners. You move the active player with the analog stick and the C-stick is used for configuring your team formations. Itís all very intuitive and you will master the controls in just a few innings.
Mastering the controls is one thing but mastering the game is another. ASB 2003 is hard, plain and simple. Iíve played dozens of games and while I can hold my own against the computer AI I have yet to win a game. I can make contact with the ball and get my fair share of singles and doubles, but when the computer is knocking them out of the park or getting in-the-park triples, I realize that I really suck at this game. You really have to learn the teams and the players and watch those stats. If a big hitter is on the plate you need to have your fielders playing deep.
The batting and pitching interface is excellent; perhaps the best Iíve ever experienced in a computer baseball game. A transparent box represents the strike zone and a wedge-shaped icon shows the sweet spot. You can rotate this wedge with the C-stick to control the vertical and horizontal angle at which the ball leaves the bat. Of course itís up to you to guess where the pitch it going to pass through the box and have the wedge waiting for the ball. Oh yeah Ė you still have to time the swing with the pitch. Pressing the A button swings at the ball, and the B button will shrink the wedge and attempt a power-hit. Connecting with the ball is all about timing, but connecting with the sweet spot is half luck and half intuition. But when you do, someone in the stands is going to have a souvenir.
Once you hit the ball you can easily run the bases with the left or right trigger buttons. These triggers also toggle the view ports that show any current men on base and their lead offs. Tagging up and stealing are all just as intuitive and there are plenty of computer-assisted options you can toggle on or off in the options menu to assist you with many of these advanced plays.
Pitching is a simple matter of picking the pitch and then trying to fool the batter on where you are going to throw it. The batter wonít know which pitch you are picking but he will have an initial idea of where the ball is going. Once you begin the pitch you can tweak the final throw, but this is a double-edge sword. If you tweak the pitch too much you may inadvertently throw outside the strike zone. The control pad will rumble when you get near the edge of the box which is a nice covert touch. The Z button brings up a sub-menu that lets you get all sorts of detailed stats on previous pitches and their results.
I was stunned when I played my first game of ASB 2003. The graphics were the most realistic I had ever seen in a baseball game. Most sports games are played from a camera view that is often from the sidelines or at high isometric angles that donít require the detail and quality that a game such as baseball does. The close-up angles and level of detail in ASB 2003 is simply amazing from the fabric of the playersí jerseys to the 5 oíclock shadow on the pitcher's face.
All the players have realistic gameplay and idle animations based on complex motion-capture technology. Theyíll pound the plate with their bat or tap their heels as they wait for the pitch. You might see a player chewing gum or even blowing a bubble. Knock a zinger past 2nd base and watch the referee dance out of the way to avoid interfering with the play.
All of the component animation is blended together to create a seamless series of moves that offer the ultimate in realism. Players will run, dive, throw all in motion so fluid you would never know it was a combination of various animation routines.
The stadiums are brought to life with video captured live action crowds, giant video screens, perfectly manicured lawns, fresh chalk lines, textured dirt, and all the banners and ads that give each stadium its own identity. You will even get to enjoy the teamís mascot doing their own unique routines on the sidelines to get the crowd jazzed up during lulls in the action.
The camera angles are all pretty standard stuff, but I was surprised and disappointed to find there was no view available from the pitcherís perspective. This has always been an option in every baseball game I have played previously and one I prefer when playing by myself. The rest of the camera work is network quality. The angles and panning motion are excellent and you never lose sight of the ball. If your player is off-screen he is represented with an arrow until you can run him onto the same shot as the ball.
There are plenty of instant replays with slow motion and special effects. These can quickly become annoying and time consuming if you watch them after every play. Fortunately you can skip them with a simple tap of the A button.
The menus are as bad as the game graphics are good. They are stark and simplistic and simply don't do the overall game justice. There are some interesting detail and status screens, such as the weather report that brings up a weather map of the USA and a detailed forecast for the city where the next game is being played.
Sound in sports games all boils down to commentary, and ASB 2003 delivers in triplicate. The use of the first-ever 3-man broadcast booth offers up some excellent commentary that is insightful and sometime spooky in its relevance to the action. It can get repetitive at times and the announcers can be long-winded in the pre-game chatter. I often find myself mashing the A button to just get the game going, and Iím sure Iím missing some informative tidbits on my team in doing so.
The music is decent. There is nothing too spectacular in the menus but the in-game organ music is cheerful and adds to the ballpark atmosphere. You get the final few bars from the National Anthem at the beginning of each game and thatís about it for the musical content in this game.
Sports games are impossible to rate in length, as you either play them until you canít stand to play them anymore, or next yearís version comes out. If you skip the commentary and the replays you can probably blaze through a 9-inning game in about 20-30 minutes. Given that time, a season will take you around 80 hours to complete and a 20-season franchise mode will keep you busy for 160+ hours. And donít forget the quest to unlock all those baseball cards.
While ASB 2003 supports up to four players anymore than two is probably going to just get in the way. I found the game quite enjoyable with two people even though I generally lost worse to my friends than when I played the computer. No computer AI can ever replace the random and often illogical thought process of a human opponent.
If you love or even like baseball and you own a GameCube then you owe it to yourself to get All-Star Baseball 2003. The audio/visual presentation is about as perfect as it gets and the GC controller is perfectly suited to this sport. There are enough computer assist options to take the edge off the simulation and make it an enjoyable experience for baseball players of all skill levels. For the hardcore players, you will get lost in the Franchise and Expansion modes Ė just make sure you grab that extra-large memory card before you go up to bat.