Reviewed: March 28, 2003
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Acclaim Studios Austin
Released: February 25, 2003
My computer and video game baseball experience dates back to the late 80ís 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 excellent baseball series, and then the 21st century brought great baseball titles like MLB SlugFest, High Heat, and All-Star Baseball.
All-Star Baseball 2004 marks my second experience with Acclaim's rendition of America's favorite pastime and I can say without a doubt that this new version exceeds the original in just about every way possible. The ASB games have always been considered some of the most realistic and most difficult baseball games available and 2004 follows this tradition with on of the deepest baseball simulation you can play this year.
The improvements are quite noticeable from the moment you start the game. The generic low-budget menus from last year's release have now been replaced with a new 3D front-end interface that has you panning around the offices and locker rooms of a Major League stadium. One you get into the game you will find that Acclaim has delivered another quality baseball game that manages 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 plus an incredible look into baseball's legendary past.
There are 9 new modes of play to added to last year's hefty selection. You can now choose from the Scenario or Pick-up Game modes or play the traditional Exhibition, Season, Career, Home Run Derby, Series, Manager, Practice and a new deeper and more configurable Franchise mode.
Throughout the course of these games you can earn points and purchase a huge variety of baseball cards. You buy them in packs (sorry - no gum) and you can even get duplicates just like in real life. This is a novel way to enhance the game by assigning various point rewards for athletic displays of excellence. There is even a baseball trivia game to challenge your baseball knowledge, or in my case, embarrass me in front of my co-workers.
For you diehard baseball lovers, you will drool over the enhanced Franchise modes. The Franchise mode in ASB 2004 has to be the most intricate and complex in computer baseball history. You assume the role of the General Manager and try to recruit the best talent all the while trying to run the franchise within the confines of a floating budget that varies based on your team's success. If you are really successful you might even get a shiny new stadium.
The new Scenario mode puts you into 21 unique situations from the 2002 season. This is an innovative "what if" feature that allows you to either recreate history or change it. The new Pick-up Game will have remembering those days on the playground picking sides for dodgeball. A random selection of ballplayers will present themselves for alternating picks to form sides. This is a great way to test your knowledge of individual player stats and combining the best players to compliment each other to form a custom and winning team. To make things even more "charming" your pick-up game is played on a back lot or schoolyard playground with a "borrowed" STOP sign as your home plate.
Saving games and seasons is no problem thanks to that big hard drive on your Xbox. PS2 and GameCube owners had to dedicate almost entire memory cards to saving a season - Nintendo users even had to buy a custom extra-large memory card.
After you get past the fancy new interface, new game modes, real teams, players, and stadiums it all boils down to how playable this game really is. When you finally take to the field you might be surprised to find out just how troublesome the gameplay can be. I even went as far as to fire up my 2003 version and was even more surprised to find that 2004 is actually less playable than last year's offering. Something definitely got changed in the update and not for the better.
Most of my gameplay issues revolve around a combination of factors including some sloppy controls, interface issues, awkward animations, and poor collision detection. Collision detection was a problem in 2003 but it seems to have gotten worse. You will make plays that look like you missed and miss plays that appear to be a dead lock. Fielding is troublesome when the AI gives you control over a guy who could never possibly make the catch while another CPU-controlled fielder makes the catch. It's almost as if the computer is jealous of your "human" involvement" and is screwing you on purpose so it gets all the good plays.
The Xbox controller is still perfectly suited to baseball. The 4 face buttons map to each respective base when fielding the ball and the white button send the ball to the cutoff man. The D-Pad maps to the bases when controlling your runners and the left stick moves the active player while the right stick configures your team formations. Itís all very intuitive and you will master the controls in just a few innings. Mastering the gameplay will be considerably more challenging.
ASB 2004 is hard, even when you start working with the numerous flaws. I've yet to beat the computer in a season or exhibition 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, you begin to realize that the computer AI is really good. You have to learn the teams and the players, watch those stats, and play smart and conservative if you want to win. Thankfully, the multiplayer game modes are there to smooth my ego.
The batting and pitching interface is relatively unchanged from last year. A transparent box represents the strike zone and a wedge-shaped icon shows the sweet spot. You can rotate this wedge with the right 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. If you guess the pitch you get an extra large contact area but you still have to time the swing with the pitch. You can choose between a normal and a power-swing with a smaller area of contact. 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. 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. You can also bring up a sub-menu that lets you get all sorts of detailed stats on previous pitches and their results.
Unfortunately, all of this great content is marred by a buggy and flawed gameplay engine. It almost seems as if Acclaim was trying so hard to stuff more content; historic players, new trivia, stadium tours, game modes, etc. that they forgot to improve the gameplay. When all of the competition is improving their respective franchises, you can't afford to sit back and rest on your "content" alone. ASB 2004 seem to be better suited as a Baseball Multimedia Encyclopedia or GM simulator than a playable game.
The graphics in ASB 2004 are some of the most realistic I had ever seen in a baseball game. The motion-capture is flawless and the long shots will look just like you are watching ESPN. But when you get down close and start analyzing the players and the environments you'll quickly realize the visuals are starting to show their age. We've seen better and now expect better on the Xbox.
My first complaint is with the player's faces. While 2003 was ultra-realistic right down to the players who forgot to shave before the game, this year we have some weird-looking, almost cell-shaded caricatures of the players. While there are some loose resemblances to their real-life counterparts, everything is just a bit too surreal.
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'll even get to see some unique stance characteristics for specific players. While 2003 featured some seamless transitions this new version is very awkward when blending together individual movements. There is also some matching problems where the players will actually make abrupt changes in their direction and even their placement on the field. Even more troublesome is a noticeable delay between the button presses and the execution of any play. Sometimes it can be enough to ruin the outcome of the play.
The stadiums are brought to life with animated crowds that are obviously real video elements. Up close you can see some heavy repetition and the animation is a bit off, almost as if the crowd is clapping in reverse or perhaps there are missing frame in the playback. Amusing, and moderately distracting is the fact that even during the rain games the crowds are still basking in the warm sunlight. Other details like giant video screens, perfectly manicured lawns, fresh chalk lines, textured dirt, and all the banners and ads that give each stadium its own identity add to the authenticity of each stadium.
The camera angles are all pretty standard stuff including replay camera that ranges from good to worthless. The homerun replays are inexplicably choppy and trying to assume manual control is more challenging than the game itself. The angles and panning motion during normal gameplay 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.
As previously mentioned, the new menu interface is wonderful and there is a sizeable selection of movies that capture much of baseball's rich history. The opening movie montage kicks off with the famous quote, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest..." - you know the rest, then kicks off into Smashmouth's hit "All-Stars" that plays with a "greatest moments in baseball" collection of film clips.
Sound in sports games all boils down to commentary, and ASB 2004 once again mysteriously delivers a substandard offering that pales to the 2003 release. After all of the praise ASB 2003 received for it's use of the 3-man broadcast I can't imagine why they decided to go back to a pair of commentators. Steve Lyons and Thom Brennamen are excellent and offer a surprisingly diverse amount of dialog. Lyons comes up with some color commentary that is not only informative but often amusing.
New to ASB 2004 is a Spanish commentary, and while this is truly a first for the genre, I don't think it was a fair trade if this was the reason I lost my third man in the English-speaking booth. I suppose this will greatly increase the sales of this title with the Spanish-speaking gaming public and perhaps set a new standard for future sports titles.
Sound effects are all pretty standard stuff and as accurate as they need to be. I was impressed that you would hear the actual player names announced over the ballpark's PA system as they took the field. The music is decent with a rather large selection of licensed clips that play over the speakers between plays. One brilliant feature allows you to customize the music that plays for each player as they take the field, but this quickly becomes limited since the game doesn't allow for custom soundtracks.
The Xbox version features a Dolby Digital mix that is only marginally better than the Pro Logic II mix on the GameCube. The Xbox version seemed to offer a slightly better spatial quality with positional sounds and reverbs that brought the stadiums and the game to life. Even the subtlest sounds, like a bat snapping, could be heard during the most complicated of multi-track mixes.
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.
Of course 2004 offers all those Pick-up games, scenarios, and historic leagues to explore and let's not forget the quest to unlock all those baseball cards and the trivia game. ASB 2004 is easily the most comprehensive baseball game ever assembled.
While ASB 2004 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 and no computer AI can ever replace the random and often illogical thought process of a human opponent. The game also supports Xbox Live but only for downloadable content such as roster updates. There is no online gameplay, which was more than mildly disappointing, and a feature that Acclaim won't get away with skipping in 2005.
There are certainly better "playing" and even some better "looking" baseball games available for the Xbox, but none feature the massive amount of options and content you will find in ASB 2004. I can't think of any other baseball game that includes the old Negro Leagues, Post War Legends, and old-school players from the Dead Ball era.
All-Star Baseball 2004 contains a wealth of content and is the dream title for those who want to explore the rich history of baseball or manage their own franchise. When it comes down to actually "playing" the game there are several issues that should have been resolved and weren't, and now you need to decide if you can cope with them for the privilege of playing the game.
ASB 2004 is a definite rental if for no other reason that to explore the historic value of the title, but serious baseball sim purists would be better off trying one of the many other baseball titles, or at least waiting for Acclaim to hopefully get it right in 2005.