(cue Thin Lizzy)
The boys are back in tooooooooooooown!
With the regular season just getting underway, I can’t think of a more opportune time for 3DO’s High Heat Baseball 2002 to take the field. Heralded as the most authentic baseball experience currently available for the PC, or any system for that matter, High Heat Baseball 2002 promises an eye, ear and mit full of enhancements and all-new features. Gone is Sammy “Say It Ain’t” Sosa, replaced with Montreal Expo Vladimir “Miqueas” Guerrero as poster child. A prize selection, without a doubt, and perhaps a statement in itself from 3DO: “You haven’t seen a thing, the best is yet to come baby!” Let’s hope that’s the case anyway, for High Heat Baseball 2002, like previous editions in the series, is one helluva buggy game.
If you’ve suited up with High Heat Baseball in the last couple of seasons, you shouldn’t have any problem finding your way around High Heat Baseball 2002’s dugout, so to speak. This latest edition offers the customary array of game modes including Exhibition, Season, Career, Playoffs, Home Run Derby and Net Play. Somewhat new to the line-up this season is a Practice mode that not only allows you to take batting practice but also offers beginners the opportunity to practice their pitching. The entire menu system has a much sleeker look and feel to it, allowing players to customize everything from difficulty level and weather effects, to season, team and player options.
With a solid framework already in place, High Heat Baseball 2002 takes the opportunity to add several little touches to the franchise that actually have a profound effect on the game. Allow me to recount some of the idiosyncrasies I came across in my first few gaming sessions:
Johnny Damon of the Oakland A’s stands in the box with a 2-2 count on him. The pitch from Pedro Martinez is a slider on the outside corner that Johnny checks his swing at. The catcher, Jason Varitek, quickly points towards third base, as does the home plate umpire. The third base umpire promptly punches Damon out on strikes.
The next batter is Jason Giambi. Jason dribbles an infield roller that shortstop Nomar Garciaparra handles with ease, tossing over to first base for the third out of the inning. As the first baseman trots towards his dugout, he flicks the ball back towards the mound.
The play is going to be a close one at third base as the throw comes in from the outfield. The runner slides and is called safe by the third base umpire. Fernando Tasis, enraged at the call, begins to have it out with the umpire. It’s only a matter of time before Fernando gets tossed from the game.
Two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, game knotted at 3 apiece. With a man on second and the count at 3-1, the rain clouds open up and game is delayed for an hour and 15 minutes. When action resumes, the next pitch is ball four. It seems the long delay has cooled off the pitcher but the bullpen needs another minute to warm-up. Time to bring out the pitching coach to stall for time.
Sweet! While it’s a given that High Heat Baseball offers the most accurate and realistic portrayal of baseball, it’s these little touches that really separate High Heat Baseball 2002 from the rest of the pack. Grizzled veterans will be elated to see that 3DO has added rain delays and rainouts, player ejections and suspensions, detailed injury information, trips to the mound by coaches, enhanced game summaries and highlight packages, and a plethora of new player animations. Other additions include the expansion to 40-man rosters come October, on-deck batters, animated base coaches that indicate whether runners should slide or go for an extra bag, a new cut-off man for throws to the plate, dropped throws, and much more.
The rest of the gameplay in High Heat Baseball 2002 is right on par with last year’s edition. The pitcher-batter match-up is second to none. Timing and location are keys as pitches actually break the way they’re supposed too. Swinging at a high pitch out of the strike zone is likely to result in an infield pop-up, while a fastball right down the middle is more often than not going to get crushed. The physics model is fantastic. Balls spray all over the field as batters slice, pull and line balls that bounce, soar and carom off outfield walls in realistic fashion. There are a million outcomes in any given pitcher-batter match-up and High Heat Baseball 2002 accounts for almost all of them. Out in the field, players will make over the shoulder catches, dive for fly or groundballs and even throw from their knees. Catcher’s can make snap throws, attempting to catch runners who leadoff too far from a bag. To steal a quote from EA Sports, and one they don’t seem to use when it comes to their baseball franchise, if it’s in the game, it’s in the game.
The career mode in High Heat Baseball 2002 is relatively untouched from last year. Features include an extensive minor league system full of potential talent, the ability to make trades, the option to release and sign free agents, the opportunity to adjust your starting rotation and line-up card, the ability to acquire fresh young blood in the off-season entry drafts, scout opposing teams and players, a Hall of Fame, players retiring, a horde of spreadsheets displaying every conceivable statistic a player can accumulate, and much more. Personally, I would prefer that my farm clubs consist of real-life players, at least at the AAA level, and I would love to see a free agency system implemented into the series accompanied by a financial model prohibiting or allowing teams to go out and sign free agents. As is, the entry draft remains a little cumbersome as well but High Heat Baseball 2002 still excels when it comes to General Manager-like options.
I know what you’re thinking. “Wait a second, didn’t he say this was one helluva buggy game back in the introduction?” Yes I did and here’s why:
Sometimes you got to take one for the team and this year, the graphics department took one for the High Heat Baseball 2002 crew. On the upside, the polygon count has been doubled for this latest instalment. If you’ve played the series before, you’ll instantly notice the increased detail level when you load up the first contest. The environments are much crisper, particularly the stadiums themselves, and 3DO have included a few dozen signature animations including Tony Bautista’s awkward batting style and Nomar Garciaparra’s nervous stance. Unfortunately, upon closer look, High Heat Baseball 2002 has taken one step forward and two steps back in terms of the graphics. The player animations are clearly incomplete. The batting animations in particular are absolutely atrocious. Players don’t fully extend their elbows so it looks like a five-year old is swinging the bat. The pitching animation doesn’t feel right either, let alone players running around the bases. High Heat Baseball 2002 is marred with visual glitches such as players that clip through one another when standing on a base. It’s apparent that time became an issue as the baseball season approached, so 3DO cut a few corners in order to get this instalment out on time. The audio isn’t much better. In fact, I don’t think it’s been altered at all from last year besides the addition of Dave O’Brien (Florida Marlins) and Ray Fosse (Oakland A’s) in the broadcast booth. New voices, same old comments, and mumbled at that. The sound quality is quite poor and both the sound effects and colour analysis are often slightly behind the play. The overall presentation is definitely one area they’ll need to work on during the off-season.
So what else is wrong with High Heat Baseball 2002 you ask? Well, a combination of bugs and inconsistent gameplay. For starters, you have to wonder how this bug got past the ol’ Q&A department. In Wrigley Field, pop-ups in the infield actually defy gravity by… not coming back down. Do I really have to explain further? Games involving the Chicago Cubs can never be played at Wrigley Field, you have to change the stadium in such cases. Sorry 3DO, that bug is simply embarrassing. Most of the other bugs in the game are similar to previous instalments, lock-ups, missing reports, etc. Some of the player pictures don’t quite match their real-life counterparts. Sure, mission facial hair isn’t a big deal but when you get the colour of their skin wrong, you know somebody slacked off on their assignment. Finally, while I certainly enjoyed the addition of rain delays and rainouts, I can’t foresee such an event occurring in a dome, yet you’ll see it in High Heat Baseball 2002.
The AI is sketchy at times. For starters, opposing teams have a tendency to pull their starting pitchers too early in a game, simply because they give up 3 or 4 runs by the third or fourth inning. Sure, I might do the same if it were my fifth starter in there who’s been struggling all year, but that shouldn’t be the case when your star player is the pitcher in question. The opposition doesn’t handle certain game situations very well either. With the bases loaded and one out, you’d think a sharp grounder to the shortstop would result in an inning-ending double play. However, the computer almost always goes for the lead runner, throwing home instead leaving the bases juiced with two outs. I could understand if the game was tied in the last inning, but when it’s still in the second or third inning, you might as well go for the double play to get out of the jam. You can only give players so many chances with the bases loaded before they’re going to hurt you. There are other examples, such as computer-controlled teams trading away some of their best talent for questionable prospects, but for the sake of keeping this review short (too late for that), let’s wind this puppy up.
When the fat lady has sung, the High Heat Baseball franchise continues to be the most authentic and enjoyable baseball experience around. Sure, the game sports its share of bugs and visual glitches, and there are times when you’ll question the opposing team’s AI, but the enjoyable moments far outweigh the frustrating issues and when it comes down to it, that’s what matters most. It’s far from perfect but High Heat Baseball 2002 is as good as it gets… for now.