It was a sunny afternoon in Florida, as hard-throwing A.J. Burnett took to the mound for my Marlins’ home opener at Pro Player Stadium. The Philadelphia Phillies were in town for a three-game set and it didn’t take long for the visitors to get on the board as Jim Thome smacked a two-run shot to deep right off Burnett in the first to give the Phillies an early 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Mike Lowell stepped into the batter’s box with two men aboard and promptly hit a big fly to left field off Kevin Milwood to give my team a 3-2 lead. Or did he? According to the scoreboard, my Marlins were up 4-2 after the first inning, which was odd considering I hadn’t scored a run prior to or after the home run by Lowell. Did I miss something here? With no way of checking the boxscore at that point in the contest, I made a mental note to investigate at the end of the game and continued to play ball. Seven and a half innings later, my Marlins hung on for the 4-3 victory. A quick check of the stats revealed that Pudge Rodriquez, who was on second at the time of Lowell’s dinger in the first inning, was credited with having scored twice on the play, a gaff of monstrous proportions considering the game would have been all knotted up at three had that scoring error not occurred. I won the game, so I shrugged it off, but had my team been on the short end of the stick, let me tell you, that scorekeeper wouldn’t have heard the end of it.
That was my first full game of Inside Pitch 2003. Not a very good omen to say the least, but I had a feeling this inaugural instalment of the summer classic from Microsoft Game Studios was in for a bit of a rough outing before I even took to the field. For example, the menu system appears to be taken directly from the NFL Fever series, which doesn’t bode well for a new franchise trying to establish an identity. Secondly, the default control settings are such that you use the right thumbstick to throw the ball to a base (right for first, up for second, etc.). If you’re slightly off on your thumbstick, you might wind up throwing the ball to third base when you intended to go home with it. You can change the fielding controls to a button layout and you’ll likely want to, especially if you’re a beginner, to avoid unwanted throwing errors. But in the end it’s the little details, like the inability to view an extended boxscore at the conclusion of a game, that are lacking from Inside Pitch 2003; features that will hopefully be added as the years go by.
Inside Pitch 2003 offers a variety of game modes: Single Game, Season, Playoffs and Home Run Derby. There’s even a tutorial section that teachers newcomers the nuances of hitting, fielding and pitching. If you’re up for the Championship Challenge, you can re-live one of many historical nights that took place during the 2002 season, such as Derek Lowe’s Fenway Park no-hitter, Barry Bonds’ 600th home run, and Mike Cameron’s four-homer game at Comiskey Park. You can even re-visit the 2002 MLB All-Star game in Milwaukee in order to prevent the now infamous tie. Completing these challenges earns you points that can be used to improve user-created players. You can also accumulate points during regular games by reaching various player and team milestones, such as hitting for the cycle or striking out ten batters in a game. Noticeably absent from that list is a franchise mode, which dampens the single-player experience, but I’m sure we’ll see it included in future instalments, just as we did when the NFL Fever series started out.
On the field, Inside Pitch 2003 is fairly solid, save for a few frustrating tendencies. For example, on groundballs to the right side of the infield, runners on second won’t advance to third, nor will runners on third try to score. You’ll have to do the running for them in those instances, but since their immediate reaction is to retreat to the base, you might find it difficult to get a good enough jump to avoid the dreaded 4-3-1 double play. Speaking of balls hit on the ground, opposing infielders, particularly the shortstop, have a habit of mistiming their dives. They tend to get down too early when balls are hit up the middle when they could easily take a few steps before making a play on the ball. In the outfield, you’d be surprised how often you can hold opposing batters to singles on balls hit sharply off the outfield wall. The AI simply isn’t aggressive enough on the basepaths. Those gripes aside, Inside Pitch 2003 sports an excellent pitcher/batter interface, which is even further enhanced onů
Xbox Live! With the predictable nature of the AI out the window, it’s a whole new ballgame when you go online. There’s nothing like playing against a real-life opponent who likely won’t throw a first pitch fastball over the heart of the plate, who might try to score from second base on a two-out single, and who wouldn’t hesitate to bring in a right-handed pinch-hitter to face the left-handed specialist on the mound. The online component is where Inside Pitch 2003 throws its best stuff.
Visually, Inside Pitch 2003 is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the stadiums are some of the most authentic looking parks I’ve seen in a baseball video game to date. The attention to detail is impeccable, right down to the scoreboard animations. On the other hand, the players themselves have not received as much care. Aside from the superstars of the game, it’s almost impossible to distinguish one player from another, aside from their batting stance, which for the most part have been accurately re-created. Body composition, for example, has not been taken into account. Plump players like Milwaukee Brewers’ catcher Eddie Perez look just as fit and trim as Anaheim Angels’ shortstop David Eckstein, and even Eddie is laughing at that one.
Player animations are also a mixed bag. Outfielders plant their feet before throwing the ball, but don’t tell that to the infielders. They’d rather jump in the air, twist their bodies and throw to first base in an awkward and unnecessary attempt to make ESPN’s plays of the week. The home run animations could use some work too. There’s one in particular that’s so quick, it’ll leave you wondering whether you just hit a home run or a foul ball. Luckily the crack of the bat helps the cause. Speaking of audio (gotta love that segway), Joe Buck joins Tim McCarver in the announcer’s booth. You might recognize the duo as the voices behind Fox Sports' baseball telecasts, and here they do a commendable job of not only providing solid play-by-play, but also adding a little spice to the game with their stories and insight. The crowd could be a little louder at times, but the ability to import custom soundtracks, particularly useful when batters make their way up to the plate, is a great feature.
I liken Inside Pitch 2003 to a prospect whose been rushed to the big leagues. Sure, the potential for a star player is there, but the kid still needs to work on a few fundamentals before he can really make an impact on the rest of the league. So unless you’re itching for a baseball game to play on Xbox Live, I suggest you give this kid another year of development before you insert him into your starting rotation.