High Heat Baseball 2000 Review
By Jimmy Vails |
Last year's edition of High Heat Baseball had a great on-the-field game, though its graphics were a bit rough and there were no management options to speak of. This year's version, the second in the series, is much more the complete package, though it has its fair share of bugs. But despite some problems, High Heat is rapidly establishing itself as the baseball game to beat.
Playing High Heat just looks and feels like a real game of baseball. Hitters spray the ball all over the park--none of this 'home run, single, or nothing' action you get in Triple Play--and the ball sails believably over a middle infielder's head or bounds through a gap on the outfield, rolling up against the wall.
The CPU will walk a batter to get to a weaker hitter, and an intentional bean ball can lead to an ejection. A double switch is easy to pull off, and giving a free pass is simply four pitchouts in a row.
Doubles are refreshingly common and with a speedy player you can try to leg out a triple. Stealing and baserunning present a few problems, but tweaking some settings in the tune file can adjust the CPU's strengths to more closely balance your own. That's a nice little touch that improves the game immensely.
But High Heat is full of nice little touches like that. For example, shifting your infielders and outfielders can easily be handled with the gamepad instead of needlessly fumbling through a bunch of menus. These shifts are a crucial part of playing defense, but a lot of games ignore them or make them too hard to implement.
When it comes to the pitcher-batter interface--the heart and soul of any baseball game--High Heat is deceptively simple. There is no button to hit for power instead of contact, no pitching aid, target boxes, or any of the complex interfaces of say an All Star Baseball 2000 (Nintendo 64). Instead, you can guess pitch or location before the pitch, and then while it's in the air try to guess how the pitch will break and whether it's in the strike zone or not.
You don't have to commit entirely to a swing either--this game handles the check swing beautifully. Let up on the button before the ball goes all the way over the plate and you can get away with just a check swing. But by the same token you have to hold the swing button down and aim the bat with the D-pad to really connect with a pitch. Bunting is fairly standard but it should be noted that you can do the 'butcher boy' play--squaring up to bunt than pulling back for a real swing as the pitcher throws.
On the pitcher's mound, each pitcher has his real big league pitches, and the game models nine pitches in all (fastball, curveball, change up, slider, sinker, forkball, split finger, screwball and the knuckler). You choose a pitch, a location, and then an extra button to indicate whether you're going for a ball or a curve. That gives you a lot of options, though there is no adjusting the speed of your pitch (putting a little extra on or off a fastball, for example). A nice touch is that if you try to call a pitch your pitcher doesn't have, he'll shake you off. (Pitching is seen from the catcher's point of view.)
Pitcher fatigue is fairly standard but control is much chancier (and realistic). In most baseball videogames, if you want to throw a strike, you throw a strike. Real life is not so automatic, nor is High Heat. A couple times I had a pitcher with lousy control on the mound, and I would try to throw a strike on the corner but I'd miss badly. Okay, then I'd try to stop nibbling and just throw a curve down the middle and I still missed. Finally even my fastball barely got in the strike zone. Obviously, the game is doing some good stuff varying a pitcher's control. Computer batters will try to work out a walk, and the number of foul balls seems to be a lot closer to reality than usual.
Audio & Video
The audio is average, though there's some subtlety with the home crowd actually cheering for the right team, and some hecklers and vendors who add flavor. Separate volume sliders for music, sound F/X, the crowd, umpire, announcer, and hecklers and vendors lets you wash out whatever element of the ambient sound annoys you the most (for me it was the music, the crowd, and the vendors.) Play-by-play commentary is ably handled by San Francisco Giants' announcer Ted Robinson, though his comments could have been pepped up with more variety.
Despite some occasional well-timed animations (such as an infielder diving for a ball and pulling up to throw from his knees), the graphics are only serviceable. The batters in particular, while better than last year's effort, still look distorted or misshapen. Nor is there a great deal of variety in the appearance or size and shape of the players--Mark McGwire, for example, looks more like a tall, slender wide receiver than a heavy-hitting first baseman.
But what the game lacks in player graphics it makes up for in the look of the stadiums, which are very nicely done again this year, and with a nice fly-by view that gives you a good tour of each of the major league parks.
Even more enticing to the serious baseball fan, the developers also included historic ballparks like Ebbet's Field, the Polo Grounds, and other long-lost yards, as well as a couple of minor league parks and the as-yet-unfinished Pacific Bell Park, which will be the San Francisco Giants' new home next year. It's been a while since anyone included classic ballparks in a major release, and I have to commend Team .366 for doing this, and hope that they'll include more ballparks next year, or put some new ones up on their web page during the season.
So far, it sounds like everything's great, huh? It is, but the release has been marred by a number of bugs, none of which are absolute game-stoppers, but taken as a group, do dim some of the initial enthusiasm I have for the game.
The Wandering Bullpen...
One of the most pronounced and noticeable bugs is the Mystery of the Disappearing Bullpen Pitcher. It seems that if you take two pitchers and get them up throwing in the bullpen, by the time you get them all warmed up in the bullpen and put one of them in the game, the other one will mysteriously disappear. Hey buddy, no time for a smoke break!
You can get around this by not using the 'warm up pitchers' option, but this is symptomatic of a somewhat unfinished or poorly designed managerial mode. I was continually baffled by what was going on in the minor leagues, and found it cumbersome to root around the menus and try to find players' relevant ratings or current statistics.
High Heat uses a Windows 95-style back end or data management program when you're not in the field. While this makes the data at least readable, it's not the most attractive look in the world. Furthermore there seems to be no way to change the resolution of these menu screens, so even if you're using a large monitor and a high resolution desk top, the in-game menus are still too crowded and largely, and you have to scroll and scroll and scroll to look at all of the information. This is unfortunate, because there is a lot of information to manage here: rosters for your major league team and three minor league teams, free agent pools, league stats and standings, and so on.
This last section is probably not fair, since hardly any other games do these things anymore, but it's only fair to warn you, High Heat doesn't measure up to say a Baseball Mogul or an old Tony La Russa as a general manager simulation. There is no salary cap or financial component to the game; you can't build custom leagues of say 26 teams or 14 teams or whatever, or change the names, the uniforms, and cities for your various ball clubs. Nor can you specify specific management tendencies for opposing GMs.
Trading is pretty rudimentary in terms of interface, though the AI behind it never went for a bad deal. But what I mean is you can't make a bid for a player, then get a counter-offer from another manager, or even use a hint screen to figure out what that club's need s are. Instead you just highlight possible players and a button will light up if the trade is selected. I prefer the cartoony faces and angry interjections of the Baseball Mogul managers, but I guess you can't have everything.
Or can you? I understand that at one point Sierra was negotiating with Baseball Mogul's creator in order to license its management model as part of the back end of their on the field game. Certainly Baseball Mogul fans can't be too happy with the way Wizard Works has handled the series (late product, no MLBPA license), and High Heat fans ought to welcome an optional financial game on top of everything else the game currently has. And obviously the High Heat team is dedicated and devoted enough to want to include as much as possible in their game, such as including classic ballparks. So could this be a match made in Heaven? Could perfection arrive with High Heat Baseball 2001?
We'll have to wait and see. But in the mean time, High Heat is a great baseball game. It's not perfect, right now it's missing a few options while others seem broken, and it still has a few too many bugs to recommend unconditionally. But it's probably as good as we're going to get this year and for several years to come.