Review by JustinW303

Reviewed: 04/20/03 | Updated: 08/31/03

ASB isn’t perfect, or amazing for that matter, but it is a quality nine innings at best.

Deciding which new baseball game to spend your hard-earned cash on has gotten a lot harder than it used to be. With no fewer than 6 baseball-related titles being released this year by companies like EA Sports and Sega, the choices are practically endless. The question to ask yourself is what does each game have that the others don’t, and furthermore, is it enough to make the game stand out? With All-Star Baseball 2004, Acclaim tries to spice up its best-selling franchise by offering so many added features and extras you could easily spend hours with the game without even once setting foot on the virtual field. But behind all that, does ASB 2004 have the gameplay and depth to back it up? In short, yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not without an imperfection or two. Or three.

The gameplay in ASB isn’t perfect, or amazing for that matter, but it is a quality nine innings at best. Let’s start with the pitching.

Don’t expect anything of Cy Young caliber here. You pick a pitch, pick a location for the pitch to hit, press X, and wait for the batter to swing. It’s simple, yeah, but can you really find anything wrong with it? It gets the job done, it’s precise, and it’s plenty good enough for me. Each pitcher has between 2 to 6 pitches of various types, from the knuckleball to the slurve. Strikeout counts are realistic, as are the pitch movements and speeds. You can pick off a runner, intentionally walk a batter, check his hit chart, and view your pitch history if you’d like. Obviously, it wasn’t broke, so Acclaim didn’t fix it.

On the other side of the plate, we have the batting interface of the game. It seems nowadays everyone wants to slam the cursor. After playing ASB for dozens upon dozens of hours, I have come to agree with them. Cursors really do suck. Thankfully, Acclaim has included 2 different cursor-less batting styles for you to choose from, and I highly suggest you take advantage of them for 2 reasons. First off, unless you have the reflexes of a god, you will many times (read: 9 out of 10 times) find yourself swinging painfully and embarrassingly late at even the slowest of fastballs. Think I’m joking? I can’t even remember how many times I’ve swung late on an 86 mph fastball… AFTER IT WAS IN THE CATCHER’S MIT! See what I mean? You can slow the pitches down a small bit by changing the pitch types to exaggerated, but it’s just a small bit easier, and still VERY annoying.

Secondly, the stats are MUCH more realistic. When I was hitting with the cursor, I had it on Veteran difficulty most of the time. I had guys cranking it out of the park, with batting averages in the .400 area. So, I decided to bump the difficulty to All-Star. Not only was I striking out 10+ times a game, but I was making very little contact and my stats plunged. Solution: Easy batting on All-Star difficulty. I’ve just passed the All-Star game in my franchise and every one of my stats is realistic. I am no longer the monopoly I was before, but I’m still laying down the smack. Very cool...

Finally, there’s the defensive portion of the game. This is probably the worst area in the gameplay department due to a few errors and misjudgments on Acclaim’s part. For one, I really don’t like the idea of having the same button control diving and jumping. I’m sure using R1 to jump and R2 to dive wouldn’t have been too hard, right Acclaim? The hardest part is timing a running jump. If you wait too long, you’ll end up flat on your face as the ball rolls past you. After a while you’ll get used to it, but it will annoy the hell out of you when you first start playing.

As for the fielding animations, I expected a lot more. The animation for diving is so slow it’s almost pointless to lunge for a ball in the infield unless it’s going really, really slow. Catching the ball and hurling it to another base takes just as long, and the players don’t seem to be in any of a hurry. It seems like there are about 3 animations for catching a ground ball, and they’re all rather boring. There’s no spectacular jump, twist, and throw plays in the game, so don’t expect see very many web gems. Also, errors are far too common in this game. Playing as the Twins, there should never be a throwing error every other game. It’s so ridiculous sometimes I’d rather run the ball back into the infield than risk throwing it away and giving up a base or two. And don’t even bother trying to get the guy out at first once your fielder has bobbled the ball. Once he misses it, he sits down to meditate and think about what he did wrong before he decides to go after the ball. Very sluggish, to say the least. Fielding is usually one of the best parts to a baseball game, but the little things here and there make putting on a glove a chore in ASB 2004.

And then there’s the replay. Actually, lack of a replay would fit better. Honestly, this is the worst replay system I have ever seen. Ever. All the viewing angles were picked by a team of blind men and you have no option for a custom angle. Furthermore, you can only focus on the ball, not a specific player. The camera is glued to it. The only options you have are to zoom in on the ball, zoom out on the ball, move the replay forward, reverse it, and change from one crap angle to the next. I’ve seen better replays in Playstation games. Acclaim, you should really be ashamed of this lame excuse for a playback system.

But, the game does have it’s moments. Double plays are pretty easy to make, and the umpires make fairly accurate calls. If you check your swing the catcher will motion to the first or third base umpires and ask if you went all the way. Although it sometimes feels like the call is completely random, it does help add a touch of realism to the game. Baserunning is easy enough, and the ratio of stolen bases to failed attempts seems about right. But, one thing really bothers me. About half of the time when I tried to steal a base I would make it there standing up, but the runner would round the base without me telling him too, and he’d be tagged out. So very, very annoying, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to prevent it. As for the game’s A.I., there was really only one thing I found wrong with it. When you pop up a ball to the infield or outfield, the fielders will just stand there until they decide they want to catch the ball, and then make a running/leaping grab after getting an extremely late jump. It’s a pretty weird glitch, and it does make me question the thoroughness of Acclaim’s testing cycle. Overall, the gameplay has quite a few very glaring flaws, but it’s still good enough to keep you coming back game after game.

Now, on to the thing every good baseball game should have: a franchise mode. All-Star Baseball allows you to take complete GM control over your favorite team for a maximum of 30 seasons. Or, enough time to take the Devil Rays all the way to the World Series. As the general manager of your team, you’ve got quite a list of things to do. You have to make trades, sign free agents, put injured players on the disabled list, and offer long-term contracts to your key players, among other things. All-Star is about as realistic as it gets when it comes to managing your franchise. No detail is left out, and this is one of the strongest areas of the game. For example, players have to clear waivers to be sent down to the minors, and you have to settle arbitration cases before starting the next season. It’s a real learning experience for anyone who isn’t familiar with the inner workings of professional baseball. All this realism is great, but one thing puzzles me. Why the heck are we dealing with points, and not dollars? When you sign players to new contracts in this game, you offer them an amount of points per year for however many years they want. Wouldn’t it have been so much more practical to let us negotiate with millions of dollars and not dozens of points? This lack of a monetary bargaining system makes the game seem a little silly, quite the opposite of what a simulation is supposed to be.

Besides starting a franchise with a current team, you have the option of creating one from scratch with the Expansion option. Several dozen cities are available to you, so finding the one you live in or near should be a breeze. If franchises aren’t your thing, you can always skip the entire season and dive straight into a world series, or play a simple exhibition game if you want. As in most games, you can create your own All-Star through the game’s extensive Create-A-Player option. It lacks a few basic customization features, but it’s still fairly solid.

Stat geeks won’t find too many things lacking in this category. Every stat you can think of, and maybe even a few you’ve never seen. It’s all good, for the most part, but there are a few little things bothering me. Why can’t I compare every team in baseball at once, without having to do it separately with the AL and NL ? And why do I have to scroll through 15 pages of NL stats before I can see who leads the AL in home runs? But, maybe that’s just me being too picky, but I only bring it up because if I could do this in All-Star Baseball 2001 on the N64, I would expect to be able to do it in this game.

Everyone likes a little something on the side with their baseball games, and thankfully this is one area Acclaim did not skimp on at all. Besides your basic exhibitions and franchises, you can play a “pick-up game,” which is where 18 players are chosen randomly and the computer and you take turns picking teams. Just like the old days, and the parks are very fitting for the casual setting. A sandlot, school park, city park, and a cornfield are all available to play on, adding to the unique old-school feel you get in this mode. There’s also Scenario Mode, where you get a chance to rewrite history in the form of last year’s greatest moments in baseball. For example, you can win the All-Star game with the NL, hit Mike Cameron’s 5th home run in one game, and break up Derek Lowe’s no-hitter against the Devil Rays. Those are just a few of the many scenarios available, and you can spend quite a lot of time on just this feature alone. There’s also a baseball trivia game and a batting practice mode, along with the now standard Home Run Derby. Plenty of things to keep you busy when your franchise isn’t beckoning you.

Acclaim has also included stadium tours for parks past, present, and future, and a Madden-ish card system where earning points in the game for striking out the side, pulling a double play, etc., allow you to buy packs of cards that unlock special teams for use in the exhibition mode. Negro League stars, Pre-War stars, 2002 Rookies, and the NL All Speed team, just to name a few. You can also unlock team uniforms, cheats, and several videos of Cal Ripken Jr., Jeter, and Buck O’Neil. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Buck tell stories about the old days of baseball and of the Negro leagues, but I could have done without having to listen to Jeter ramble on about video games, something he obviously knows little about.

If you have a Network Adapter for your PS2, you can download roster updates at certain points throughout the season to keep everything in your game correct. Sadly, there isn’t a mode allowing you to play against other people online, which makes me wonder why baseball games are so far behind other sports when it comes to online playability. Hopefully next year, or Acclaim will have some explaining to do…

With all that out of the way, we’ll move onto the game’s graphics. The players look pretty nice, with their bodies proportioned correctly and their faces modeled accurately for the most part. You’ll recognize the individual batting stances of each player, but besides Chan Ho Park and the occasional other, the pitching stances don’t vary as much as in real life. The rest of the animation is decent, with the fielding a little slower and more awkward than it should have been. The players walk naturally about half the time, but when they strike out or are hit by a pitch they can sometimes waddle around like robots. The crowd is a bit of a mixed bag. They’re all very realistic, but that’s because they’re all video recordings of real people clapping. Non-stop. They’re a bit rough and pixilated around the edges, but at least you can recognize them as human beings. On the other hand, the ballparks are great! Everything is beautifully accurate and you’ll be able to recognize the tiniest details of each park. No complaints from me in that department.

The announcing is another gray area. Steve Lyons butchered it, big time. His overly dramatic and cliché references are a little too… stupid. It’s the kind of stuff you hear on Sportscenter, but at least Stuart Scott makes it sound cool. Thom Brennaman does an excellent job throughout the game, and the conversations the two have about ballparks, the hit-and-run, and various other baseball related topics are entertaining and they add a little more depth and personality to both of the announcers. The player introduction music is decent, varying from LL Cool J to a song about how country boys will survive. Occasionally you’ll notice the theme from The Natural, and while it sounds cool the first few times you hear it, it starts to get a little annoying after a few dozen times.

As a whole, ASB 2004 doesn’t disappoint, but there are several areas that could use some heavy renovations. If next years version has better fielding, much better replay, improved announcing, and a few more innovations it could be a top contender. It’s still a good buy this year, but heed this review; the game may not satisfy you depending on what you look for in a baseball game. If the little things don’t bother you, I’m sure you’ll be occupied with the game for many hours. It’s not the best you can buy, but it’s a great pick regardless.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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