Play Ball!

You might need spring training to win at these tricky video games

April 11, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

If you ever thought you could run the Orioles better than you-know-who or wondered what it would feel like to toss 97 mph fastballs for "three up and three down," flip on your video game console and play ball.

The 2002 baseball season has arrived with solid performers for Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PlayStation2. Unfortunately, shaky best describes the rookie in the new Nintendo GameCube lineup - it looks good even as it drops the ball.

EA Sports Triple Play 2002, 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball 2003 and Sega's Home Run KING (each $50) can put you in the batter's box, on the pitcher's mound and up in the front office.

Each offers a variety of console game challenges unique to baseball. In football and basketball simulations, once you have the ball, you know what to do with it - get it into the end zone or through the hoop.

With baseball games, you must master hitting and pitching moves, then take on fielding and base-stealing - all while thinking through an overall game strategy. Just mastering the controller enough to field a grounder and throw it for a double play requires considerable practice.

Here's what I found:

Triple Play 2002 (reviewed for the Xbox; also available for the PlayStation2) barely edges High Heat for first place if you're a casual game console player or an average baseball fan. It offers the best balance between game play and graphic realism.

EA Sports' smooth and easily understood controller instructions allowed me to jump into the game quickly. Pitching is a matter of aiming the ball with the left thumbstick, then deciding the type of pitch. The A-button on the Xbox controller is pressure-sensitive for pitching and batting - the harder you press, the harder the hit or throw.

I got more hits in here than I did with the other two games at lower difficulty levels, but once I notched up the difficulty settings, my success rate leveled off. Triple Play also produced more errors than the competition - automated opponents consistently turned double plays in the other games, but not this one.

Most of Triple Play's graphics are up to the high standards set by previous titles created solely for the new Xbox. Real players' faces have been scanned and molded to the virtual players' heads. You won't see smiles or frowns, but you do get a sense of how the players feel when they pump their fists or jump up and down.

The players' heads, however, appear oversized and the bodies are mostly the same shape: that of a thin, but muscular 17-year-old boy. David Wells did look a bit thick out on the pitcher's mound, however.

The voices of professional sportscasters Harold Reynolds and Bob Costas offer decent play-by-play, although Costas delivers the occasional non sequitur. (Home Run KING, for example, uses a couple of non-professionals for their announcing.)

High Heat (reviewed for the PS2; also available for PC and Game Boy Advance) never reaches the graphical beauty of Triple Play, but it beats it soundly in the game play department.

If you're the kind of baseball fanatic who wants to play a full 162-game season of nine-inning games on your console, High Heat should be your choice. High Heat also has the largest assortment of game modes including season, playoffs and batting practice.

The field action is far less predictable in High Heat than in Triple Play - like real baseball - with more pitches off the mark and fewer hits. I can't remember a pitcher walking anyone in Triple Play, yet it's common enough to be a pitching strategy in High Heat.

High Heat is a better simulation because of its attention to detail. The wind meter, for example, is always on-screen to help me aim my bat; in Triple Play, I had to hit the options button to find it. Likewise, the pitcher's stamina meter also is on-screen to let me know when I might be facing a tired arm.

High Heat sounds the most like a baseball game, too. The crowd's cheering (or booing, in my case) and announcers Dave O'Brien and Chuck Valenches' calling of the play-by-play are the most realistic of the three.

If there's a downside, it's the game's graphics - serviceable at best. The look of the players, stadiums and movement on the field never measure up to the visual richness of the other two games.

Home Run KING, created for the Nintendo GameCube, blows away its competitors on screen. It looks fabulous, with the faces of players like the Orioles' Melvin Mora and Mike Bordick modeled perfectly. Players' movements on the field are fluid and natural.

In fact, if you look at the TV set out of the corner of your eye, you might mistake what you see for a real game in progress.

However, serious baseball strategy isn't your ticket to success here, although you still get the chance to create your own players and teams and compete in a full season, playoff or a Home Run Derby.

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