Major League Baseball has returned to the nation's stadiums, but you don't have to find a game on TNT or ESPN to enjoy a more controlling interest in the sport. Just put in one of the latest offerings from the video game industry and run your own team.
This year, we took a look at six offerings on deck for the Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation2 (and original PlayStation), Nintendo GameCube and GameBoy Advance and PCs.
Most of the games this year offer some sort of challenge for a full summer of play. But EA Sports' new franchise MVP Baseball 2003, Microsoft Game Studio's Inside Pitch 2003 and Sega Sports' World Series Baseball 2K3 lead the lineup.
One caveat before you head to the store, though. When you plunk down your $50 for one of the new games, make sure you get the version for this year. For example, you won't see a MVP Baseball 2002 at your video store nor Inside Pitch 2002. But World Series Baseball 2K3 is the latest version of Sega's product, while other baseball video games on the market for this season are labeled for 2004. That means you won't want to purchase High Heat Major League Baseball 2003 (unless you liked last year's version of High Heat), but the 2004 version.
Here's what I found this year:
EA Sports' MVP (previewed on the Xbox; also available for PCs and PS2) is a solid improvement over its earlier baseball game Triple Play. The new pitcher and batter interfaces offer a solid challenge to players without shutting out novices. The game's playability seemed greater than that of the other games reviewed here in part because the pitching and batting seemed somewhat intuitive - nice choices on the part of the game developers for those who haven't played baseball on video game consoles for the past five years.
Making base-running decisions is aided by picture-in-picture views of players during attempts to steal or take extra bases.
The player models tend to be good and movement, across the board, appears to be relatively realistic with few exceptions. In addition, I liked the graphics on both the Xbox and PS2.
No sports game is complete without a franchise mode that allows you to build your team over several seasons. Unlike Triple Play last year, MVP has a franchise mode that is more than up to the task of allowing players to get beyond a season. The franchise mode here takes a back seat to World Series Baseball, but given the slick graphics and the game play, this simpler version of franchise play is fine. You can even increase your manager rating by meeting goals for the ball club through your season; good managers may get an offer from another team for the future - something I never got to experience.
Inside Pitch 2003 (only for the Xbox) won't hit store shelves until next month, but if you play MVP and find you want something else for your baseball jones, this may be your ticket to summer fun. For one, you'll be able to play Inside Pitch on Xbox Live, Microsoft's video console Internet service. You'll also be able to download stadiums through Xbox Live.
While I got to play Inside Pitch for only an hour, I was impressed with its graphics and game play. Batting and pitching, the core of any baseball game, were intuitive and easy to pick up. The graphics and game animation were superb. The Xbox tends to deliver great graphics and the few stadiums I had a chance to play in looked cool.
You can play in a home run derby (which is Live-enabled) or franchise mode (which is not Live-enabled). Training Tracks mode was most helpful for me to get up and running in Inside Pitch. Meanwhile, Microsoft is hyping its Championship Challenges mode in which players can relive the greatest moments from last season. You can bat for Barry Bonds at the moment he got his 600th home run (right down to the same pitches that were tossed to him in the game) or break the tie at the All-Star Game.
You can choose the music for players and stadiums by ripping music and putting it into the game.
Sega Sports World Series Baseball 2K3 (Xbox and PS2) easily competes for top honors with Inside Pitch and MVP Baseball as one of the best out this season. Its franchise mode is one of the richest season-to-season playing modes available in this year's crop of baseball video games. In addition to offering unlimited seasons, the franchise mode enables gamers to put into play batting and pitching coaches, minor league directors and scouts. You also can play hot and heavy with the money by negotiating contracts with free agents and players who you want to re-sign. If you're serious about franchise play from a manager's or owner's point of view, 2K3 is your game.
World Series is fun to watch as well with smooth graphics and solid animations.