Can she live up to the hype?
Since Baseball is this country's most cherished past-time, and free market competition its raison d'íªtre, it makes perfect sense that there are more than ten PC Baseball titles currently vying for the American gaming dollar. You'd think that this would mean Baseball on the PC would be twice as good as sims for less popular sports like soccer or golf. Unfortunately, that just has not been the case.
With this in mind, Trip Hawkins (creator of the 80s classic Earl Weaver Baseball) assembled Team .366, a group of game developers with a simple goal: to create the best computer baseball game ever, a game that would "redefine the genre." After much ballyhoo, a two-year wait, and constant reminders of the one million dollars spent on development, I was beginning to think they might actually succeed. I genuinely hoped .366 would combine the action of Triple Play '99, the graphics of the soon-to-be-released Microsoft 3D Baseball and the management/statistical realism of Baseball Mogul, Diamond Mind or even the buggy FPS: Baseball Pro. If you were hoping for the same, prepare to be disappointed.
High Heat's graphics are nothing to sneeze at, but the total presentation is far from exceptional. Though the 31 unique and carefully rendered 3D stadiums look better to me than anything going, the generic 2D players without numbers, names or recognizable faces are no better than Hardball 5's two-year old sprites. Sadly, this isn't the only compromise. While the play-by-play is uncommonly smooth and accurate, San Francisco Giants' announcer Tim Robinson is not what you'd call exciting. Sure you'll enjoy the occasional yell of a hot dog vendor, or the crowd throwing back homers in disgust, but you'll lament the absence of more rudimentary details like base coaches or on-deck batters; likewise, you'll be happy with the truly accurate ball physics, but bemoan the limited camera angles that occasionally make catchable balls appear out of reach.
The list continues: High Heat provides an innovative check swing, but it's missing advanced fielding alignment; the main game screen showing players and stats is elegantly simple, but instant replays are reserved only for home runs. High Heat also has no collision detection, so fielders and batters run right through each other, and the though there are eight kinds of swings to choose from, just two are animated on screen. Add all these tiny weaknesses together and one can't help but feel this game has missed an opportunity for greatness.
Probably the most surprising thing about High Heat is the minimal team-building and general manager options. I can honestly say that no one would ever play this game from the dugout--there's just nothing to do. Despite what the box says, High Heat is an arcade game, and only an arcade game. But don't think the arcade emphasis means Team .366 threw reality to the wind. On the contrary, stats have an authentic effect on player and team ability--you won't witness silly mistakes or groan at the after-the-pitch "ball magic" found in Triple Play '99. High Heat plays very close to the real thing, and baseball aficionados should have little to complain about as far as AI goes.
What does inspire complaint is the confusing interface, awkward controls, thin manual, and lack of training options. In a way, all of these problems are related. Though the game was not ported from a console, it curiously feels like it was. Mouse support is completely absent, and though the manual lists keyboard commands, it discourages their use. At first I tried using the keyboard, but after that nightmare I went with the recommended gamepad. Though this smoothed things considerably, I still encountered problems. Stealing bases with more than one runner on never seems to work, and choosing where to throw the ball is not as easy as it needs to be. It's often quite difficult to pull double plays or throw directly to bases from the outfield and the resulting error can leave you punching the walls. If there was a mid-game save feature, these annoyances might be minimized, but, alas, this seemingly mandatory option is nowhere to be found.
Besides control awkwardness, the interface design adds to the frustration. Here's just one example (there are a few): when batting the player has the option to display a "pitch legend" which shows all the different types of pitches he may encounter. Apparently, if the player guesses the upcoming pitch he'll have a better chance at hitting the ball if he chooses to swing. But since there is no sound or graphic clue to let you know when you have actually selected a pitch type, it's never clear whether this feature is even working. In short, a training option for the player to learn the control intricacies is sorely needed. Without one, I found myself losing games because of stupid errors.
On the positive side, the reason High Heat is initially confusing and hard to control is because of the extremely quick and exciting pace. What little between-play animations there are can easily be skipped. Batters instantly appear and disappear, the ball is magically returned to the pitcher and there's no pause for stats or scoring. Once each play is finished, the slightest hesitation on your part will result in the next pitch burning down the pipe. Though this makes the learning curve steep, it's really enjoyable to rip through a full nine inning game in less than thirty minutes. The best thing is that the pace doesn't detract from the realism--you just don't have to wait around in this game, and that's one of its greatest strengths.
Like most red-blooded American males, I grew up playing baseball in Little League. Though I'm by no means an avid fan of the sport, I had hoped that Tean .366 would help me relive some past glory and renew an old interest. High Heat did all that and more. I'll admit it--I'm addicted! The bottom line is that even with its problems, High Heat is a game I'll definitely play regularly, and for those specifically searching for arcade-style Baseball, High Heat will delight as much, if not more, than its two main competitors, Triple Play '99 and Hardball 6. Though Team .366's creation doesn't measure up to the pre-release hype, and it certainly doesn't "redefine the genre," High Heat is, arguably, the best PC action baseball game currently available. Only time will tell how it measures up against the plethora of games yet to be released this year.
Review follow-up: After casually posting a message about some of High Heat's problems on comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.sports, I was surprised to receive a very detailed public reply from Mark Dickenson of Team .366. This led to an interchange of some very long e-mails and it turns out that Team .366 is working on a patch to improve the control interface, base-running AI and other aspects of the game. Mark answered my e-mails point for point (sometimes as many as 20 a message) and it sounds like they are completely on top of how to improve this already addictive game. Look for the patch on 3DO's website and start drooling now for High Heat 2000. According to Mark, it will address every single issue I mentioned in my review and plenty more we discussed in e-mail. Bottom line: 3DO deserves a big pat on the back for providing top-notch user support and addressing their fans. Mark had no idea I was writing this review, so any user can expect this first-class treatment.