Some reviews are hard to write because the game is both terribly fun and terribly flawed. Others can be tough because the game is so original you don't know what to rate it against or it involves something (like horse racing) that you know nothing about.
Microsoft's new Inside Pitch 2003 presents a mix of these two challenges due to the fact that it's the first console baseball game playable online, but is otherwise ubiquitous and flawed. The game simply lacks the single-player power of the World Series Baseball and MVP games.
The modes are quite standard. You can play in Single Games, Seasons, Playoffs, a Home-Run Derby, Championship Challenges and the Network Mode (online). There's also a Team Manager, which at first looks like a Franchise or Dynasty option since it is here that you can trade players and alter lineups. However, this mode doesn't have as much to do with creating a dynasty as it does with just customizing a team. In other words, no Franchise mode. The lack of this option is striking, leading me to ponder whether or not this mode should have been called something like "Assistant Team Manager Mode, Sorta" or "My First Team Manager Mode."
The Championship Challenges present an interesting and somewhat unique option, allowing you to relive several clutch moments and accomplishments of the 2002 season. You can play as the Giants and try to match Barry Bonds' home-run record, or pitch a shutout like I'm sure somebody did last year, or even break that crazy 10th-inning tie. It can be fun, but going into canned situations out of context lacks the intense build-up of a full game . Another problem with this mode is the AI and general game difficulty: tough situations in real life are not so tough in this game.
The one mode that they got right is the Network Mode, and it is here that the Xbox (not necessarily the game) shines. Xbox Live! simply works. It's well implemented and I can't wait to see what good baseball games make of it. And it seems like Microsoft was banking on the fact that they could spend little time and money on a baseball game and still make money by making it the first online console baseball game ever.
The proof is in the pudding. Inside Pitch has the worst base running of any baseball game in recent memory. One button advances all runners, one brings 'em back, and pressing X + D-pad will send a runner to a base. This works until you get caught in a run down, and then you're dead if you have more than one man on.
The fielding is also some of the worst I've seen. The problem is with the inexplicable schism between a player catching the ball and then throwing the ball. Somehow, in the middle of this seemingly simple formula, there is a lot of standing around. I once hit the ball right to the shortstop and actually made it to first because the CPU-player stood there with the ball for such a long time without throwing.
Pitching isn't as bad, but it's hardly noteworthy. You pick the pitch type, ball or strike, and then the zone you want to throw to. As opposed to MVP Baseball's emphasis on how you throw the pitch, the only factor here is which pitches you choose and where you put them. Come up with a good enough formula (I like a slider, a high fast one, a changeup, and then an outside curveball) and the pitching aspect of the game becomes completely pointless.
The pitching AI isn't very good, either. Not only is it repetitive, it regularly throws right over the middle of the plate, even on the highest difficulty setting.
Couple the predictable and fortuitous pitching with an easy, timing-based batting scheme and get ready to post higher scores than the Oakland Raiders. The batting scheme is extremely simple: you aim your bat and swing. You can theoretically choose to take a regular cut or a huge cut, but the big swing results in more grounders than the regular swing. Conversely, all the homeruns I've hit have been accomplished using the regular swing.
Inside Pitch is graphically uninspired. The players aren't particularly impressive, nor are the fields. However, the motion capture isn't bad, and the players sway and move realistically while in their static stances. The game also scores minor points by featuring solid commentary and allowing users to customize soundtracks.
Inside Pitch 2003 is clearly the weakest baseball offering of the year. However, it's the only one that's online, and playing online can be fun. If you're dying to do just that, then you should probably at least rent this game. But know that you are not playing the best baseball game out there. Come to think of it, you're not really playing a good one at all.