A very grand slam.
Well, times have changed for the better, as the new World Series Baseball for the Xbox is one hot game. The fires at the center of this smokin' piece of software are the great play mechanics and the intuitive transitions between difficulty levels. Also, a uniquely detailed Franchise mode helps to make World Series Baseball hotter than high heat itself.
The modes in WSB include the familiar Quick Start, Exhibition, Season, Franchise, Home Run Derby and Playoffs. These mundane modes would leave WSB cold if the Franchise mode didn't dabble in such detail. The coolest aspect of WSB's Franchise mode is the drafting of managerial staff. What could have been a cumbersome detail is handled nicely, as staff members are hired relatively cheaply and are beneficial in ways that are actually observable.
The staffers you'll need to draft are the Minor League Director, Scouting Director, Batting Coach, Pitching Coach, and Manager. Each improves your team in their own way, and the importance of none should be overlooked. For example, hire a crummy Scouting Director and he might either underestimate the quality of a good player or overestimate the quality of a ho-hum player. Hire a great Pitching Coach and your pitchers' ratings will improve, while hiring a lousy one could lead to a lame bull-pen.
However, Franchise mode is generally just icing and could be worthless without some tasty gameplay. Well praise Jebus, because WSB's gameplay is sweeeet. Then again, if you jump into one of the higher difficulty levels right off the bat, you might be left with a sour taste in your mouth.
Thankfully, the difficulty levels progress more logically than those I've seen in any other game. And since the difficulty levels are basically pre-programmed settings for the Options menu, the difficulty factors can be customized to fit your mood/skill.
The game sports the ubiquitous difficulties: Rookie, Pro, and All-Star. Rookie mode is the WSB equivalent of T-Ball. You get all sorts of pitching and batting cursors and a slower overall pitching speed to ease you into the way the game plays. After playing a few innings of Rookie, you can jump into Pro, where most of the cursors disappear, leaving you to depend on your sense of where a ball will go and where you should try and swing your bat. Brave the All-Star mode and you'll get no cursors, more savvy CPU opponents and faster pitches. One difficulty mode eases you into the other, making WSB highly replayable.
At bat, the controls are very simple - you can swing and bunt (you can also manipulate baserunners, but that isn't exactly batting). You can also move a little cursor around with the left analog stick, which controls the path of your swing. However, the cursor doesn't have to be right on the ball for you to get any contact like in other baseball games. Instead, the position of the cursor relative to the position of the ball, coupled with the timing of your swing, dictates how the ball will react off your bat.
If you swing low, you'll probably pop-up, although you also might hit a homer. Swing high, and you'll grounder for sure. However, trying to position a cursor while the ball is in flight seems to always lead to disaster in baseball games, and WSB makes up for this with a nifty 'sweet spot' display.
In the bottom right corner of the screen is a little grid made up of nine rectangles, each representing an area of the strike zone. Red rectangles denote a hot-zone (you'll crush most balls put there), while blue rectangles represent cold zones and clear imply mediocre spots. This adds a new dimension to the game's strategy, especially if you're playing against a human opponent with all the cursors turned off. Great sim baseball.
The pitching controls are also very simple on the surface, but require as much practice as the batting controls to master. After selecting one of nine pitches, you can move the pitching cursor to place your pitch and then begin the wind up. You can continue moving the cursor all throughout the wind up, and change the placement of the pitch by again pressing A until the ball has left the pitcher's hand. This can lead to great psych-outs.
Base-running is similar to that of most baseball games and is aided by some helpful AI. If not told to do anything, base-runners act conservatively, only taking off if the next base is a sure bet.
Fielding in WSB is surprisingly good. The scheme is similar to that of All-Star Baseball, yet simpler and way more effective. A player new to WSB will be fielding spicy grounders in no time thanks to some quick camera transitions and responsive controls. Said controls are simple with a button for each base and the R button for diving. Press and hold a button before the ball is caught, and your player will execute a swift play to that base, making double plays a piece of cake, as opposed to a piece of unlikely.
Graphically, WSB is an even count. The players themselves look pretty good at times and pretty bad at others. The lighting effects in the stadiums are swell, but the crowd is pixilated and the slow-motion replays for home runs are poorly coordinated. But overall, the game looks fine, and whatever looks so-so is made up for by the smooth animations. A player will even leap, slide and sling a freshly caught grounder off the proper back foot.
WSB sounds decent with all the effects you'd expect, some cool crowd heckling, and well implemented play-by-play and commentary by Ted Robinson and Mike Krukow. It gets repetitive, but at least their comments are interesting.
Throw in some retro uniforms and some old-school all-stars and WSB knocks it out of the park. Even though some games do the create-a-player thing better, and some have better AI, WSB has the best gameplay and the best Franchise mode currently available and is, in my opinion, the best baseball game on the market.