I am an avid baseball fan and have long dreamed of a video game in which the players on the screen look and perform like they do in real life. All this time, I've believed that it would be years before the technology was available to actualize this desire. Think I'm asking too much? Yes. Until now.
Enter Crystal Dynamics and their long awaited 3D Baseball
. This game has the best graphics and player movement that I've seen yet. This, of course, is due to the fact that the characters are not simply two-dimensional sprites. They have more depth and dimension than characters on any other sports game to this date. And while the gameplay suffers a little bit due to some little glitches that I'll discuss later, the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics have done some really cool things with this game, and not surprisingly, the graphics are where they get the raves.
The first thing that grabs your attention is this: When Ken Griffey, Jr. is batting, it actually looks like Ken Griffey, Jr. batting! His batting stance and swing are practically the same as they are in real life. Check out Griffey's home-run swing. It's incredible! Looks just like the real thing. Of course it follows that when Roger Clemens is pitching, it really looks like Roger Clemens is pitching, with the same windup and delivery. In the field, the player's movements are excellent, especially on diving plays in the infield. They're so lifelike that its almost frightening. They even grunt when they dive to the ground.
The Saturn graphics are slightly better than the PlayStation's. The players are more 'natural looking' and move more smoothly on the Saturn. There were also some small polygonal errors on the PlayStation, such as the baseline becoming 'choppy' at times. Other than that, the games are identical.
One of the great features in this game is that you can view the game from any angle that you choose. These perspectives come in handy, especially when checking out instant replays. And you can certainly tell that they put a lot of thought into some other minor details, like when a player swings the bat, you can see the dirt being kicked up under his shoes; After a pitcher throws a pitch, he saunters back up to the mound while the catcher tosses it back to him; When a ball caroms off the wall, it responds the same way it would in live action. While these details may seem minor and have little impact on the game itself, they lend a taste of reality to the experience.
It would have been nice to have the teams compete at their home ballparks. Instead, they designed a bunch of their own stadiums that work just fine and have a lot of unique characteristics. You know... funky angles in the outfield, criss-cross patterns on the grass, different scoreboards. However, real stadiums would have made it a more immersive experience. The only problem with the stadium graphics are the crowds. They are simply still life pictures, and not very good ones, either. .
The sound effects in the game are very good, from the crack of the bat to the thud that the ball makes as it smacks off the wall. And Van Earl Wright, Crystal Dynamics' hired play-by-play guy, is really funny. His emphatic commentary adds color to the game: 'Now batting for New York: Big Daddy, Ceciiiiil Fiieeeeeldeerr'. When a player strikes out, he tells it like it is: 'Good luck in your search for a clue, pal!' As a matter of fact, with all of the different camera angles they allow you to utilize, and the high-tech scoreboard and random statistics they throw at you (Tim Raines had a career high 90 stolen bases in 1983), and the witty, sarcastic broadcaster, you'd almost think you were watching the game on ESPN.
Now let's talk about the game itself. Bear in mind that I am a baseball fanatic, and that I want everything in the video game to be as realistic as possible. Some of the things I mention may seem like nit-picking. This is not the case. I am merely aiding our friends at Crystal Dynamics with a couple bits of constructive criticism, and letting you know how well the game plays. Hopefully, they will take these things into consideration when making next year's version. I'm not asking for anything that I haven't seen in other games from the past.
On defense, the pitching is fun, but pretty unrealistic. No pitcher alive can have the ball curve back and forth across the strike zone three times before it crosses the plate. However, the plus to this is that pitchers have awesome command of their pitches. You can place a pitch pretty much anywhere you want to.
I give them a lot of credit for giving us so many options in terms of positioning your fielders. I like the idea of playing my centerfielder in the gap if I'm pitching to a pull hitter, or having the option of playing my infield to guard the lines in late-inning, RBI situations. And yes, I really do care about stuff like this. These are the kind of details that will keep you coming back to play a game again and again, instead of letting it gather dust on the shelf.
Playing the field is tough at first. You may want to try it on auto-fielder for a game or two in order to grow accustomed to the way the players move and throw. But generally, it's the same as all the other games in terms of the D-pad controlling the base you throw to. I did find one major problem with the fielding. When a ground ball is hit up the middle, and you try to get to it with your shortstop, the computer will not allow him to cross the 2nd base line because of some stupid invisible barrier. Same thing with the 2nd baseman. He absolutely will not venture past that point! As a result, you wind up surrendering countless base hits up the middle. Imagine, in real life, if Cal Ripken didn't go for a ball because it was three inches on the other side of the bag. Come on!
The hitting in this game is pretty standard. It's not as precise as it is in Triple Play '97, where you can set the amount of aggression you want to use for each swing, but you still have some control as to where the ball is hit, and to an extent, how hard. I found that it's pretty tough to hit a home run, which is realistic. Too many homers make it boring. But you do hit into too many double-plays. That's pretty minor, but I did have one or two other hang-ups about the offensive game. First, if you hit the ball hard to the outfield and it rolls to the wall, chances are, you're only getting a single out of it. Either the ball or the outfielders go too fast. In live action, when a ball is hit to the outfield corner, it's an easy double or maybe a triple. Not here. Go for two and you will most likely be thrown out.
The other problem with the offense comes from the baserunning. Say you've got a man on 1st base and your batter hits a fly ball to the outfield. If you think the outfielder will miss it, you run. Here's the problem: If the guy from 1st makes it to 2nd, and you realize too late that the outfielder caught it--you've got to get back to 1st! Unfortunately, in 3D Baseball, once you've reached a base, even if by accident, you cannot return to your base. This may not seem major, but considering that it's pretty tough to run the bases in the first place, you're going to wind up losing a lot of baserunners unnecessarily.
There are also a couple of options I would have liked to see. For instance, when playing a season, you may want to play a friend head to head. However to play a season, you have to play versus the computer. Why can't your friend be the scheduled opponent? [Ed. note: That would be one dedicated friend.] And also, due to the length of a full 9 inning game (roughly 40 minutes), they should consider giving you the option to save the game midway through.
All things considered, this is an awesome game (despite my nit-picking). The graphics are the best I've seen in any sports game, and being able to watch Frank Thomas swing the bat is worth the money alone. The little quirks don't taint the overall experience. This game is a lot of fun to play, alone or with a friend. So much fun actually, that I'm immersed in a 162 game season, and I'll probably have it completed around the time that Crystal Dynamics decides to release next year's version of 3D Baseball.