Full Review: Any baseball game with a Diamondback on the cover just has to be good (but there's a Diamondback on the cover of Triple Play?damnit!)
For quite a few years now, 3DO's High Heat Baseball series has been a dominant force in PC baseball games. On the console end, the HH series had a pair of horrible installments on the PlayStation, until last year's High Heat 2002 (on both PSX and PS2) came along and waltzed away with the label of best baseball game. While that wasn't a difficult thing to achieve with only decent competition from EA and Acclaim, it was an excellent step forward when it came to baseball games in the home console market.
For the 2003 edition, 3DO didn't go out of their way to change much ? the only major improvement is really on the visual end, which was way below par last year for what the PlayStation 2 could do. Still, HH2003 is such a finely tuned simulation of the game of baseball, that not much really had to be tuned except for those lousy graphics. Despite minimal changes, HH2003 retains its title as king of PS2 baseball over EA and Acclaim ? and once again, that's not difficult considering how average the competition is right now.
As you'd expect, High Heat 2003 comes with all the trimmings ? the usual features like Exhibition games, All-Star games, a batting practice mode, a homer derby, and a create-a-player so you can insert yourself into the game. Also there's a season mode, but lacking a franchise mode, which is unfortunate since the PC version has included this for quite a few years now. In addition to all the usual, 3DO has inserted a very cool concept in the 2 on 2 Showdown. The 2 on 2 Showdown is just what's described ? pick a team, and one pitcher & batter per team, and go against another team and their 2 players. There's no fielders, only an umpire who rules what would have happened. When you're batting, you get points for getting hits (and increase in points the more bases you'd get on that hit), as well as having a good eye and laying off pitches outside the strike zone. On the other hand, pitchers get points for strikes and getting outs, so you can make up the points given up by striking guys out and jamming them as well.
It's kinda hard to describe in a review, but the 2 on 2 mode is addictive, but stops short of being completely amazing because you only play one single inning, so each team gets 1 time at the plate and the game is over. If you could at least play 5 innings instead of 1, the concept would be even more addictive and fun. I suppose that can be fixed with the 2004 edition, but it's a really cool idea from 3DO that can occupy multiplayer gamers for a long while.
For the single player, of course, there's the Season mode. This is where you'll spend the most of your time playing through an entire season and playoffs (if you make it that far). The season progresses nicely, but there's a few minor flaws within it. First of all, the schedule is not the 2002 schedule ? instead they kept last years' schedule. This isn't a major deal, but it reeks of laziness to not update the schedule, even if the game was released 2 months before the season started. Along with that, the rosters are woefully out of date and inaccurate. For instance Arizona catcher Damian Miller isn't on the roster by default ? sad since Miller has been a Diamondback since they started in 1998. You can of course create missing players with the create-a-player, but that's not the issue ? the issue is the rosters are out of date for even January. The season starts in April ? let's wait until at the latest, the end of March for our baseball games, okay?
When it comes to baseball gameplay, it's best described in 4 separate categories ? hitting, pitching, fielding, and baserunning. And in a shock, HH2003 does them all better than anyone else has in the last few years.
Hitting in High Heat is deceptively simple ? instead of the cheesy batting cursor that some think make the game a lot easier, HH forces you to hit the ball the way it was intended, by swinging the bat in the direction you'd like the ball to go. You may think that's difficult ? but the reality is, it's extremely easy as long as you're able to hit the pitches thrown, and develop a good eye for balls and strikes. Laying down bunts is effective and since the computer AI is bright enough to not go for a double play at 2nd, so sacrifices are possible. Where High Heat accels is when it's all put together ? instead of having not only a cursor to look at besides the placement of the pitch, the game lets you concentrate on actually hitting the baseball. Amazing, huh?
Pitching is equally simple and effective ? pick a pitch, then push the d-pad in the direction you'd like the pitch to go, and throw the ball & hope for the best. Of course, mixing up your pitches and directions goes a long way, as well as learning when and when not to remove a pitcher for a reliever. Warming up pitchers is a necessary evil (well, if you turn that need on, anyway), so keeping your relievers warmed up is a great strategy. The pitchers tire realistically, and the more pitches they throw, the more likely their control will start to waver. There's even some variances during the game ? sometimes I'd pitch like usual and the control is off thus I wind up walking the batter, but next guy up the pitches are right on and I strike him out. It's a very cool element.
Fielding is also done well ? there's not a ton to talk about but it does its job. The game picks your closest fielder and then you can go after the ball (or maybe not if you keep auto-fielding on). Throwing to bases is as simple as the PS2 allows ? since the buttons are in a diamond format, they map the bases to it. Thus, X is home, Circle is 1st, and so on. This is infinitely better than using one button and the directional pad.
Finally, the baserunning is as good as I've seen in a while. One button is used to advance runners, and one brings them back ? and if you want to advance a single runner, all it takes is a press of the d-pad key that corresponds to the base you're headed for, and the button that you'd use to advance the runners. The only thing I find wrong is it's difficult to steal bases even with the speedsters of the league ? it's almost as if the catchers have rocket launchers for arms.
When you tie up all these attributes, you get an extremely realistic and fun game of baseball, that doesn't take long to play. An average game will take only a half hour, and even that's adjustable to increase or decrease the speed of play. Actually, HH 2003 is all about customization ? there's sliders all over the place to increase almost every single area of the game, from baserunning speed to the arms of the fielders. You can even alter a simulation slider to make the game less or more realistic.
Despite that, HH is going to be realistic no matter what. Unlike some of the more homer-happy baseball games (Triple Play ?Baseball? comes to mind), you earn your wins through great pitching and manufacturing runs. Every single element of baseball comes into play, from pinch hitting, to sacrifice bunts, to stealing bases (along with smart baserunning), and on the defensive end, smart pitching and great fielding. HH focuses on all these elements instead of just the ones that make casual baseball fans pleased ? this is a hardcore baseball fans' dream game. Home Runs do exist, of course, but they're not easy to hit, which is the way it should be. To top it off, HH is one of those baseball games that doesn't get boring, even if you're in the 100th game of the season and either way out of the playoffs or way ahead in your division.
Best of all, the difficulty curve is perfect ? as soon as you start dominating rookie, moving to pro is a challenge, and once you play a bit of that you'll be dominant and ready to move up to the other 3 levels. Once your skills are ready, moving up the ladder is easy and presents an honest challenge against the smart, but not cheating, computer AI.
On the visual end, High Heat is much improved over its 2002 predecessor, but still not as solid as the other baseball games out there. They aren't really bad at all ? it's hard to really pick out flaws besides lower polygon counts, some funny animations, and not a lot of textures. It looks good enough to not be ugly, but it's nothing special either. There's a lot of nice touches like entertaining billboards and skylines of major cities (however, there are no high rise buildings behind Comiskey Park on da south side of Chicawga ? Cabrini Green ain't that close, anyway?and no, you don't want to know what Cabrini Green is, trust me), and fun stuff like players arguing with umpires about calls. On the whole however, HH 2003's graphics are just ?there? and take a backseat to the absolutely outstanding gameplay to be found.
When it comes to audio, there's a ton of touches that stand out. The announcers are decent enough ? they don't talk too much and only occasionally repeat themselves, but their style is laid-back enough to not grate on the nerves even when they say some silly things. It's the ballpark sounds that make HH a great audio experience. Besides the umpires calling balls & strikes, the crowd comes alive with taunts. You can hear a fan shouting ?DROP IT!? when the visiting team is fielding a pop fly, or the beer man offering drinks to the crowd. There's also a few individual taunts here and there, but they're limited to some major stars and not as frequent as the other fun stuff. But the HH audio is unmatched when it comes to PlayStation 2 baseball games.
With a glut of baseball games on the PS2 these days, it's easy to see High Heat falling behind on name value versus the Triple Play/All-Star Baseball games. However, it would be a shame to ignore the presence of the most realistic and entertaining baseball game of the year. It might be a little too deep for arcade baseball fans or casual baseball fans, but even that's adjustable through the sliders. But hardcore baseball junkies should have this game in their possession, if they don't have it already. Don't let the fact that 3DO made this game scare you off ? if all their games were as good as High Heat Baseball 2003, they'd be the best publisher in the world.