Microsoft Baseball 2001
Windows - 2000
Description of Microsoft Baseball 2001
There's A Giant Amongst Us
Microsoft may be many things, but a subtle company it is not. When a market is targeted, the corporation generally attacks with both barrels blazing and a take no prisoners approach. This philosophy has led to some amazing results. Internet Explorer goes from a twinkle in Bill Gates' eye to the dominant web browser in a relatively short period of time. Windows Media Player starts as a very limited application and now in its current version it can pretty much play any type of multimedia software. This full speed ahead philosophy has led to some dismal defeats as well. Anyone remember Bob? It's pretty much feast or famine with Microsoft, but other companies certainly should be wary whenever the folks from Redmond turn their eyes toward a market.
A few years ago Microsoft began entering the PC games market. The feast began with the Age of Empires and to a lesser extent with Close Combat. These two titles showed that Microsoft was capable of producing quality, although flawed, products which would appeal to the masses. Microsoft had the good sense to hire talented development shops to produce these titles, and these successes led to the development of a three year PC sports game plan that included forays into football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. The senior citizen in Microsoft's sports lineup is Microsoft Baseball 2001. This is the third iteration of the game and each year brings a new set of features to the title.
This continuos upgrading of the Baseball franchise is pretty easy because there wasn't much there to begin with. The original game began Microsoft's Frankenstein-like approach to creating baseball games. Someone not familiar with the PC baseball community convinced the Microsoft brass that the way to create a baseball game is to start with as few features as possible, refine those features, and to slowly (and I mean slowly) tack on new items to your game until after three years you have around half of the features already found in abundance in other products. You also start by charging $19.99 and then, when you have a partial product, raise the price to $29.99 to compete with games that cost that much but have many more features. The series started with a game engine that allowed you to hit, pitch, and field. There was no attempt to add such inconveniences as errors or intentional walks to the game because these were seen as extras. A player editor was included that seemed to be an afterthought because it wasn't really integrated within the game and was an external package. Baseball 2001 attempts to move the franchise closer to a serious game instead of a purely arcade title. Ultimately the game fails for a host of reasons and, although not awarded this dubious honor, this is the closest I have come to giving the GDR junk award to a title that I have reviewed. There's no feast and much famine in Baseball 2001.
I opened Baseball 2001 's box and quickly grabbed some pieces of paper that floated out of it and discovered, to my surprise, that this was the game's manual. I use the term manual very loosely here because a number of pages are devoted to outlining the controller commands. The manual is 15 pages long with five and a half devoted to the controller commands and one page of legal stuff. Eight and a half pages actually describe the game mechanics. One thing that I found very interesting is that Microsoft sent a two volume set of reviewer notes that described all sorts of things in detail. There were around 21 pages of detail about the game that we reviewers were, I guess, supposed to use to augment our reviewing. People who actually pay for the game are expected to use the in-game help system.
Baseball 2001 includes some interesting features for arcade gamers while omitting quite a few niceties. Installing the game was relatively painless and is actually one of its best features. The game chats with you while it installs. If you are trying to sneak a copy of the game on your computer so a significant other is unaware of a new purchase, you should probably mute your volume. Once installed you will have the option of playing a single exhibition game, a game from your career league, using the home run derby, or creating a new league. You can also resume league games and single games that you have saved. One interesting additional feature is that you can play just the playoffs without going through an entire season.
It will probably be easier to first point out some items that are missing in Baseball 2001 's feature set before discussing what is present. There is no manage-only mode. You must play all games in arcade mode, although you can get the game automated to the point where all you are doing is hitting the ball and pitching it (or even just letting the computer control both teams). On the other end of the scale, you can take control of just about everything. So if that is what you enjoy in your baseball games then this one will make you happy. The manage-only mode is supposedly part of Microsoft's strategy for next year. There is no internet play so you will not be able to play with folks in multiplayer mode unless they are in the room with you. Internet play is also part of next year's strategy. Players are all Cal Ripken-like iron men in the game because there are no injuries or fatigue and players will play as long as you like. I am not sure if either injuries or fatigue are part of Microsoft's grand strategy for next year. Pitching fatigue is modeled in the game as "health" and it is displayed as a percentage (the lower the percentage the more tired the pitcher is). You do not have the option of warming up your bullpen. You'll go to your bullpen a lot because most pitchers can't make it past the seventh inning without tiring, despite their official endurance rating.
If you can get past these major omissions, there are some changes to Baseball 2001 that might peak your interest. Now you can manage your team both on the field and off with the inclusion of Baseball Mogul 's career general manager game engine. Before Baseball Mogul fans start drooling and rush out of the door to purchase the game, we once again have the omission problem. Yes, the game does include a career GM function, but no, it is not nearly the complete Baseball Mogul engine. There is a non-statistics generating minor league system in the Front Page Sports Baseball model, you can trade players, juggle minor league and scouting finances, and sign contracts. Gone are the concession, media, and ticket price adjustments. You can adjust your managerial tendencies using a slider bar similar to the one found in High Heat Baseball 2001. The injury system in Baseball Mogul obviously did not make it into Baseball 2001.
The interface in Baseball 2001 is a pleasant surprise because the non-field screens are very easy to maneuver through. Missing is a league news report that lets you know about transactions that occur or performance highlights. You can display a basic list of statistics and see the leaders from your league. You can also see how other teams are doing financially in your league and there is some good information available on the screen. The interface is very Windows-friendly and is a bit sleeker than High Heat Baseball 2001 's slightly awkward interface. The on the field interface, however, is a mixed bag. Batter and pitcher information is quickly displayed at the bottom of the screen but only includes information about the current and past season performance. You don't get information about how the player performed verses left or right handed pitchers, nor do you get any indication about the speed certain players have. In order to make substitutions you must click until you get to the substitution screen, but this isn't too poorly implemented and was easy to manipulate.
The graphics and sound in the game were interesting to watch and hear. At points I felt that I was being treated to some fine technofunk because Thom Brenneman's voice would continuously get caught in a stuttering loop that drove me crazy. The sounds, during the time that the audio is stable, aren't too bad. The graphics are pretty nice, but if you saw last year's game you aren't seeing much different this year. I did notice that the Metrodome apparently has so much attendance in Baseball 2001 that they have taken down the white curtain in right field (that had Kirby Puckett's picture on it among other things) and filled those upper deck seats to capacity. Things must have changed since the last time I visited the Metrodome a few years ago. Another poorly modeled portion of the graphics is how baseball players run. Everyone in the outfield seems to move their bodies at the same speed, regardless of how fast they are moving toward a ball. This leads to an effect where it looks as if the players are running in place a bit too quickly. Otherwise the animations look OK and don't detract from the game.
The batter and pitcher interfaces are quite easy to pick up and I must say that I enjoyed the arcade mode. You can adjust the difficulty level from letting the computer aim the bat (and you just push the swing button when appropriate) to where you have to crouch or lean to aim your own swing. You can choose whether or not to hit with power, normally, or just to make contact. The pitching interface is also easy to manipulate as you can aim your pitches while the pitcher winds up to deliver the ball. You will get a choice of pitches depending on what pitches the pitcher is qualified to throw.
With all of the features I list above you would expect that such a game would garner at least mild praise from even the most critical gamer. I didn't even mention that Baseball 2001 comes with a player editor and a commissioner mode which allows you to further make modifications and changes to the game.
Let's first discuss the on-field portion of the game, where the most problems occur. Baseball 2001 added errors this time around and I guess they are showcasing this feature. I played around 30 action games and saw errors in virtually every contest. Most had quite a few errors. Balls were being thrown all over the place and bouncing around like the little tennis square in the Pong games. The ball physics could be very strange at times. I would hit a ball on the ground to the left side of the infield that looked as if it was going in one direction, but when the camera angle would shift, it would curve unnaturally. The ball was also way too small.
Running problems also frustrated me. I would have at least one person a game thrown out from left field when a batter hit a clean single and the runner on first didn't make it to second on time. While this certainly is possible in real life, it never happens with the frequency it does in Baseball 2001. The outfield itself seemed too small in proportion to the domed stadiums like Tropicana Field and the Metrodome and this could be the reason for this base running problem. The open air stadiums seemed to be correctly modeled. You have the option to directly control the running in the game, but you really shouldn't have to if you just want to hit and pitch a game.
Let's talk about load times for a second. This is the slowest loading PC game that I have ever played. Starting and playing a league game is an all evening affair. First you choose to play the next game on the schedule. So far so good. Then, you watch as your CD player heats up as it loads the game, constantly spinning and doing something important. At this point I usually got hungry, so I would go to my kitchen and make a sandwich. Since I can hear the music still playing, I would then look and see if anything was interesting on TV. Finally I would hear the game welcome me to some stadium and I would go and play the game. Why in the world it takes so long to load this game is beyond me. Is the copy protection scheme so sophisticated that it requires this much time to load? The situation is totally unacceptable. And woe be to the person that exits a game without finishing it. In some sort of cruel twist of fate, you can save your game in Baseball 2001 during play. The twist is that it is very difficult to exit a game without saving it. There is no option listed for leaving the game without saving it and the real problems occur because you cannot access anything in your league except your saved game until you finish it. So it's back to the to the kitchen to wait for your game to load again.
If you have visions of playing multiple human controlled teams in Baseball 2001, you may dismiss these ambitions because you can only play one team. The manual is a bit misleading about commissioner mode. Yes, you can make changes to teams in commissioner mode, but you cannot play a game in commissioner mode. You also should be careful about what you do in this mode because the player editor will crash your game if you change the wrong thing. One set of Baseball 2001 fans spent a great deal of effort modifying the player rosters in the game to make them more realistic and up to date only to find out that the player editor included in the game doesn't work and using those rosters would cause the game to crash. If you change the player ratings, using those players will crash the game. There is a rumor that if you only change statistics then the game will run fine, but your best bet is to just leave the editor alone until (or if ) a patch is released to fix it. And if printing rosters and statistics is your thing, then look elsewhere because printing from the game did not make this year's version.
Another item that is missing from the game is umpires. You will hear heavenly voices blare out that there is a strike or a ball being thrown over the plate. Look around home plate and you will see no home plate umpire. Look to first base to see whom just called your player out at first and there will be no person there except the first baseman. The lack of umpires in the game must explain why I spent around 20 minutes throwing at the heads of the Yankees and not having my pitcher ejected. I guess since there are no injuries the Yankees weren't hurt by my 96 mile per hour fastballs on the noggin, but it was fun to bean the Yankees without worrying about being thrown out of the game or being banned from baseball.
A Tale of Two Cites
I read somewhere that Clay Dreslough spent around a week consulting with Microsoft about adding Baseball Mogul to Baseball 2001. This must have been the week that any work was done on the game. The on the field portion is essentially last year's game plus errors (lots of them) and intentional walks. That's correct, intentional walks is a newly added "feature." The cutoff system was supposedly improved and I will take their word for it, although I did not notice any grand change. So, in other words, the developers really did extremely little with the field game engine.
The nice part of Baseball 2001 is Baseball Mogul, and it is what keeps me from recommending the junk award. This aspect of the game is much too sophisticated for Baseball 2001. Gone are the dollar salaries in Baseball Mogul for MLBPA reasons, but a points system makes intuitive sense. The trading AI is excellent. I wanted to execute my usual trade for Mike Piazza and the Mets wanted ten players for Piazza. No, you're not seeing things. They wanted minor leaguers, front line players, the works. The AI is pretty good at coming up with tough counter-offers. The interface will clearly indicate what each team is looking for and in that sense it is better than any trading package found in all of the graphical baseball games. The financial portion of the game is refined and sophisticated enough to keep your interest. Simming an entire season is easy and can be done very quickly. The simulated statistics are within tolerance for an arcade game. I don't believe that the Orioles will make the playoffs this year, but I do believe that the Devil Rays will finish around .500, so the results aren't too wacky.
I also didn't recommend a junk award because if you suffered through Baseball 2000 then you will want to get Baseball 2001 if you are wedded to the series. From my own point of view, tell me that I am going to have a complete baseball game in three years and I say I'll see you in three years. There are loyal fans who have purchased Baseball 2001 and there are probably many folks who have purchased the game because they don't know any better. Why you would purchase Baseball 2001 when High Heat 2001 is available and the same price is beyond me. No, adding the financial system does not put these games even in close to the same level. Why you would purchase Baseball 2001 if you are an arcade fan and not purchase Triple Play 2001 is beyond me. Triple Play 2001 gives you a nice set of arcade options, nice graphics, and realism that is at least on par with Baseball 2001. The batter-pitcher interface is nice in Baseball 2001 and it may keep people coming back for more because it is easy to use, but there is a whole lot missing or broken.
Ultimately Baseball 2001 fails because while the developers may have a plan that plan does not translate well into the product that they place on the shelves every year. You add a sophisticated GM function but there are no injuries. Huh? Fans of the series just need to hope that next year brings what games like High Heat 2001 have had since last year. Microsoft cannot count on forever duping unsuspecting purchasers into buying this product simply because its name is on the box.
Review By GamesDomain
Captures and Snapshots
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