World Series Baseball 2K3 Review (Xbox)
Growing up in suburban Detroit, every February brought what we’d call the “Winter Blues”. Snow was still on the ground, but it had grown sort of gray and mushy from all the melting and refreezing that comes with our “yo-yo” temperatures in the Midwest. It was the worst time of year. I remember staring out the window into the back yard waiting for the first patch of green grass to show through. It was no use. No matter what the stupid groundhog said, we were in for too many more days of winter.
It was then that I’d somberly stroll back into the living room where my Father would have the T.V. on. “Live from Lakeland, Florida”, George Kell would say in that unmistakable southern twang, “it’s Spring Training action with ‘da Tiggas’ taking on the Boston Red Sox!”.
Twenty year later, things haven’t changed much. The window is different. George Kell has since retired. My favorite Shortstop is my new favorite manager. But, baseball is still the surest sign of winters exit. It’s a feeling that is shared by millions.
Sega Sports and Blue Shift have tried to capture that feeling and put it on a disc. World Series Baseball 2K3 is stepping up to the plate. The competition is fierce this year. It’s time to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Does WSB hit one into the cheap seats? Play ball!
The best word that I can use to describe the direction that WSB2K3 went with their gameplay this season is “Options”. In an attempt to truly make a game for everyone from hardcore simmers to arcade lovers, Sega and Blue Shift have made a customizable title that literally goes from a simple slugfest to a challenging strategic take on the great American game. I found that I have been able to continually tweak my settings as my skills increased, allowing me to always find a challenging AI opponent. Turn off the strike zone, change the size of the batting cursor, raise the pitch speed, or whatever. There is no baseball gamer out there that shouldn’t be able to find the right settings for them.
WSB also utilizes gameplay sliders to help shape your experience. While not as in-depth as other Sega Sports titles, you are able to adjust things like CPU batting average the CPU ability to lay off bad pitches. While a good start, I hope to see many more sliders instituted in future releases.
Once you have the options to your liking and the sliders set just right, you'll want to get down to the nuts and bolts of any baseball game - what actually takes place on the diamond.
The pitching in the game is very similar to last year’s version of WSB. Each pitcher is equipped with an arsenal of pitches from the 9 available types. While some baseball elite may be disappointed in the number of pitches available, the major ones are all accounted for including the fastball, slider, cutter, changeup and even the dreaded knuckleball. Keep in mind, like the real majors, not every pitcher throws every type of pitch. And moreover, not every pitchers throws pitches the same. There is a definite difference between a Randy Johnson fastball and one from Tiger’s knuckleballer Steve Sparks. After you choose your stuff, simply select a location (either using the pitching cursor or choose to play by feel) and let it rip toward the plate. The results will depend on a few factors. Your pitchers ability, his fatigue, and how you have your options tuned. WSB gives you the option to make your resulting pitch location ultra-accurate or more realistic. Pitchers make mistakes. They groove a slider or hang a curve ball. WSB allows you to make those mistakes. And often pay for them.
Once the ball is in play, you should find that defense is another strong area in 2K3. The developers have added the ability and solid animations to dive, jump, lung and leap after the rawhide with ease and fluidity. And just like “the bigs”, a well-timed dive or jump can be the difference between a Golden Glove caliber putout and a triple to the corner. Playing smart defense will win you a lot of games. Get over aggressive and watch the runs pile up. There’s even a defense for that accidental meatball served up by your pitcher. With exact timing and a lot of luck, you can even scale the outfield walls in hopes of pulling back in a four-bagger. Trust me on this one…it’s easier said then done.
Before we finish talking about fielding the ball, I have to air a few complaints that fall in this department. Some of the fielding animations cause some occasional unrealistic gameplay results. My two chief issues with that are the hesitation by the fielder covering second base on a double play. I give up far too many infield singles on what should be sure double plays. My shortstop and/or second basemen tend to almost pump fake before they release allowing even mediocre runners to reach easily. The same pump action is often seen when attempting to throw out baserunners (we’ll touch on the alleged “stealing bug” later). The animation itself would be no big deal, if it didn’t result in missed opportunities for outs. Also, while the realistic addition of first basemen being pulled off the bag or having to jump for a throw is nice, it happens far too often.
Once you have three outs, it’s time to swing a little lumber. There are basically two ways to bat in WSB: Cursor or Timing. I’ll start with Timing because that is where I would suggest you start while you are learning the game. It’s simple; at the right moment simply choose a contact swing, power swing, or a bunt. Sounds easy, right? Sure. But the results are accurate to many factors including the pitch location, speed, movement, and the timing of your swing. Yes, it is the easiest way to hit the ball, but not necessarily the easiest way to get hits.
Cursor batting works with the same swing types only this time you have to position your batting cursor to the location where you want to swing AND get the right timing. Sounds easy, right? Not necessarily. Depending on your settings (cursor size, etc.), it can be extremely difficult to hit this way. I found myself striking out at least 10-12 times per game while attempting to learn this style.
Speaking of hitting, I think the #1 question asked around our baseball forum is “Is it a Homerun Fest?” My answer is absolutely not. While there are more homeruns then in a real baseball game, don’t lose site of the fact that this is a video game first and foremost. Plus, chicks dig the longball! My average game produced 2-5 homers between both teams. However, I’ve played a lot of games with no homeruns and I’ve played a few with 7+. It all depends on your settings and how you pitch to the AI. You groove fastballs and they’ll make you pay.
Now that you’ve put one in play it’s time to run the bases. For those of you that played last year’s version, you know that baserunning needed improvement. While the basic system for running the bases is, for the most part, solid, where you are hearing a lot of complaints is in the area of leading off and stealing. The “Internet Buzz” is that there is a “Stealing Bug” that allows you to steal with just about any player and reach base safely 90-95% of the time. In my dealings, I am here to tell you that that rumor is greatly exaggerated. Is my Stolen Bases/Caught Stealing ratio a little high? Yes. But, I am thrown out on steal attempts very often and nearly 100% of the time when attempting to steal with slow players. Yes, I believe there is a small issue here, but something that will be easily corrected with a slider option in next year’s version. And, my opinion, if you’re looking for realism, you shouldn’t be trying to steal with Mo Vaughn anyway!
That being said, I think there is a legitimate beef with the lead off AI. A press of the left trigger allows your baserunner to take an extra lead. Pretty normal fare in baseball titles for years. The problem is you need to press the right trigger on a pickoff throw to get back to the bag. Seems fair enough, but the number of times you get picked off is astounding. How many times do you see a pickoff in a real game? Maybe once every few games at the most. I’ve been picked off 4 or 5 times in the same game. That completely takes away the option to take that extra lead. Not to mention the fact that nearly 100% of the time that you take a secondary lead, the pitcher will throw over. That’s not real baseball.
All that being said, and a few slaps on the wrist aside, top to bottom WSB plays great. It gives you a great feel for the game. You’ll feel that especially when you’re playing in the new Broadcast Camera mode that has you pitching from the centerfield cam and batting from behind the catcher. The game just feels natural.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
Smooth, fluid, sharp, and solid are all words that describe the graphics and animations in WSB2K3. While they take a hit from me for having no player scaling (Eat something, Mo! You’re so skinny!), the player models themselves are nicely done. The game is chock full of animations for every phase of the game. Even after dozens and dozens of games, I’m still seeing new and unique moves. There are a few hiccups on things like collision detection between bat & ball and ball & glove, but nothing earth shattering. The team at Sega and Blue Shift can pick up a copy of MVP to see this done right.
The stadiums and fields look wonderful and have some animations of their own. The dancing fountain in Comerica Park goes off on a homer. As do the fireworks at the Metrodome and various other celebrations at home stadiums. What’s still bad? The flat ugly crowd! But does anyone do that right? No. Is it necessary use of your processor to have a pretty 3-D crowd? I say no.
I’m going to call the Audio in WSB2k3 a mixed bag. I loved the ambient sounds and sound effects that you hear during the game. The crowd sounds great and the chants and heckles are nice touches. Unfortunately, they are often drowned out by a less then stellar performance by the play-by-play team. It’s not that it’s repetitive or wrong, it’s just unnecessary. There is an unwritten rule in the broadcasting business when it comes to sound effects. Does the spot lose anything by not having the sound effect? In other words, is the sound effect necessary to the success of the finished project? If it’s not necessary, you leave it out. Now that my review is done, the announce team will be turned off.
While “Franchise” isn’t usually a category for review, I wanted to mention it here, because it is what is going to keep World Series Baseball on or near the top of my “game stack” for months.
It’s no surprise that like the other modes, Franchise mode is full of options to customize to your wants and needs. Things like number of games, rosters, budgets, injuries, and fatigue are all at your finger tips. Set it up as a mirror to real league or make it just to your liking. You are the boss.
Once the settings are, well, set, you’ll simply choose you team and get ready to roll. But, wait! Not so fast! The guys at Sega and Blue Shift have added a new wrinkle to the Franchise mode. You can’t have an organization without the right people to run it. So your first order of business is to hire a staff to run your club. Manager, Minor League Director, Scout and so on, use your budget wisely and get the right skipper for your team. You may even recognize a few names in the coaching ranks (I personally recommend a bright young manager out of the Midwest….Clay…..something??? He may be the next Sparky Anderson!). Once on board, each coach/manger/director has his own set of sliders to determine how he spends his time and energy. The coaching system adds a great new depth to the genre.
In franchise mode, you have full control over your club. Lineup, pitching staff, minor leagues…it’s all there. The General Manager section allows you work on new contracts, sign free agents, and manage your budget. Consult with your Manager and Coaches at anytime for things like Minor League updates and the Manager’s opinions on trades. While I am on the subject of that, I liked the idea of the Manager proposing trades, but mine are always far fetched. He always wants to get Mike Piazza or Pedro for a couple scrubs and a bag of balls. That being said, you can also fire your Managers and Coaches if they are not living up to par. Let them ride out a slump or be a front office hatchet master. You decide.
Franchise mode is also full of some nice little touches like a news section that keeps you updated of events, player movements, and general news from around the league. You can also check All-Star voting and even strive to someday enter the hall of fame.
Once the season is in the books, hopefully you’ll be taking home some hardware for your efforts. The Cy Young, Golden Gloves, and Silver Slugger awards are all presented at the end of the season along with a few others.
With that, it’s time to spring into the offseason. The offseason is fun, fast-paced offering that includes the amateur draft, hiring and firing of Coaches/Managers, and the key Free Agent period.
Kick things off with the draft where a top of the line scout should help you get the 411 on all the young prospects out there. Whether you’re looking for the young stud or a rebuilding project, there is a huge risk and reward system when it comes to the young talent in WSB. Trust your scout or trust your instinct, your teams future depends on it.
The free agent period is represented by 10 days. You can make as many offers per day as you'd like, as long as you do not exceed your allotted budget. Some take a day to consider your offer, others drag it out. But be careful, don’t low ball that prized FA or he’ll refuse to talk to you. Unlike a lot of other franchise modes, you will not get the big name free agents unless you have the right team or a huge bankbook, which usually don’t coincide. WSB handles free agency well in this version, and some of its depth is reflected in the implementation of a new loyalty rating that affects your free agents' likelihood of resigning with your club.
Once that is complete, check your Players Progression, which takes the place of Spring Training, something that should have made it into this title and get ready to make another run. This franchise mode takes the replay factor of 2k3 out of the park.
In the flooded market of baseball titles, one has to be the King. To be fair, I picked up the first 4 baseball title to be released on the X-Box this year. I played them all. I liked something about all of them. Between the crew, you could darn near make the perfect video game. But, the more I played each one, the more my affections would change. One started getting less play until it went into the “dusty cabinet”. Shortly after another followed suit. Finally today, I find that World Series Baseball 2k3 is getting the vast majority of my baseball gaming time. I won’t tell you my opinions about the other games, those aren’t my reviews. I love this game! I will be playing it a lot in the next 4 or 5 months. It’s the closest thing that I found to replicating that feeling of turning on the T.V. to watch Spring Training or heading down to “the corner” to watch my heroes play. Baseball is the Great American Game…and this game IS baseball.