Publisher: Sega Sports
Back when the Sega Dreamcast ruled the game consoles, the NFL 2K series was the best in the business. There was no baseball to correspond, until Sega released World Series Baseball 2K1. Commercials for it aired all the time, featuring the cyber Pedro Martinez ranting about how damn good he is. Since I'm a baseball game junkie, and the commercials made it look amazing, I picked it up.
If you have a Dreamcast, you should burn all copies of this game you can find, just to preserve the memory of the good baseball games that went out of print before that clunker hit the market. The graphics were good but not great, the gameplay was wretched, and the controls were miserable. In toto, it was the worst baseball game I'd ever played. I doubted Sega could have made a poorer game had they set out to make the worst game of all time. So when I heard World Series Baseball (with no faux-catchy 2K year number) was available for the X-Box, I bristled. All those bad memories from the Dreamcast version came flooding back. But I bought the game based on a good review, and I haven't regretted it for one second.
Sega redeemed themselves in a big way with this one.
Graphics and Sound:
THIS is what a baseball game should look like. The players are modeled very realistically, looking remarkably similar to their non-pixellated counterparts. Orlando Hernandez has his distinctive high leg kick when he pitches, and the familiar crouch of Scott Rolen is preserved at the plate. Motion capturing was done nicely, too, as every aspect of the players in motion looks very true-to-life. From waving at a changeup to making an over-the-shoulder catch on a dead run in the outfield, everything in the game looks like it's supposed to look.
Stadiums are similarly well-rendered. For years, games have gotten stadiums right, often at the expense of more meaningful things like gameplay, but there's no sacrifice to be made with World Series Baseball. I've played in most of the American League parks, and about half the NL parks, and they all look exactly like they're supposed to.
The sound quality is very good. The announcers are able to keep up with the action well enough, mainly because their commentary is more sparse than in any other game I've played. For someone who doesn't really give two pins about the announcers, this less-is-more approach works well. Game sounds are crisp and realistic, from the crack of the bat to the ball slapping into a glove.
Since home runs are such a big part of the X-Box's other baseball title, they're worth mentioning here. Don't expect to hit a lot of homers. World Series Baseball is a game you will win or lose by playing sound, strategic baseball, not by bashing your way past the other team. On Pro level, you'll probably average a little more than one homer a game, and on All-Star difficulty, less than one. Finally, a title has taken the Bash Brothers approach out of a baseball game. Score: 9/10
Sega took two years off from making baseball games, and it's obvious their developers played a lot of High Heat in that time. This game plays very much like the perennial PC and PS2 champ for accurate gameplay. Changeups are paralyzing after a few fastballs, good sliders have a sharp, cruel late break to them, and a good Aaron Sele-style curveball will fall off the table when you swing at it. And you'd better be looking for a good splitter if you want to put any wood on it at all.
Fielding is very easy. The game will put a red circle on the field where the ball will land (you can disable this feature if you'd rather take your chances), and all you have to do is get your fielder to the circle. Grounders are sometimes confusing, as I would anticipate the shortstop being the fielder (and move the joystick accordingly), only to find the game felt it was the third baseman's ball, and my player was standing somewhere in the coach's box. I've been able to adjust to this somewhat, and changing fielders solves the problem most of the time, but I still let a ball get thru by doing that every now and again.
Throwing, however, is not very instinctive at all. It's always been dogmatic in baseball games that the primary action button is also used as the throwing button, either to all bases with a joystick direction, or to first if different buttons correspond to the various bases. Not in World Series Baseball. A is the primary action button, but it throws home instead of to first, for which you need the B button. The game's system does correspond to a diamond shape better, but this took me a while to get used to, as a dozen years of baseball game habits were working against me.
Batting is an appropriate challenge. It's never too easy, and it's occasionally too hard, but the vast majority of the time, it's a good matchup between you and the pitcher, as a game should be. The batting cursor gets smaller as the difficulty level increases, and it's probably best to play a lot of games on Pro until you're used to it. All-Star is very challenging, but so is hitting a ball thrown by a real major-league pitcher.
Pitching is easy with the pitching cursor. Select what pitch you want to throw, move the cursor to the desired location, and away you go. The pitcher might not always put the ball where you want it, so be careful near the middle of the plate. There is a graphic that tells you where each hitter is good (red) and bad (blue) at hitting within the nine segments of the strike zone, so you can try to throw to their weaknesses. On Pro and especially All-Star level, though, hitters tend to pound your mistakes, which is as it should be.
The AI for the computer teams is on the conservative side, but is generally solid. Often I think the computer could take an extra base when it doesn't. The AI is a little more aggressive on All-Star, but I tend to play a very aggressive style in baseball games, one computer AI systems rarely match. I wish there were a way to change the conservative vs. aggressive nature of the AI, but there isn't. The games are still very fun to play regardless. Score: 9/10
After playing the abysmal Triple Play 2002, it was great to sit down and play a game that felt like a real baseball game. This is a sim on the level of High Heat in its realism and attention to detail. You have to outplay the computer instead of just waiting for fat pitches to rock over the fence.
Ball physics are very realistic. If you're out in front of the ball, it will hook, and if you're behind it, it will slice. Fist shots often result in weak grounders, occasionally bloops the opposite way. Catch a ball near the sweet spot, though, and you'll hear the crack of the bat and watch the ball jump. If your batting cursor is under the ball, it will go in the air; if it's above the ball, it'll be a grounder. It sounds simple, but after suffering thru Triple Play, it's good to play a game that gets things like this right. Score: 9/10
Like most games these days, World Series Baseball gives you the option to play a season, or to play an unlimited number of seasons in franchise mode. Fantasy draft is an option in either mode. Franchise mode here is far more in-depth than I've ever seen before. You don't just pick your team; you have to hire a scout, a minor league director, a manager, a hitting coach, and a pitching coach. They'll have skill ratings that will affect how accurately your talent is judged, and how well your players are utilized during the game. It's an excellent degree of realism that no other baseball game has.
Another feature that I was glad to see: finally, there is a game that won't let you trade your scrubbiest player for another team's superstar. Every other game I've reviewed allows you to do that all the time. Computer-owned teams in World Series Baseball, however, will reject your more outlandish trade proposals. There is an option to override the CPU's objection (and even having that as an option is disheartening to see), but it's easy to be responsible and say no. The game does show you where every team is strong and weak by positions, so if you can trade from your strengths to fill someone else's holes, you should have few problems making trades.
There are two caveats with extended play that I have. The first is common in both season and franchise mode: if you're simulating games and one of your players gets hurt, your lineup is changed six ways from Sunday. Even if your ninth-place hitter misses one game with a hangnail, check your lineups, because you'll have to fix them. If your manager is adept at handling the batting side of things, the damage is minimized, but you'll still want to check. My second gripe is unique to franchise play: only one player can have a franchise at a time. You can create different saved games for different franchises, but multiple people can't have their own teams on the same saved game. It's a disappointment, especially considering that up to thirty people can participate in season play.
Even with those complaints in mind, however, season and franchise modes are incredibly in-depth and immensely fun to play. Score: 8/10
Doing The Math:
What a difference a couple years can make. After releasing the most abysmal baseball game I've played, Sega has come full circle by putting out an excellent title in their first baseball endeavor for the X-Box. Finally, Microsoft's console has some worthy competition to High Heat 2003 on the PS2, and this game just might be better than 3DO's excellent offering. Considering the quality of the graphics and the amazing depth of franchise play, I have to say that World Series Baseball is the class of console baseball games this year. If you have an X-Box and you even remotely like baseball games, pick this one up and enjoy it. Very highly recommended. Overall score (not an average): 9/10