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All-Star Baseball 2004

Review By:  Jared Black

Developer:  Acclaim
Publisher:  Acclaim
# of Players:  1-4
Genre:  Sports
ESRB:  Everyone
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card (221 blocks), GCN/GBA Link Cable (trade cards)
Date Posted:  3-20-03

Back in 1998, I was incredibly impressed by the N64 version of All-Star Baseball '99. Last year's version wasn't quite as great, but still turned out to be a respectable effort. This year the ASB franchise has seen a number of improvements and is back among the best in the genre, but it's obvious that the core gameplay (which hasn't changed much since the aforementioned ASB '99) needs to be revamped soon for the series to continue to remain competitive.

Acclaim really went all out this year, and threw in virtually any gameplay mode a player could want. The core gameplay modes include Quick Play, Franchise, Series, and Expansion. Quick Play is simply the exhibition mode, Franchise allows the player to take a team through multiple years of play, Series allows the player to play the World Series, and Expansion is identical to Franchise mode with the exception that the player creates his/her own team from scratch.

Franchise mode allows the player to play through up to 30 full seasons. At the beginning of a new Franchise the player will choose their team and select a variety of options, including market conditions (even, realistic, etc.), GM control, Trade Deadline, Injuries, etc. The player also has the option of choosing to hold a draft or not. Expansion mode allows the player to pick a city from many different real cities (which affects budget and fanbase so pick carefully!), mascot, one of several different stadiums, and which league the new team will be in. This is followed by an Expansion Draft, and then it plays out just like the regular Franchise mode.

During each season, the player has complete control over virtually all aspects of the team. In particular, roster management is extremely comprehensive. Players can be promoted and demoted to the minor leagues, placed on the DL, edited, resigned, picked up in free agency, or even created from scratch. The game also includes a complete breakdown of budget allotment (how much emphasis the player places on farm system, scouting, etc.), a nice Trading Block (see if there is any interest in that player), a very comprehensive ASB Rulebook, and more.

After the season's over, the player can view how each player has developed or declined, adjust budget allocation, view franchise value and Hall of Fame Inductions, and see which players have retired. The player can also attend the Winter Meetings to make personnel moves, sign players to long-term contracts, offer arbitration to players up for new contracts, participate in the Rule 5 Draft, and sign free agents. On the whole ASB 2004's Franchise mode fares very well to the other baseball franchises this year, although it would've been nice to have an unlimited number of years to play.

Additional gameplay modes include Pick-up, Scenario, Trivia, Batting Practice, and Home Run Derby. In Pick-up the computer randomly picks 2 players at each position, from which both teams take turns picking from before playing. Scenario Mode presents some of the toughest real situations from the 2002 MLB season, with many locked until the easier scenarios are completed. Trivia asks a series of baseball trivia questions, from which each team scores runs depending on how many they answer correctly. Batting Practice allows the player to pick what kind of pitches to face, as well as where those will be located and how they'll be delivered. Finally, Home Run Derby allows the player to compete in a Derby based on how the style (based on swings or innings) and stadium chosen.

ASB 2004 also sports several different special features, including (among other things) Player Cards, Stadium Tours, and Multimedia. Player cards are bought with points earned during each game (just like EA's games) and Stadium Tours are virtual tours of each stadium with commentary from Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Steve Lyons. Finally, Multimedia features a number of interviews on a variety of subjects from legends like Cal Ripken, Buck O'Neil, etc.

All of this is wrapped up in perhaps the best front-end for any sports game ever. It's obvious that they're going for the whole "nostalgia in baseball is magical" thing and it works perfectly. Baseball dweebs such as myself know that there is something special about pitchers and catchers reporting, and Acclaim seems to understand this. The first time I started the game and saw the Lou Gehrig "luckiest man" speech followed by the theme song from The Natural (awesome movie) on the main menu, I knew that the boys at Acclaim really "get it". The entire front-end is presented (like several other baseball games this year) in a locker-room/coach's office setting, with the camera moving from one area to the next as various menu options are selected. For example, choose the Multimedia feature and the camera will pan to an old-fashioned 8mm-film screen before playing the movie. As if this wasn't enough, Acclaim also included a grainy "old film" type overlay to it all, making everything look strikingly similar to an old 30's highlight reel.

So ASB 2004 really has the presentation and features down pat, but unfortunately the gameplay still lags behind several other baseball franchises. First, hitting is a bit too difficult without using the "Easy" batting interface. Using the Normal mode gives the player the most control over each hit, as it allows the player to aim the hit with the right analog stick. The size of the batting cursor and the power zone inside of the cursor is based upon each player's attributes; thus it's easier to make contact with players that are good contact hitters. It takes a while to get used to, but once it's mastered it works well enough. Pitching is pretty straightforward - just pick the pitch type, location, and then let it fly. Whether it actually hits the intended area or not depends on the pitcher's skill and fatigue.

The real gameplay problem lies in the field. First, player animation is often simply too slow. A hit down the third base line will routinely result not in an easy out at first, but in the batter beating out the throw. The third baseman scoop up the ball, and then wait several excruciating seconds before making a somewhat lazy throw over to first base. This is a problem throughout the field, and will many times leave the player banging the controller in frustration. Secondly, button presses from pitching will sometimes carry over into the field. Since the game allows the player to "pre-load" which base to throw to, often it'll pick up the pitch type selection as pre-loading a throw to a particular base. Thus a shortstop can field a grounder, and then throw it home rather than the base the player is trying to select. As long as the pitch button isn't held down too long it doesn't happen that often, but when it does happen it's often in "crunch time" since the player is putting more effort into each pitch.

Finally, fielding as a whole just seems "off", as player animation doesn't match what's actually happening on the field. Hits are often caught that look like they shouldn't be, and are often missed when it appears that the player should've caught the ball. A sliding player will often never even touch the base, nor will the fielder applying the tag. Occasionally the computer will choose the wrong fielder for the player to control when the ball's hit, resulting in hits that should've been outs. One time the computer hit a pop-up to the right side of the infield, and the pitcher was selected as the fielder for me to use. Unfortunately he automatically went over and covered third base, meaning that I had absolutely no shot at catching it. While my guy did this, the first baseman did not budge from covering first and watched the ball drop right in front of him. There are many other occasions where computer-controlled players act downright stupid. Eventually the player will get used to all of this, but in this day and age it's unacceptable and there will always be instances when the player feels cheated. It's a problem that's been with the series for quite some time now, and it's about time that Acclaim took steps to correct it.

There are also several minor bugs that, while not hindering gameplay, still affect overall enjoyment of the game. There are several bugs in what the announcers say, often resulting in it being inaccurate. For example, when commenting on a pitcher's performance through six (or any number of) innings Thom will always say "through 7 innings", because the game checks to see what inning the game is in and not how many have already been completed. When continuing a saved game, player card points will often be re-rewarded (ex: get 5 points for scoring 10 runs, save the game, come back later and get 5 more when you score another run) and several more minor announcing bugs will occur as well.

Graphically, ASB 2004 is a mixed bag. As I suggested before, player animation looks wrong. While it all looks realistic, it often doesn't sync up with the field and the transition from animation to animation is usually awkward. For example, base runners going to first will do the "last foot lunge" often seen when a runner is trying to beat out a throw to first regardless of how close the play actually is. Infielders will often make a beautiful scoop move, followed by a jerk as they transition into the throwing animation. And while it isn't apparent during normal play, when viewing instant replays the ball rarely actually hits the fielder's glove. Instead it will make a mid-air turn as if the glove is a magnet and the ball is magnetized. Again, this has been a problem for years with the series and with today's technology it's simply unacceptable.

At the plate however, the game's beautiful. Pitcher wind-ups look wonderful, and accurately match real life. Batters have their own signature stances as well, and feature very life-like proportions and self-shadowing. Most star players feature decent representations of their real faces as well, which really shines up close. Stadiums look awesome as well, as they're very detailed and in many cases downright gorgeous.

Many sound effects are reused from previous versions, but they still get the job done. The crowd has a general murmur that rises and falls with the action, as well as vendors and catcalls. Thom Brennamen and Steve Lyons again handle commentary, and they do a good job of keeping up with the action and sounding interested in the game. There's even an option for Spanish play-by-play announcing, which is a feature that's long overdue and should be in every sports game. During breaks in the action, Lyons will often give some general commentary about baseball in general that's interesting and on-point. The in-game music is a mixture of licensed and generic music, and includes a wide variety of songs from groups like House of Pain, DMX, and even a little good old CCR.

Highs:

  • Incredible front-end that really captures the spirit of baseball and tugs at every heart string.
  • Good selection of in-game music, and using the theme from The Natural on the main menu is genius.
  • Very nice Franchise mode, featuring every option and feature imaginable.
  • A wealth of additional gameplay modes, including a nice Scenario Mode and inventive Pick-up Game mode.
  • Over 110 baseball legends (including Negro Leaguers) to unlock, including Cal Ripken (my all-time favorite player), Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson, etc.
  • Can trade player cards between the GBA and GCN versions.

Lows:

  • Fielding is plagued with animation problems, control issues and stupid A.I.
  • Hitting hasn't been improved in quite a while.
  • Several minor bugs.
  • Better buy an extra Memory Card 251 if you want to play franchise mode - it requires 221 blocks.

Final Verdict:

All-Star Baseball 2004 is another excellent addition to the series, but the franchise is really showing it's age. Fielding is plagued with problems, and pitching and batting are more of the status quo while several other baseball franchises have shown innovation in these this year. If the gameplay were on par with the slick nostalgic presentation and the deep Franchise mode, ASB 2004 would easily be the best baseball game on the market today.

Overall Score: 7.9

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