All-Star Baseball 2003
All-Star Baseball 2003 offers the most complete set of features found in a console baseball game yet released, and represents the most substantial upgrade to the series since the move from the PlayStation to the N64 in 1998. The ability to create an expansion team with its own logo, mascot, and stadium, and then take it through 20 consecutive seasons demonstrates that Acclaim is at least serious about one sport in their shaky library.
Of course, the graphics are still as impressive as they were in the last three versions, with motion-captured animation for just about every move you can think of, from bare-handed throws to first-baseman scoops off the dirt. Batters have eerily realistic faces, and wring the handle of the bat with both hands before setting into their stance. Each pitcher's delivery is captured perfectly, from Hideo Nomo's tornado wind-up to El Duque's high leg kick. Wild throws, over-the-shoulder grabs, and shoestring catches are also here, though the frequency of such plays is higher than you'd expect.
The batter-pitcher interface has undergone a few changes since its debut on the Nintendo 64, but it is essentially the same. One benefit is the challenge involved in hitting pitches, especially the weaker the batter is in real life. A drawback is it is not as intuitive as simply watching the ball as it leaves the pitcher's hand and timing it as it crosses the plate. The system has also lost some detail over the years, as earlier games had the cursor shrinking in size depending on its location over the strike zone -- perfectly mimicking the hot and cold zones of actual players.
Pitching has remained the same, which is good, because it's hard to imagine a more realistic system. Players can aim anywhere they want to, and the pitcher will try his best to reach that mark based on his ability. Erratic pitchers will miss the mark considerably, making for an interesting strategy when using certain pitchers. Do you dare throw a curve ball out of the strike zone, knowing it could hang over the plate? Or do you throw another fastball, knowing the hitter may be anticipating it? The ebb and flow of a batter-pitcher match-up is one of All-Star Baseball's biggest strengths, as well as the "feel" of a Randy Johnson fastball streaking across the plate.
The biggest problem is the clumsy fielding system. Fixed camera angles show limited views of the outfield, fielders are sometimes offscreen, and balls never quite seem to be caught with the glove. High Heat MLB 2003 is more engaging in this area, with a camera system showing players the entire field and responsive controls allowing for quick throws and smooth transitions between catching the ball and releasing it. While the motion-captured animation in All-Star Baseball is at times spectacular, there is a small lag between the sequence and the throw, making fielding seem rather disjointed. Players also can't adjust camera angles like they could with earlier games in the series.
Most of the bugs found in previous versions, those game-killing glitches that have sullied All-Star Baseball's reputation over the years, look to have been sufficiently squashed. The game is more playable than in past seasons, though there are still some questionable decisions made by computer fielders. For one example, there appears to be an invisible zone between the infield and outfield that athletes refuse to cross, even when it looks like they could easily make a catch. Whether this is done intentionally to allow for more singles or just a fault of the game itself is unclear. Also, base runners still have to be "babysat" on ground balls hit to the infield, as they are slow to return to the base after taking a lead.
Despite the awkward fielding system, limited camera angles, and inability to modify individual aspects of gameplay, the powerful tandem of great visuals and extensive modes of play will surely satisfy fans of the series wanting more substance over flash. While High Heat Major League Baseball 2003 is overall an better playing game of baseball, it can't compare to the visual pizzazz and exquisite depth associated with creating a team from scratch or managing a team for a staggering 20 seasons. In this regard, All-Star Baseball lives up to its name. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
The motion-capture animation is as fluid as it comes, and players are all recognizable by their signature stances or pitching deliveries. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
The commentary is livelier with Steve Lyons in the booth, and the team seems to have stories for just about every player, from Randy Johnson's 20 strikeout performance to Mark Grace's clutch hitting in the 2001 World Series. Bob Brenly is strangely silent during most games. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
Fielding needs improvement, and players should have the option to select from a variety of camera angles. Yet the new additions are impressive, and the batter-pitcher interface is great. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
Expansion, fantasy draft, franchise mode, season, playoffs -- there are plenty of things to keep players occupied until the next version of the game comes out. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
The manual offers controller grids and an explanation of game modes. Nothing flashy, but solid. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide