High Heat Major League Baseball 2004
High Heat Major League Baseball 2004 comes to the plate with the expected emphasis on new visuals and a brand new franchise mode to go along with the solid gameplay that made 2002's version so enjoyable. Yet the changes made to the visuals are uneven, with some affecting the on-field action in a negative way, and the overall look is still bush league compared to All-Star Baseball 2003 and World Series Baseball, two games released nearly a year before this one. If gameplay is all you care about, then this will likely not matter, as High Heat still offers a game with solid computer AI, realistic results, and some of the best customization features released in a sports title to date.
While High Heat MLB 2004 is the first baseball game released for 2003, it's a safe bet that it will end up being the least visually impressive of its contemporaries. The player models look fine, but the faces are almost indistinguishable from one another despite reported improvements in the area. Stadiums are perhaps the biggest disappointment, as they look washed out and feature little to no animation. The billboards also look "squashed," like the text and graphics had to be stretched to fit a specific box. By far the most irritating aspect in the visuals is the camera, which by default zooms-in on the player catching on the ball. This "action" camera has the opposite effect -- instead of drawing players into the game, it isolates them.
Turning off the action camera doesn't improve the overall view. No matter at which level you set the camera, the perspective is either too high above the ground or too low. Fly balls are not seen in this game unless you view the replay, making home runs a surprisingly anticlimactic affair. There's almost no chance to rob a home run at the wall because you can't see where the ball is in air. The best type of camera system for a baseball game is one that makes dynamic changes on the fly, tracking the ball by zooming in or panning out when appropriate, with the goal of giving players the best view of their surroundings at all times. There's no point in showing a close up of a fielder who catches the ball when there's a runner high-tailing it around second base.
While the above areas are disappointing, they are made more bearable by the improvements in animation. Players react much more smoothly than in versions past, with impressive throws across the chest, dives, underhand throws, collisions at the plates, and arguments with the umpires. This is not a game that impresses you with hundreds of signature batting stances or pitching motions, but what's here is better than expected. The effort made to address the animation seems to have come at the expense of a smooth frame rate, however, with slight pauses during base running and even while taking simple practice swings. It often appears as though the PlayStation 2 is struggling to catch up to the action as the action progresses, but it does not affect gameplay in the slightest (players won't be caught, for example, stretching a single out to a double due to hiccups in the frame rate).
Sound is another setback. While the back of the box touts "interactive crowds and new announcer commentary," there's too much repetition and not enough banter between the two-man team. Neither announcer plays off the other, so if one makes the comment "he struck out ten," the other will remain silent. Not even a generic "he really is mowing down the hitters." Though the commentary is passable despite its blandness, the crowd doesn't appear to be watching the action on the field. When you are the home team, you'd expect the crowd to go nuts when you hit a four-bagger, especially when that home run breaks a tie score late in the game. Likewise, the crowd should give a Bronx cheer to the visitors, or in response to poor plays on the field, but this crowd just emits a consistent murmur. Something's wrong when the organ plays "charge" and no one makes a peep.
For the High Heat Baseball fan, none of the visual or sound issues will likely matter because they are mere sizzle to the steak -- it's the realism that keeps them playing, not the presentation. The traditional timing-based system is back again and made more interesting by some of the new pitches suggested by Curt Schilling. Now instead of a fastball, a pitcher may throw a tailing fastball; instead of a curve ball, he may throw a knuckle curve. The varying amounts of break and movement will keep batters on their toes and, unlike so many other baseball games, the computer can and will throw outside the strike zone to fool batters sitting on a pitch. This also means players can draw walks, a rarity among most console baseball games, which makes hitting all the more satisfying.
Pitching is also entertaining, as it is not easily mastered. Mixing up pitches, in both type and location, is essential. Just like in real baseball, throwing an off-speed or breaking pitch away after a few fastballs in at the hands will mess up a hitter's timing and increase the likelihood of a strikeout. Even more interesting is that many pitchers behave like their real-life counterparts. Matt Clement has great movement on his fastball but is wildly erratic -- even choosing to throw a strike doesn't mean it will hit its mark, which means players have to fine-tune their choices as the game wears on. A great in-game option is individual umpires calling different strike zones, adding to the adjustments a pitcher has to make in order to be successful. The stadiums also have some influence over the pitching, as anyone who plays a few games at Coors Field will attest to.
As in 2002's game, the computer AI is excellent, giving players an opponent who will make meaningful substitutions on the mound, in the field, and at the plate to win the game. It is also aggressive on the base paths to take advantage of missed opportunities on defense, but it's not robotic in its execution to avoid making errors or offline throws. Furthermore, players can customize individual areas such as CPU hitting, the frequency of foul balls, the speed of computer base runners, the speed of fielders, injury frequency, and so forth, to help shape the game to their liking. Is the fastball too slow for your tastes? You can zoom out the batter's view and speed up the pitch to make for a more challenging at bat. Players can also opt to pitch from the pitcher's perspective in this game, but the fielding is the same no matter which view is selected. The ball physics are also realistic, with just about every type of hit represented (with the lone exception of choppers), and realistic caroms off different walls lining the ballparks. The outfields are in correct proportion too, allowing for dramatic catches on the run (if you have a fielder who can cover a lot of ground).
The franchise mode is another key addition to the series, and players will be surprised to find not just a minor league option, but complete A, AA, and AAA teams along with stat tracking. During the course of the franchise, players will have to fill vacancies left by retiring players, make offers to free agents without going over the team's budget, promote rookies from the farm system, and restock the minor league affiliates by conducting a rookie draft. As expected with a game that offers tuning sliders, players can edit every name on the roster as well as all attributes, including arm strength, ground ball ratio, running speed, power, and more. The only real drawback to the franchise mode is an unintuitive menu system that makes retrieving information more of a chore than it should be.
High Heat Major League Baseball 2004 is a solid baseball game that grows on you the more you play it, thanks to the great computer AI and the deceptively simple batter-pitcher interface. The individual sliders let players mold the game to their preferences, whether it's an arcade-like slugfest or a detailed simulation. The added franchise mode offers a new layer of playability and decision making that was sorely missed in the 2002 version. Yet the new graphics, sound, and menu navigation are still not up to the level the PlayStation 2 is capable of. In the end, it doesn't seem enough positive changes were made in light of the upcoming features from the game's chief rivals, including releases from Sony, Sega, Acclaim, and EA SPORTS. High Heat MLB 2004 is an easy recommendation for those who value realistic play over all else, but those looking for the best overall baseball game should keep this one on the bench until the others have taken their swings. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
Player models and animation are bright spots, but they are merely average when compared to other baseball titles. Camera angles are inadequate when fielding and the overall look of the game is drab. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
While there is some ambience -- hecklers will yell and vendors hawk their peanuts -- the crowd noise is not situational. Never does it seem the crowd is into the game, at least not the one that's playing on the screen. Commentary is repetitive. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
Being the first baseball game out of the gate means the rosters will need several adjustments, and there are a few glitches not normally found in a High Heat title. One bug, which only happens if you hit a batter, causes a run to count if a man on third crosses the plate before the final out is caught. The game is otherwise fun to play, with a great sense of realism. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
The franchise mode offers unlimited replay value, but the menu screens need to be cleaned up for next year's version. It's a shame players can't download new roster updates, but changes can be addressed through trades and edits. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide
The manual packs a lot of information in, but the content is above average. A few more pictures could have helped clarify some issues. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide