Replay Value: 9
Spring is almost here, and with it comes the sounds of America’s pastime. No… we’re not talking about reality television, here—it’s baseball. The crack of the bat, the chatter of the players, the huge contracts… thus begins another season of baseball, not only in reality, but also on the PlayStation 2. 3DO’s High Heat series has been the overall best bet on the PS2 for the past two years running; sporting superior and intuitive gameplay while providing a very good video baseball experience. The knock on the High Heat series has always been that the visuals are less than stellar, but reviewers (like your truly) have let this slide, primarily because there wasn’t much competition, with the exception of Acclaim’s All-Star Baseball series. This year, however, is a different year. Sega, 989 Sports and EA Sports are bringing all-new baseball games to the PS2, and thus the title of “Best Baseball Game” is definitely up for grabs. Can 3DO hold onto the title for three consecutive years?
High Heat 2004 certainly has a great foundation to work from. It’s easy enough to pick up and play for novices and Little Leaguers, yet can be adjusted via a plethora of gameplay sliders to adapt the game to a player’s skills. This year is no different in that regard, as the gameplay sliders make a return. Want a ton of offense? Raise the batting power. Want more pitcher’s duels? With a few adjustments, it can be done. Once you get into the game, there are no batting cursors to contend with… just swing away. It’s not quite that easy, though, as pitchers will change speeds and location and better pitchers can keep good hitters guessing all day or can elicit more outs than hits. Fielding is also pretty easy—and if you get frustrated with it, there’s an option to let the CPU handle the fielding and/or throwing automatically. High Heat makes offense and defense pretty easy, and yet the strategy of the pitcher/batter confrontation still remains paramount.
Pitching is as easy as picking one of as many as six different pitches, deciding whether the pitch should be in the strike zone or not, then using the directional pad to guide where in (or outside) of the zone that you want the pitch to go. Aiming isn’t always accurate, and can depend on a pitcher’s remaining stamina. A pitcher can even simply miss a few pitches and need to work himself out of it. The pitching interface works as well as it ever has, and with the addition of some new pitches this year (i.e. power slider, power curve, etc.), there’s a fair amount of strategy that can be employed. Just like the big leagues, you can work batters inside and outside, change speeds, and paint the corners with a little practice.
High Heat 2004 has a few new additions this year, most notably a decent Franchise mode, which can include minor-league teams, if you so choose. There’s a budget system that must be followed, so it’s not terribly easy to pull a Steinbrenner and buy all of your talent, despite the cost. Success in the Franchise mode will depend on how well you take advantage of your current talent, make key trades and acquisitions, and manage your farm system to bring about fresh young faces. This is a feature that High Heat has sorely needed in order to keep video baseball enthusiasts interested for longer than one season. Combine this major addition with minor ones, such as a newer presentation style, a few new sliding and batting animations, a few new audio clips for both commentary and for hecklers in the stands, and updated rosters, and add it to High Heat’s already proven gameplay, and there’s a strong game here.
Unfortunately, High Heat 2004’s visuals still need work. The game still looks as rudimentary this year as it did two years ago. A majority of the player animations are the same. The replays are still awful—basically a carbon copy of the previous play with little or no embellishment or cinematic angles, like other games have. A few of the player animations look disjointed. Player uniforms aren’t as detailed as they should be, and the lettering looks either blurry or diminished. The frame rate isn’t even as solid this time out… there are more bouts of slowdown in this year’s High Heat game than there have been in the two previous years. After three tries, it should be expected that 3DO look at making some kind of improvement to the game’s overall look… but they haven’t—or, at least, they haven’t shown any marked improvement that this reviewer can see. It’s almost unacceptable, especially with the level of competition in the video baseball genre this year, to basically ignore the game’s visual presentation and this most definitely hurt’s the game’s score overall.
The audio isn’t much better. Literally 95% of the commentary from last year has been recycled for this year—and about 90% of last year’s commentary was recycled from the year before. Dave O’Brien is a much better play-by-play man that players will be led to believe here. He misses some calls, repeats others, and has some inconsistent emotion. Home runs are supposed to be exciting—but O’Brien occasionally shows no excitement after a bomb while yelling and screaming during others. The color commentary man is almost worthless, uttering criminally obvious phrases like “This is a scoring situation.” Yeah… with nobody out and a runner at third, I can figure that out for myself, thanks. There’s barely any music to speak of, and the PA announcer is serviceable. 3DO still hasn’t tried to utilize any kind of Dolby Surround encoding, which is rapidly becoming standard in sports games.
High Heat Baseball 2004 is a love/hate situation. The gameplay really is as solid as it’s ever been, there are more options (including the Franchise mode to keep things fresh for more than a season), and the gameplay sliders make High Heat 2004 more customizable than any of its competition. Despite this, though, the aesthetics of the game are almost inexcusably bad… especially in the face of this year’s increased competition. The visuals border on ugly and the audio is inconsistent at best. This year, more than ever, High Heat’s success lies squarely within its gameplay and options; however, whether that will be enough to secure another pennant while other games like World Series Baseball and MVP Baseball make their PlayStation 2 debuts is a definite question mark.