All-Star Baseball 2004 Review
Acclaim's All-Star Baseball series certainly has a fair share of fans, and at first glance, it's easy to see why. The visuals have been impressive for the most part and there have been enough nice touches added to the overall presentation that it feels like there's a nice coat of polish all around. Despite how the game looks and the included extras, the series has been saddled with fielding problems and a batting system that actually chooses to reward players who use the game's batting cursor while penalizing those who choose timing-based hitting with inconsistent results at the plate. With other series like 3DO's High Heat Baseball series and EA Sports' new MVP series, one would think that Acclaim might look at making a few changes to these gameplay engines, but with All-Star Baseball 2004, that's just not the case. Again, there are lots of extras and a polished presentation, but the manual fielding is flawed and using the dreadfully outdated batting cursor is the only way to muster a decent offense.
Before we start to harp on the negatives, it's certainly worth noting that Acclaim has certainly provided a ton of nice extras again this year. Much like EA Sports' Madden or NHL games, the ability to earn points during gameplay to buy player cards is a nice addition and adds some significance to the day-in and day-out rigors of the baseball season. Certain cards can unlock some other extras, such as video interviews with stars like Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken, Jr or other multimedia. There are interesting and educational virtual fly-through tours of all of the stadiums in the game, which is a nice touch. There's a fun trivia contest to be played through, as well. The option to create a new expansion team is also a great feature which more baseball games should look into adding. Lastly, there are new scenarios (similar to Tengen's later RBI Baseball games on the Sega Genesis) which challenge players to change the historical outcome of certain games—there are more than a few of these to go through, and many have to be unlocked. There are also plenty of gameplay modes, including exhibitions, a credible home run derby, and a pretty deep Franchise mode, complete with its own in-game rulebook for trades and payroll.
Aside from the extras, All-Star Baseball 2004 has some great commentary and sound. Thom Brennaman does a great job with calling the action and supplying situational commentary. As with past years, he supplies a pitcher's line when he leaves the game, which is very slick. There's also a good blend of energy and emotion in his lines. Steve "Psycho" Lyons provides color commentary and doesn't quite fare as well as Brennaman, but still provides situational statistics as well as the occasional funny quip. One notable addition is a Spanish-language option for the commentary, which goes above and beyond the call of duty. The game is presented in Dolby Pro-Logic II, and the sound samples are generally crisp and well-done. One last note about the sound is that each batter has his own theme music which plays before his at-bat, and these are mostly recognizable tunes, including "All Star" by Smashmouth and "Jump Around" by House of Pain.
All-Star Baseball 2004 sports some decent visuals, bolstered by some great-looking stadiums. Fenway Park comes complete with the new Green Monster seats, which shows Acclaim's attention to detail. Players look pretty close to their real-life counterparts, and the facial modeling accuracy is topped only by 989's MLB 2004. Like EA Sports' MVP Baseball, All-Star Baseball 2004 keeps a pretty consistent frame rate at close to 60 frames per second. There's no real choppiness to be had here, although some fielder animations can look a little suspect at times. It almost looks like a glitch, and doesn't really affect the gameplay, but it's noticeable. Other animations, such as swinging the bat and certain reactionary animations, look much better. Replays don't have the cinematic flair that MVP Baseball's replays have, but there's an option to manually take control of replays when they automatically appear. Overall, it's a decent graphics package.
As you can see, there's a lot to like about All-Star Baseball 2004; however, the same gameplay issues that have dragged the series down in recent years show up again here, and not fixing them at this point has become nearly inexcusable. The main gripe lies in the batting department, where players are still unable to use timing-based batting to any sort of consistent degree. Fans of timing-based hitting will find more frustration than joy in playing this game. Using the batting cursor will usually yield better results, but it takes some getting used to, and in either case, there seems to be a slight delay between the time players press the button to swing and when the swing actually happens on the screen. While fans of the series will swear by the hitting engine as being more realistic, that doesn't make it any more enjoyable. This area is one that Acclaim needs to focus on in the offseason.
Conversely, pitching is better. There is a fair selection of pitches to choose from, and it's as simple as picking a pitch, spotting it, and letting it go. If you know how to mix up your speeds and locations, certain pitchers in the game can have a field day in the strikeout department. Breaking pitches, such as curveballs or sliders, seem to have a fair amount of action to them, but not ridiculously so. Once you learn the movement patterns of each pitch, it becomes easier to spot them for called strikes. Pitcher fatigue seems to be a bit exaggerated, though, with many pitchers faltering early. Relief pitchers are especially susceptible to this, and after only a few hard pitches, can lose control and velocity. Managing the bullpen becomes a priority in All-Star Baseball 2004, including adequately warming your relievers.
Fieldling is decent when controlled by the CPU, but manual fielding is a game of inches—or pixels, in this case. Simple things, such as making routine catches, are too easy to flub when using manual fielding, as it seems as though players must be on the exact pixel of where the ball is too land in order to make the catch. Too often, players can be slightly away from that position and the ball will just drop. This becomes frustrating very quickly, and if it happens in a close game, many players will not be able to control their outrage. Automatic fielding usually yields better results, although it usually looks a bit flashier, with seemingly unnecessary dives and jumps. One thing that automatic fielding tends to lack is the range to go back on deeply hit fly balls to the outfield. Outfielders will sometimes misjudge fly balls as they sail over the fielder's head.
All-Star Baseball 2004 is a game that I really wanted to like. It's got more extra features than any other baseball game out there this year. It's got some of the better commentary that I've heard in a baseball game this year. There are plenty of stats to be had. Creating an expansion team is very cool. The virtual tours are fun to watch. All of this is great, but what it all boils down to is the game of baseball and how it's played—and All-Star Baseball 2004 simply does not play as good a game of baseball as its competition does this year. If it was possible to mix the extras from All-Star Baseball 2004 and the gameplay from MVP Baseball 2003, this would be a baseball game for the ages. As it stands this season, however, MVP Baseball gets the easy nod over All-Star Baseball largely due to its gameplay as well as a few other intangibles. With the competition in PlayStation 2 baseball gaming getting better every season, Acclaim is at a crossroads with its All-Star Baseball series and needs some serious fixes to get back into contention.
4/14/2003 Peter Skerritt