World Series Baseball 2K3 Review
This year is an extremely competitive year for baseball games on the PlayStation 2. There are literally six different games out there just waiting to be bought by sports gaming fans—three of which are series debuts on the PS2. World Series Baseball 2K3 (WSB 2K3) is one of those debuts. PS2 owners were supposed to see a World Series game last year, but Microsoft bought exclusivity rights, so WSB 2K3 marks the first Sega-delivered baseball title for the PS2 platform. Driven by interesting gameplay elements, a solid ESPN presentation style, and loads of statistics and customizable options, WSB 2K3 looks to compete for the PS2 pennant—and comes very close to achieving that goal, save for a few flaws in several areas.
As with any baseball game, the pitching and batting engines are big-time keys to determining the success of a given title. For batting, there are two options—either cursor-driven batting or timing-based batting. Either way works fine, and the good news is that, unlike Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2004, the game does not seem to penalize players for choosing the timing-based option. There are two swing types: normal (activated with the X button) or a power swing (which is activated by the O button). Although it's tempting to use the power swing often, it doesn't render results as much as the standard swing. Power swings can certainly result in a fair share of bombs, but they also can lead to even more fly balls and pop-ups. There are also two bunting options, including a drag bunt option, which is great for speedy runners to try and sneak on base with.
Pitching is done by selecting one of your pitcher's available pitch types, ranging from fastballs to curves to sliders. Once you select a pitch, you need to spot where you want the pitch to go with an aiming cursor. Of course, selecting a spot doesn't necessarily mean that the pitch will hit that spot—a pitcher's natural abilities and any fatigue will affect his accuracy. Depending on the pitcher, it's possible to paint the corners or change speeds enough to throw hitters off-balance. There are plenty of strikeouts to be had, but not as many swinging Ks as there are in EA's MVP Baseball. As a pitcher fatigues, though, his accuracy can fall way off and he's susceptible to leaving pitches out over the plate—that's not good. There are also selected "hot" and "cold" zones depicted within the transparent strike zone. Obviously, you want to stay away from pitching to the red "hot" zones and try to paint the blue "cold" zones, if possible. Keep in mind, though, that it's possible for a power hitter to muscle anything out of the yard, even if it's in the blue zone.
Fielding and baserunning aren't quite as solid as the pitching and hitting, and that's unfortunate. The fielders can make stupid mistakes and misplay hit balls—and that can lead to extra bases and potential tying or leading runs to cross the plate, leading to a good deal of frustration for the game player. On the plus side, there is a special play button (the R1 button) that can allow the fielder that you control to make diving stabs or to climb the walls to rob a homer from the crowd. The timing of pressing the R1 button needs to be very early—pressing it too late just causes the fielder to dive and lets the ball past him. Baserunning isn't all that intuitive, and the AI seems attuned to when to pick you off at times when trying to steal. It also takes a bit of adjusting to learn individual runner controls.
World Series Baseball 2K3 sports plenty of gameplay options, and even more customization options to tailor the game to how you want to play. The Big League Challenge is the pre-season home run contest that you see on ESPN every year, and it's done well in this game. There are options for single-game exhibitions, a single-season mode, and a very deep franchise mode. The franchise mode will test your skills as a player, manager, and general manager, as you set lineups and pitching rotations, call up players from the minors (or send players down), negotiate contracts, and more. The franchise mode tracks all players' stats in a variety of categories and adds them to their already-existing lifetime stats so that real-life milestones—like Roger Clemens winning his 300th game or Sammy Sosa hitting his 500th dinger—will be recognized during the season as it happens. Gameplay sliders allow players to adjust WSB 2K3 to their liking in a variety of options, which is something more games in all sports should continue to implement.
As mentioned at the start, World Series Baseball 2K3 boasts an authentic ESPN-style presentation, complete with statistical overlays, Sportscenter-themed menus and fonts, and authentic ESPN background music from shows like Baseball Tonight, Sunday Night Baseball, and more. With the way that the presentation is set up, it's easy for some observers to quickly glance at WSB 2K3 and think that it's a legitimate baseball telecast. With decent amount of detail for things like stadiums and player uniforms, at times WSB 2K3 looks just like an ESPN broadcast—but other visual features are flawed.
One major bone of visual contention is the facial models for each player. Some of the faces are butt-ugly. Not quite as bad as the zombie-looking faces from, say, Virtua Tennis, but close. It's fair to say that a good 75% of the facial modeling in WSB 2K3 is just wrong. With as good as most of the rest of the game looks, this is an unfortunate flaw. Another thing that you'll notice is that the animations when swinging the bat look generally awful. There are times, especially during replays of home runs, when you'll never see the bat make contact with the ball. It just doesn't look good at all. What makes things worse overall is that the frame rate isn't as smooth as in MVP Baseball 2003. It's not that WSB 2K3 slows down at all, but there's a definite look of choppiness when you compare the two games. These comments may seem picky, but when you compare MVP and WSB, it's easy to see who comes out on top—and it's certainly not WSB.
The sounds are also a mixed bag of sorts. The commentary is handled by the two-man team of Ted Robinson (from the New York Mets) and Rex Hudler (from the Anaheim Angels). Robinson's play-by-play is sleep-inducing. Yes, Robinson's lines are spot-on most of the time (save for the few times that he calls a line drive foul early on, only to come back and call it a homer shortly after), but he's a bore to listen to. There's not a lot of emotion there, and his casual banter with Hudler isn't much better. Hudler, as opinionated as he is, doesn't have enough lines to be interesting for long. Some of his lines are funny to listen to, and some are even accurate observations, but he doesn't offset the half-asleep style of Robinson enough. The sound effects are pretty weak overall with subdued cracks of the bat and a lazy crowd. On the plus side, the PA announcer sounds good and there are occasional hecklers in the crowd that aim specific comments at specific players, and these are funny to hear.
Despite its flaws, World Series Baseball 2K3 plays a good game of baseball and presents plenty of gameplay options and statistics for the hardcore baseball fan. The fact that WSB 2K3 doesn't discriminate between the cursor-driven and timing-based batting styles (like All-Star Baseball does) is a definite plus, as are the ESPN presentation and the accumulated statistics. Whereas MVP Baseball may have a slightly more arcade-style feel to it, WSB 2K3 feels more sim-oriented. The fielding and baserunning flaws aren't devastating to the game's overall feel, and it doesn't lag that far behind the likes of MVP and High Heat in terms of gameplay. It also looks a lot better than High Heat, despite the visual nitpicks that have been noted here. I stand by my claim that MVP Baseball 2003 is the best PS2 baseball game this year, but World Series only needs to make a few adjustments to possibly wrest the title away from EA next season.
4/2/2003 Peter Skerritt