If you're looking for the latest baseball games available for Nintendo's GameCube console, your options are pretty slim. There's 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball 2004, which is coming in May, and Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2004, which is available now. Without a doubt, All-Star Baseball 2004 is the game to get if variety is your number one concern. The sheer number of available teams, modes, and bonuses is simply staggering.
All 30 official Major League teams and their stadiums are present, along with 24 bonus teams, 45 additional stadiums, and more than 110 legendary players drawn from the entire history of the sport. Bonus teams include the MLB All Century team, a New York Yankees legends team, and a team made up of the best players from the Negro Leagues. If you've ever wanted to see Satchel Paige pitch to Ted Williams while both players were in their prime, now you can. Play options include the usual selection of exhibition, play-offs, and season modes, as well as a franchise mode that allows you to run your own team for up to 30 years.
Casual players will enjoy the game's bonus play modes, which include a trivia game, home run derby, batting practice, a pickup game option, stadium tours, and a scenario mode. Also buried in the bonus options is a gallery that contains 30 multimedia clips featuring highlight reels, interviews, and historical background on important events in MLB history. Some of these extras are locked away until you purchase specific player cards, which you can buy using the points you earn during regular games.
The scenario mode is new to All-Star Baseball 2004, and it's an idea that more baseball video games should implement. The game re-creates 30 key events from the 2002 season and challenges you to affect the outcome. On July 9, 2002, the All-Star game ended in a tie when both teams ran out of fresh players. In All-Star Baseball 2004, there are two scenarios available that give you the opportunity to win the game in late innings for either the American or National League. Other scenario examples include breaking up Derek Lowe's no-hitter against the Devil Rays, knocking in a historic five home runs in a single game with Mike Cameron, and helping Mike Piazza out of an 0-for-3 rut in a game that the Mets eventually lost. Most scenarios only last an inning or two, so this mode is great for people who don't have the time to play an entire game. Another nice touch is that each situation is introduced with a video clip starring familiar MLB personalities, such as Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr.
Devout baseball fanatics will enjoy the franchise mode, which is even deeper than it was last year. You can start with an existing team or create an expansion team of your own. If you create your own team, you'll have to go through the process of selecting uniforms, choosing a stadium location, and participating in an expansion draft. Just like a real general manager, you can adjust lineups, send players to the minors, and propose trades to others teams. The trade system isn't terribly complicated, but there's an optional trading-block feature that lets you put players up for grabs and solicit offers for other players who fit your indicated needs. You'll also need to keep track of injuries, deal with contract renewals, and allocate funds to your coaching, medical, and developmental staffs. The franchise mode includes the amateur draft that occurs every year in June, as well as the winter meetings and arbitration moves that occur during the off-season.
All-Star Baseball 2004 also has a number of subtle features that serve to enhance the overall product. At any time during a game, you can adjust the level of control you have over teams on the field. You can play solo against the computer, manage a team against a CPU-controlled manager, or sit back and watch two CPU teams play against each another. The game allows you to assign specific positions to separate controllers, which means that up to four people can play simultaneously. Another nice option is the ability to save a game that's in progress and return to it later. Now, when you want to get in a few quick innings before school or work, you can do so without forfeiting the rest of the game or leaving the system on for eight hours.
As far as gameplay is concerned, All-Star Baseball 2004 is the kind of game that will please casual players and diehards alike. The batting interface uses a triangle-shaped indicator to portray the contact zone. Better hitters have a larger contact area. The guess-pitch option allows you to predict which pitch the pitcher will throw. If you're correct, the hitting area will increase. If you're wrong, it will decrease. As the pitch comes in, you need to move the indicator over the ball in order to make contact. By tilting and rotating the triangular contact area, you can lift the ball, swing toward the opposite field, or aim for a particular hole in the infield. The center of the contact area represents the sweet spot of the bat. By pressing the Y button, you can deactivate the triangular contact area and focus just on the sweet spot. You'll have less area to make contact, but the hit will travel farther.
About the only problem with the batting setup is that pitches come in so fast that you barely have time to figure out if they're in the zone, let alone discern their exact placement. The game does include an option to exaggerate pitch deliveries, which helps somewhat, and there are three other hitting interfaces to choose from if you find the standard display too frustrating.
Pitching is excellent. Each pitcher has three to five different pitches that you select from using the controller buttons. A cursor appears that lets you aim the pitch anywhere in or out of the strike zone. From there, you can choose to throw the pitch or attempt a pick-off play or pitchout. During the delivery, you're still able to adjust the placement of the pitch even though you can no longer see the aiming cursor. This aspect is primarily useful against human opponents. Pitchers have access to a display that shows the hot and cold zones of the hitter at the plate, so you always have some idea of where to aim your pitches even if you're generally unfamiliar with the opposing team. The only noteworthy flaw in the pitching aspect is that the overall selection of pitches is less than that of other games. For example, Randy Johnson has two fastballs and a slider here, but he has a repertoire of six pitches in 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball 2004.
One of the game's more clever characteristics is how handedness affects the size of the hitter's contact area. Against a left-handed pitcher, the contact zone for many right-handed hitters shrinks. Players who don't hit as well against a particular pitcher or in a specific situation will also show smaller contact areas, even to the point that the sweet spot will nearly disappear. In close games, the CPU is smart enough to take advantage of these weaknesses.
For the most part, All-Star Baseball 2004 plays like it ought to, but there are a few peculiarities that crop up here and there. AI batters rarely swing at pitches outside the zone, and computer-controlled fielders are often exactly where they need to be to catch line drives. If you enable assisted fielding, the CPU-controlled fielders on your team will sometimes ignore your inputs and throw to the wrong base. For whatever reason, infield hits are also rather uncommon, which means that you won't see as many double-play opportunities as you would during an actual ball game. As bizarre as these slipups may seem, they occur less frequently on higher difficulty settings. You'll also witness them less often if you make use of the guess-pitch and contact batting options.
The All-Star Baseball series has long been identified by its triangular batting cursors and sky-high camera angles, and those traits still ring true this year. Most of the action in the field is shown from above, which offers a good view of every play. Batter walk-ups, infield hits, and ground balls to the pitcher are shown in close-ups, but those are the only times when the game uses a nearby camera viewpoint. Unfortunately, the ability to see so much of the field at once has its downside. After a while, you just get tired of seeing the same perspectives over and over again. The instant-replay camera disrupts this uniformity a little, but it lacks the kind of tilt and zoom options that make that sort of feature interesting. Next year's sequel really just needs an option to enable random camera angles.
Despite the repetitive camera angles, All-Star Baseball 2004 is a pleasure to look at. All of the stadiums are identical to their real-world counterparts, right down to the bunting, scoreboards, and external landmarks. You can see the fountain in Kansas City, the Columbia Tower down the road from Safeco Field in Seattle, and the boats just outside the wall at Pac Bell in San Francisco. The displays located inside the stadiums update continuously to reflect the current line score and scores from around the league and to show glamour photos of the players at the plate. The game uses a facial modeling system to re-create the faces of the players from actual photographs, so the majority of players look just like they do on television. In the field, all of the player reactions look great, especially the leaps and diving catches that are so commonplace in this particular game. If you watch your fair share of televised games, you'll enjoy watching the big-name players go through the same warm-up routines as they do on TV. Some of the little details are downright delightful--such as Barry Bonds' oversized arm pad or Mo Vaughn's hilarious stocky stance at the plate.
As good as the graphics are, the audio is that much better. All of the sounds and environmental noises that you'd expect to hear at a real baseball game are present. The PA announcer calls out lengthy player introductions and substitutions. Home-team players have their own introductions using clips borrowed from recognizable popular music. A few of the more choice selections include House of Pain's "Jump Around," L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," and Tim McGraw's "I Like it, I Love it." Thom Brennaman and Steve Lyons contribute running play-by-play commentary, and even though there are a few odd moments of overlap, the variety that these two express is stunning. At one point, Steve rambled on for two minutes about the brouhaha that erupted last season when Manny Ramirez chose a song with an obscene lyric for his introductory walk-up music. The game also includes Spanish-language commentary as an alternative to Thom and Steve, although the solo announcer isn't nearly as lively or interesting.
All-Star Baseball 2004 is available for all three major video game consoles. The GameCube version has cleaner textures than the PlayStation 2 version, but that's really the only difference separating the two visually. The only significant drawback to the GameCube version is that it doesn't offer downloadable roster updates--a feature that's included in both the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions.
On the GameCube, it's either this game or 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball 2004. Unless you're terribly picky about the number of available pitches or the percentage of ground ball outs, there really isn't much reason to wait around for 3DO's game. All-Star Baseball 2004 has just about everything you could want in a baseball game.