The sheer number of available teams, modes, and bonuses is absolutely staggering.
You can't compete against opponents online in All-Star Baseball 2004, but that's about the only feature missing from Acclaim's latest baseball game. While the people at Acclaim Studios Austin have done an excellent job of smoothing over many of the gameplay quirks that were evident in last year's game, the greatest push this year has been toward variety. The sheer number of available teams, modes, and bonuses is absolutely 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. If you subscribe to the Xbox Live service, you'll also have the opportunity to download roster updates at various points throughout the 2003 season. Even though you can create hundreds of your own custom players, this is still a great option that every sports game should have.
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 X 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.