You'll be able to get into the nitty-gritty of the national pastime with Season Ticket Baseball 2003. The new retail version of Markus Heinshohn's Out of the Park series of text-based management simulations (available online since 1999 and now heading into its fourth incarnation) will arrive in stores next month from Infogrames, giving hard-core hardball fans a jump on opening day. We got an even earlier head start, courtesy of a beta build that arrived on our desk last week.
You will once again be able to take total control of your favorite Major League Baseball clubs, operating them from the front office down to the dugout bench. Patterned after the popular soccer management sims that routinely top sales charts in Europe, Season Ticket Baseball 2003 focuses more on making the right decisions than making the right plays. As such, don't expect any fancy 3D graphics or the need to be quick with a gamepad. Gameplay takes place on mostly text-based screens that cover your lineup, starting rotation, free agent pool, budget, rosters when simulating games, and so on.
Thankfully, Heinshohn has always done a nice job of livening up what could be endless columns of text with splashes of color and a few photographs. That quality appears to be in this year's redesign, which shows a subtle reworking of the interface introduced last year. Stat columns have been further broken down into separate listings and isolated boxes that make it easier for you to process so much information. Team roster screens, for example, will now display every pertinent fact and factoid about the ball club in question, from its current record and top performers to who's hot and who's not. You're even given a recap of the "line of the week," showcasing a great performance from the last seven days.
Player screens are organized in the same fashion. Personal information like name, date of birth, and batting and throwing hand are enclosed in a box on the left, with defensive, offensive, and pitching ratings in their own boxes to the right. The remainder of the screen features supplementary information, including a list of character attributes that make the player a keeper or a trader. A career history section in the bottom right lets you know about significant past achievements, such as being selected to play in the All-Star game, setting records, or reaching important milestones like striking out 15 batters in a game. Clicking on button bars at the top of the menu accesses separate screens for batting, pitching, and fielding ratings, along with well over 50 tracked statistical categories. Another button at the bottom of the screen opens up a detailed scouting report that puts the player's attributes into human terms. In other words, here you'll find out if your guy is "truly a dominator" or is "too old to play a quality game of baseball any longer."
Unlike one-season-only replay specialists such as Diamond Mind Baseball 8 and APBA Baseball 5.0, the Season Ticket series lets you play through whole careers. Take charge of Milwaukee this season and you can still be running it long after virtual Bud Selig is in his grave. To accommodate this fantasy league focus, player management takes a primary role in the gameplay. As with last year's version of the game, you'll need to watch the contract status of players, making sure to provide them with new offers when the time is right or dump them onto the trading block to get something before they can leave town. A full minor league system is also provided, so you can develop future stars down on the farm. You will even have to hire a coaching staff at both the major and the minor league levels. The only potential drawback to team and league management is that the game doesn't have licenses from either Major League Baseball or the Players Association, meaning that you'll be dealing with nickname-free teams, the absence of logos, and fictional players (though their characteristics and stats will apparently match real-life counterparts).
As already implied, Season Ticket Baseball 2003 seems to be more of a subtle refinement of last year's game than a complete overhaul. Still, there appear to be some significant improvements. Player management is being enhanced with the addition of an e-mail system where rival managers will contact you during the season with trade offers and your own managers will let you in on the progress of players. The free agent system seems to be more realistic. Now, instead of receiving immediate replies to your contract offers, you'll experience a delay of a few days while the player weighs the possibilities. Responses will be more authentic as well. Your proposition might be immediately accepted, or it might be compared unfavorably with that of another club, leaving the door open for you to walk away or up the ante. Both of these changes should make play more natural, like you're dealing with other humans rather than a number-crunching computer.
Other revisions are deeper in the game design. Players will be rated in new categories such as leadership. This can be either good or bad, since teams need leaders to succeed but can suffer from having too many strong personalities in the clubhouse. Photos can now be added to each player's roster screen. Instead of directly trying to trade a player to numerous teams, you'll be able to advertise his availability on the trading block and attract some offers. This feature should cut down on some of the micromanagement. During games, the textual play-by-play will now include pitch types and foul balls. Inclement weather will occasionally interrupt games in progress. And you'll even be able to argue calls, which carries with it the risk of ejection and replacement by a bench coach. Online league management is being augmented with an FTP feature that greatly simplifies the process of updating rosters and lineups. Finally, you'll even be able to schedule promotional days, including the giving away of bobblehead dolls (here called Noddin Heads).
Look for Season Ticket Baseball 2003 to arrive in stores on March 26.