Out of the Park Baseball has been steadily improving since its inception in 1999. The text-based sports management series has grown from meek beginnings as an amateurish online-sales product to a remarkably complex simulation of running a major league baseball franchise. Last year's Out of the Park Baseball 4 was a big step forward, thanks to innumerable new features that added depth in every area. This year's game is even more of an evolution. Although the game is still only available online from .400 Software Studios, it is as professional as anything you can buy in a retail store. And playing it runs a close second to getting the job of your dreams in the big leagues.
Basics of the new game remain rooted in familiar, well-established mechanics. As in previous releases in the series, in Out of the Park 5, you take over the general manager's job with the pro ball club of your choice. Every detail of club operations is under your direction, both on the field and in the boardroom. Players are signed, lineups are set, pitching rotations are tweaked, tickets are priced, and so on. Careers stretch over decades, so you can pursue a dynasty to the end of the 21st century and beyond. You can play against cutthroat computer competition or play multiplayer games against other human general managers, thanks to the game's exhaustive support for online leagues. In any case, Out of the Park 5 simulates each game in great detail.
The new game also has many new features. Every menu has been dressed up to provide the user with more to look at than fonts and columns of numbers. For instance, you can customize your interface with multiple skins. And while every page is wallpapered with words and statistics, the use of different colors makes it a snap to sort through the data. Multicolored bars to indicate pitching, batting, and running ratings and player photo and logo boxes further jazz up what could have been dreary catalogs of facts and figures. Greatly improved audio effects add more elegance. A futuristic whoosh accompanies the opening of every drop-down menu, and you can hear the roar of the crowd, the crack of the bat, and the bellowing of umpires in play-by-play mode.
Where the first four editions of Out of the Park 5 were plagued with minor production problems, the new version is much more refined. Even the scouting reports reflect this, as they now feature diverse phrases and come free of the typos and grammar mistakes that were common in the past. Every player comes with a full bio, detailing everything from an outfielder's "slow as molasses" speed to a pitcher's ability to "simply blow batters away." And there is a greater variety of comments in the internal e-mail system used to notify you of such things as trade offers and player demands.
Out of the Park 5 expands on nearly every aspect of the series. The new game provides much more information than previous versions, so you feel more in control of your club. Stat categories now encompass the invaluable WHIP rating for pitchers, and the opening player info screens provide all of the pertinent ratings and numbers. Players are rated with stars for the first time, making it easier to separate all-stars from duds. Team roster screens contain more factoids than before, encompassing a dozen stat categories showing your numbers and listing where you rank in the league. HTML reports can be generated on the fly in all sorts of areas, letting you pull up one-page overviews of such things as a player's entire career or the contract and salary status of everyone in your organization. Player names are hyperlinked on the majority of screens, so you can access all of this knowledge with a minimum of clicks.
Out of the Park 5 is also a better game in other areas. The new game has improved artificial intelligence, so you'll find yourself competing against tougher rival managers for star players. It's also impossible to dump a big contract unless the player is worth every cent. Players are smarter too, particularly when their contracts expire, and now they take advantage of the 30-day free-agency period. Wars are common for even middle-of-the-road talent, and each signing carries with it more consequences than it did last year, as players can now refuse demotions to the minors. Salary arbitration completes the picture.
The game is also more challenging because it has even more randomness; player development has never been a sure thing in the series, but in Out of the Park 5, ratings rise and fall more precipitously than before, often over the course of a single season. Youngsters turn into busts overnight and also-rans develop into major leaguers. This makes signing older players a risky proposition because their skills might collapse months after inking a big-money deal. This is a welcome change, but it can sometimes happen too frequently. Players also break down more than they did before. Injuries are much more common, especially to pitchers, although they aren't so frequent as to be unrealistic.
If all this isn't enough, you can make your own career unpredictable by turning on the new manager mode. Here you sign a contract with a team owner and must perform up to expectations or be handed your walking papers. The option adds tension because you know that your job is on the line with every win or loss, but .400 Software went a bit too far with role-playing elements like diary entries detailing your dating endeavors. Being able to meet and marry women isn't so bad as a frill, although the high-school-girl quality of the text--examples include "I met this lady, her name is Dabney. I'm going to spend some time with her..." and "I broke up with Dabney today. I just didn't like her anymore!"--makes the whole thing laughable.
Unfortunately, Out of the Park 5 does suffer from a few technical issues. For instance, it's slower than its predecessor. Simming games, saving and loading leagues, and just about everything else takes much longer than it did in the previous game. The game also has a few bugs in some of its features, like salary arbitration, that cause Direct3D issues with certain video cards, which forced the release of a comprehensive patch within a week of the game going on sale. And some of the information screens are so crammed with data that you risk eyestrain by playing the game at desktop resolutions above 1024x768. As handy as it is to have so much info on one screen, it's of dubious benefit when you have to squint to see it all.
But these are minor imperfections in an otherwise engrossing game. Anyone who counts down the minutes until opening day would be well advised to make the wait a little less arduous by starting a personal major league circuit with this terrific game. Out of the Park Baseball 5 improves on the series and will no doubt keep would-be baseball managers up late many a night.