As another baseball season approaches, another impressive-but-flawed version of 3DO's High Heat Baseball is upon us. Now sporting a big-time celebrity endorsement, Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001 is a very solid effort that improves upon last year's version with a series of subtle enhancements. Though the latest version of High Heat suffers from a number of minor flaws once again, it's still the early favorite to capture best-of-breed honors in PC baseball sims this year.
The game's basic design hasn't changed very much. You can still play exhibition games, full seasons of varying length, play-off tournaments, and a home-run derby. A new batting practice mode lets you step into the box for practice swings against a fully adjustable computer pitcher. For example, if you're having trouble hitting a curve ball, you can set the pitcher to fire nothing but curves while you try to make contact. Additional multiplayer options now let you tackle season and play-off games against fellow High Heat fans, whereas last year's version only supported exhibition games in multiplayer mode.
The graphics engine has been tweaked, but only slightly. The most notable improvement is in the additional variety of player models. Now, big guys like Glenallen Hill and Frank Thomas actually look much larger in the game than smaller players like Craig Biggio and Pokey Reese. Yet though the visual variety is a welcome change, the overall quality of the player models is still less than stunning. The players in High Heat 2001 don't look nearly as good as those in previous baseball games like Triple Play 2000 and Microsoft Baseball 2000. Some players in High Heat 2001 have their real faces mapped to their player models, but most of them still have that one same face, and the same enormous eyebrows, from the original High Heat. At least High Heat 2001 now supports night games as well as day games.
Fortunately, the game now offers a wealth of new player animations that help liven up the on-field action. Players take extra steps as they make running catches, which introduces the concept of momentum to the game. This can actually affect gameplay, as it now takes longer to throw the ball after making a running catch, and players will even occasionally run into the outfield walls and drop the ball as a result. Other new animations include players pumping their arms after roping a double or triple, umpires who punch out strikeout victims in varied and elaborate fashion, and diving fielders who hold up their gloves to show that they made the catch.
Of course, any true High Heat fan knows that graphical quality is a secondary concern. The thing that's always set High Heat apart from its competitors is the realism of the on-field action, and in this important regard, High Heat 2001 maintains the series' sterling reputation. Each individual game played in High Heat 2001 unfolds realistically, as dramatic pitcher-batter confrontations and crafty computer moves will leave you scrambling to find the right pinch hitter and bullpen ace. Just when you think you've figured out the computer's style, it stumps you with a surprise move. Getting caught flat-footed when Mark McGwire bunts for a suicide squeeze in the bottom of the 11th inning should be enough to teach any player how sneaky the High Heat computer opponent can be.
But the realism in High Heat 2001 goes beyond good artificial intelligence. For the most part, players in the game perform as they would in real life, as they hit for power when appropriate and even register accurate win-loss records on the mound. Better still, the realism generally carries over to season statistics, where 50-homerun hitters and 20-game winners are as rare as they should be. The game does seem to have a few glitches in the statistics engine, such as during a time when Sammy Sosa himself played in 159 games despite a midseason injury that sidelined him for 34 contests, but the errors seem few and far between.Other bugs and flaws in the game aren't quite as inconsequential. For one thing, High Heat suffers from a serious bull-pen bug once again this year. The game has problems when you try to perform a double switch; it sends your pitcher back to the bull pen, and it also drops his "warmed up" rating to zero and leaves a hole in your lineup. Any attempt to put the pitcher back in his rightful spot results in a crash. The bug doesn't crop up every time you attempt a double switch, but it occurs more often than not.
In addition, the pitching interface seems downright unfair at times. While the computer pitchers seem to be able to hit their corners regularly, it's almost ludicrously difficult for human players to do so, even when controlling a pitcher with a control rating of 85 or higher. As a result, you often throw a lot of balls when you try to throw strikes. In real life that may not be too unrealistic, but the situation doesn't improve on the game's two easiest difficulty settings, and that's a problem. Also, your pitchers have a nasty habit of throwing fat, juicy home-run balls right down the middle of the plate when you attempt to throw garbage pitches outside or down. Many of these problems seem to stem from the game's erratic or at least imprecise controls. Not only can the pitching be frustrating, but often when fielding you'll find the ball winging its way to third when you thought you threw it to second. This control problem cropped up with more than one player using several different game controllers on multiple systems.
Furthermore, the sound in High Heat 2001 really needs an overhaul. The play-by-play vocal tracks seem virtually unchanged since last year's version - and for that matter, since the first version of High Heat. The commentary is lifeless, repetitive, and in desperate need of improvement. Still, it sounds brilliant next to High Heat 2001's horrendous "ambience" clips. For some reason, the developers saw fit to include a bunch of celebration/taunt sound bytes that erupt in a variety of game situations. For example, after a strikeout a voice might chime in with a regretful "Aw, man!" while a pop-up might elicit an unseen heckler to yell, "Your shoe's untied!" at the last minute. All of these clips are poorly recorded and sound like the work of programmers who had too little sleep and too much access to sound equipment. Worst of all, each of these clips plays at a much higher volume than the rest of the game's sound effects, which makes them even more jarring and annoying. The celebrations and taunts aren't necessarily a bad idea, but they should be much more refined for future versions of High Heat.
Aside from its occasional flaws, High Heat 2001 is essentially an improved version of High Heat 2000. The latest version offers just enough new features and graphical enhancements to entice fans of the series to upgrade. High Heat 2001 is at least as good as it was last year, and it will certainly contend for the PC baseball crown once again this season.