There is no better sports management sim available on this side of the Atlantic.
Slowly but surely, the Season Ticket Baseball series (known online under the Out of the Park Baseball brand name) is moving into Championship Manager territory. Fans of the UK's legendary soccer management simulation know that this is no mean feat. One of the best-selling game series in Europe over the past decade, the Championship Manager line has captured the imagination of millions and set new standards for sports sims--and probably has broken up more than a few marriages along the way. Games just don't get more addictive.
Season Ticket Baseball 2003--originally released online at the start of March as Out of the Park Baseball 4--isn't quite at that stage yet. But the big-league management series is getting there, judging by the steady progress made with each new edition. One-man design team Markus Heinsohn and his company Out of the Park Developments have been fine-tuning their approach to provide a game that is more true to life in every area. Most of these improvements are of the minor variety, although they add up to an impressive overhaul that affects all aspects of gameplay for the better. While a few omissions and some design oddities keep this one out of Cooperstown, there is no better sports management sim available on this side of the Atlantic.
What makes Season Ticket 2003 so good is its sweeping focus. Where rival baseball management series such as Diamond Mind and APBA Baseball for Windows are fixated on single-season replaying, Heinsohn's game lets users control teams over multiple years. You can take over the front office of your choice at virtually any point in time in baseball history and continue for as many seasons as you like. Accurate historical numbers are provided by an importer that adjusts player ratings for the time period selected. For instance, if you want to experience the dead ball era, just dial the beginning of your career back a hundred years. Authentic rosters can be downloaded with files from the Internet.
There is a lot here--even if you're not a historical baseball buff. You can play in single mode or multiple season mode, with either the default league setup currently operated by Major League Baseball or an arrangement of your own with up to 40 teams in as many as two leagues with six divisions. Human players can take the reins on any number of teams in a league, both on a single machine and via the Net. Online play is a strong attraction. It is similar in feel to the fantasy leagues offered by ESPN.com, but with much more interactivity and the welcome absence of subscription fees. As a result, hard-core baseball fans can really lose themselves. It's even easier for commissioners this year, thanks to a new FTP option that permits them to update online leagues in a single step. Season Ticket 2003 and Out of the Park Baseball 4 share an identical file system, so owners of one game can get involved in online leagues with owners of the other. The only potential problem involves patch releases. Because Out of the Park is typically updated a couple of weeks before Season Ticket, owners might find their game files incompatible for a time.
Gameplay is realistic from the very beginning. You start from scratch with an off-season signing period, in which you compete for coaches and scouts in a bidding war. Competition is cutthroat, and you typically have just one chance at the better people available. Bid high, because you can't really pay too much for the good coaches needed to develop players and the good scouting director required to obtain accurate assessments on players. Scrape the bottom of the barrel, and your prospects won't develop on the farm. Even worse, you could wind up with a half-witted head scout who thinks that everyone is a surefire phenom. As much of your success depends on offseason drafting, trading, and a 30-day free-agent signing auction, this can be disastrous. Still, the possibility that you're not getting the complete story adds a welcome dimension to play. Instead of being an omniscient god, you're an all-too-human boss delegating authority to underlings who sometimes don't know what they're doing.
Even when you do have the right people in the right jobs, players can cause you problems. In addition to the traditional statistical categories and skill ratings, each player is given six character attributes--loyalty, needs winning team, team leader ability, clutch performance, consistency, injury rating--that help or hamper his contribution to the team. Some of these characteristics are cut-and-dried. Someone with poor loyalty will leave for the first team to offer him more money, and someone who doesn't do well in the clutch can't be expected to contribute a game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth. Others lead to uncertain consequences. Wanting to play for a winner inspires such a player in good times and brings him down in bad times, while one with top leadership abilities might run into a "too many cooks" conflict on some teams. The result could be spending too much of that precious budget money on a player who has the right numbers but is still the wrong fit for your club. All in all, you're given a lot to think about here. Much more than simple number crunching is required to assemble a winning team.