Home Run King Preview
Sega and Wow Entertainment serve up some baseball on the GameCube.
The GameCube sports game library will be receiving a new take on baseball from Sega developer Wow Entertainment this month. First shown on tape at last year's Tokyo Game Show, Home Run King will offer an alternative to the more technical sports games on the system by featuring accessible, arcade-style gameplay and by focusing on speedy play. We had a chance to sit down with a nearly complete build of the game, which has been in development for roughly a year, and put it through its paces. We found the game's pickup-and-play controls complemented by slick detailed graphics and a solid assortment of game options. Our time with Home Run King revealed a game that looks to be coming together pretty well.
You'll find a well-rounded assortment of modes to choose from--exhibition, season, playoffs, and home run derby--which offer a decent amount of variety to be explored. Exhibition lets you hop into a quick game against the AI or a human opponent. Season will let you take your team to the playoffs and, if you have the skills, the World Series itself. The playoffs mode is slightly different, as you'll be able to participate only in a series of playoff games. Finally, home run derby lets you compete against up to 20 human opponents or the AI in a turn-based competition to find out who the home run king is. Each mode will let you tweak a variety of options to give you more or less control over your team depending on your skill level. For example, fielding can be set to fully automatic, which lets the computer handle everything, or set to manual, which requires you to stay on top of the action. As with most of the adjustable options in the game, you'll find gradations between the two settings to let you find the most comfortable setup. In a nod to its arcade leanings, HRK will reward you with points as you play, and they are tallied at the end of each game.
In addition to gameplay modes, Home Run King will offer a comprehensive create-a-character feature, which will let you create a virtual alter ego for yourself. You'll be able to customize a host of features on your player, ranging from their faces and hair to their shin guards, socks, and shoes. Besides having the ability to plug their custom players into any team, dedicated players can create a team of up to 20 almost exclusively custom players.
Control in Home Run King is responsive and makes good use of the GameCube controller. Pitching the analog stick lets you select your pitch by pushing a direction that corresponds to the onscreen pitch type selector, aim when throwing the ball, and select a base to pick off. You'll also be able to select a pickoff with the D-pad. The A button throws a normal pitch, B triggers a pickoff throw, X throws a slow pitch, and Y throws a fast pitch. You'll be able to adjust your fielders' positions with the GC's triggers, with L shifting the infield and R shifting the outfield. Taking control of your fielders is pretty basic--the control stick moves your fielder and selects which base to throw to once you've caught the ball. A throws the ball, and B lets you switch the fielder you're currently controlling. In addition, B has your fielder run to a selected base if you choose not to throw the ball.
Batting and base running in Home Run King is as easy to pick up as pitching and fielding. The game features an interesting tweak to the batting interface--you'll control the onscreen batting cursor with the analog stick and swing with the A, X, and Y buttons. A offers a normal swing, while X delivers a contact swing and Y lets you perform a power swing. You'll be able to bunt by holding down the B button as soon as the pitcher starts his delivery, and you'll also be able to cancel the bunt by quickly releasing B. Batting is made a bit more interesting by the fact that you're given the chance to guess which pitch is being thrown by your opponent. By pushing a direction on the onscreen pitch type selector that your opponents use to choose their pitch, you'll be able "guess" which pitch is going to be thrown. If you're correct, the batting cursor will turn red and change shape to provide you a better chance at hitting the ball. Running bases is a bit more basic, offering you two options--you can let the AI handle things as your runners move automatically when the ball is hit or take a more hands-on approach. Before hitting the ball, you'll be able to have your runners lead off their bases and steal by using the GC's triggers. Slightly pushing L increases their lead before a pitch while clicking the L button in all the way attempts a steal once the ball has been hit. The R trigger decreases your runner's lead and sends him closer to base, and clicking it in completely returns him to base.
Graphically, Home Run King offers some very nice visuals that complement the tight control and gameplay and feature clean textures and solid detail. Thanks to the MLB license, HRK includes every team, stadium, and player as well as most of their mascots for an added level of authenticity. Player models are nicely detailed and motion captured, featuring custom batting stances that make it easy to distinguish between the players. Faces look particularly good thanks to the use of 3D scans of many of the top players' likenesses. The stadiums feature a generous polygon budget and sport a host of little details that give the game a nice layer of polish. You'll see everything from mascots strutting in front of the audience to stadium-specific touches, like boats collecting balls that have fallen into the water near the Giants' stadium in San Francisco. You'll also be treated to a fireworks display when you manage to knock one out of the park. The onscreen action moves along at a high frame rate that's easy on the eyes. In a nod to gamers with high-end televisions, HRK will support progressive scan via the GameCube's component video cables, and this provides excellent image quality.
Sound in the game keeps the action immersive, with color commentary from two announcers, ambient noise in the stadiums, crowd noise, and sharp collision sounds. The roar of the crowd when you've hit a home run is especially satisfying.
Overall, Home Run Kings is coming together quite well. It already offers a far more playable experience than Wow's previous foray into baseball, the original World Series Baseball on the Dreamcast and its arcade counterpart. While not in the league of the traditional baseball games and their sim feel, HRK looks poised to offer a strong arcade baseball experience and some variety to the GameCube lineup. Gamers looking for Home Run King can look for it when it ships this month for the GameCube.
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