Triple Play 2002

Electronic Arts is readying the first baseball game for the Xbox. Read our hands-on report to find out what to expect.

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For a console is its early stages of existence, the Xbox already has a wide array of sports games. But one sport that has yet to be represented on the platform is baseball. Fortunately, EA Sports is stepping up to the plate to deliver the next installment in its annual hardball franchise, Triple Play 2002. Last year's game on the PlayStation 2 met with mixed reactions. Critics bemoaned its home-run-happy gameplay, but fans enjoyed the high-scoring games and constant action. EA Sports has decided not to mess with the formula too much, instead attempting to polish the existing game mechanics and visuals.

Smacking the ball out of the park.
Smacking the ball out of the park.

Not much has changed as far as gameplay modes are concerned when comparing Triple Play 2002 with last year's game. The lone addition is the home-run derby, where you and seven of your friends can try to drive as many balls as possible over the fence before getting 10 outs. Once again, there is no franchise mode included, but you can play seasons of 15, 30, 60, or 162 games. Statistics are tracked in nine categories for pitchers and 31 categories for most other players. Human players can control all 30 MLB teams in the season mode, so if you have a large group of friends, they can all get in on the action. And if you're unhappy with the current rosters in Major League Baseball, you can completely redraft the league to your liking. You may play the season mode on three difficulty settings, but if you want an authentic experience with fewer than 10 runs per game, you'll have to play on the all-star setting. You can tweak the season settings to change the number of innings per game and whether there will be errors in the games. In addition to the home-run derby and season modes, you can also play head-to-head against one other person or go straight to the playoffs and play as many games per series as you like.

Coming up to bat.
Coming up to bat.

Playing Triple Play 2002 is not unlike playing past games in the series. The pitcher-batter interface has been slightly reworked to make it easier and shorten the length of each game. Pitching is now accomplished with the press of a single button. First, you choose the location of the pitch with the analog stick, and you then press the button that corresponds to the type of pitch you'd like to hurl. Batting is just as easy--you simply line up the batting cursor with the pitching cursor and time the swing. Batting cursors are sized based on a hitter's ability, so Frank Thomas has an enormous cursor that almost fills the entire strike zone, while pitchers like Curt Schilling have batting cursors only slightly larger than the baseball. EA Sports hopes that the alterations to the pitching interface will decrease the time it takes to complete a game by 33 percent, but the biggest improvement to the gameplay this time around is the replay buffer. After hitting the ball, the camera will switch to a fielding view where the ball will be shown being hit once again. This gives the fielder more time to prepare for the jump of the ball off the bat and eliminates the awkward camera transitions that cause missed ground balls in other baseball games. The feature works well, though in this current build, the hit will sometimes be shown several times, which can make it a bit difficult. This should be fixed for the final version of the game. The AI for computer pitchers has also been adjusted so that there is some logic to their pitch selection. In last year's game, the pitchers randomly chose their pitches, so you'd sometimes see them lead off with a change-up. In Triple Play 2002, the pitchers will set you up with a slider, blow it past you with a fastball, and then finish you off with an elbow-breaking change-up.

The crowd is pulling for you.
The crowd is pulling for you.

The graphics engine from last year's PlayStation 2 game has been reworked to run on the Xbox, and the results are encouraging. The stadiums look magnificent, with huge JumboTrons that show the action on the field in real time. Every last girder and seating section has been included in the stadium models, and when you see fields such as Safeco for the first time, you'll be amazed at how accurate they look. The lighting is also impressive. Shadows are cast on the field by the top of the stadium, and they'll slowly creep across the field as the game progresses. The graphical feature that EA Sports seems most proud of is the addition of more than 200 "cyberscanned" faces to the game. The faces look great, and recent changes to player appearances have been included such as Randy Johnson's now-short haircut. Signature batting and pitching stances have also been reworked so that it's easier to tell Ichiro Suzuki from Mark McGuire without getting a look at their faces. The player models could still use some work, as some of the larger players in Major League Baseball are still too small, but this is something that is still being worked on. Another new graphical addition to this year's Triple Play is the "big play moments" presentation. Not all that different from the "game story" that's included in EA's NHL franchise, the feature focuses the camera on the pitcher and batter between pitches when a game starts to get intense. EA Sports hopes that this will add some drama and excitement to a sport that is generally more subdued than others. Other small touches such as particle effects that are used to show dust kicking up, players piling up on the pitcher's mound after a win, and hit balls that will curve while in the air help to give the game some touches of authenticity. But other small graphical components such as sliding animations have yet to be fully implemented, so it's difficult to get a handle on what the final product will look like in motion. The frame rates also experience the occasional hitch when the entire field is shown at once, but this is nothing that a bit of optimization won't correct. Another slight issue is that most hits are shown from several angles before the camera switches to the fielding view, which can make it hard for a player who is fielding to prepare. Hopefully this option will be toned down for the game's release. In all, Triple Play 2002 for the Xbox is looking sharp and should only improve as its release date draws near.

Get ready for it.
Get ready for it.

EA Sports has decided to change the play-by-play commentator for this year's game, and it couldn't have made a better choice. Bob Costas, considered by many to be the best baseball announcer in the business, does a fabulous job of calling the game. His sentences never seem stilted or patched together, and the commentary is littered with insightful comments and sidebars. Costas' partner in crime is ESPN's Harold Reynolds, and he does an excellent job of not going over the top while still keeping the atmosphere light. Ambient sound effects such as peanut vendors trying to drum up business have already been included in the game, and despite a few occasional hiccups, the sound is already quite good.

While it's somewhat disappointing that Pandemic has not built a new Xbox-specific graphics engine for Triple Play 2002, the enhancements to the gameplay and presentation remedy the situation. The lack of a franchise is mode is surprising considering that this is the franchise's second year on this generation of consoles, but the addition of the home-run derby should at least provide a slight increase in playability when compared with last year's game. Triple Play 2002 for the Xbox is currently scheduled for release in March. Look for our full review of the game in the coming weeks.

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