Ultimate Baseball Online Hands-On Impressions
Netamin wants to build an online field of dreams. If it builds it, will players come? We get our hands on the beta and check it out.
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While baseball games in recent years have offered online play, virtually all baseball games are still one-on-one affairs where you play against a single opponent and take turns either pitching or batting to one another. Enter Ultimate Baseball Online, a new type of online baseball game that allows up to 18 players to play a full-fledged game of baseball on a virtual baseball field. It's an idea so simple and obvious that it's somewhat surprising someone hasn't thought of it before, and we got our hands on the beta of the game to check it out.
Netamin's goal for Ultimate Baseball Online is to build an online baseball league that will offer play year round for baseball fans. Since it's an online-only service, players will pay a monthly subscription to be part of the league. In return, they'll create up to three different player characters and compete in virtual ballparks with others. You can form your own team, join an existing team, or play in pickup games. Furthermore, players can form their own leagues and tournaments, and Ultimate Baseball Online plans to host official tournaments and events.
Basically, a game of Ultimate Baseball Online plays like a real baseball game. Each player has a position on the field when on defense, and when your side is batting, you sit in the virtual dugout and watch while awaiting your turn at the plate. (You can also switch to a variety of cameras and watch from different angles, and there's even a catcher cam so you can study a pitcher's tendencies.)
The character creation system is not unlike that of an online role-playing game. When you create a character, you can choose an appearance, including male or female, a face, a body build, and more. Your character can also earn experience points and "level up," earning points that can be used to improve aspects of your game. The fairly sophisticated skill system is built on the idea of parameters and skills. Parameters can be thought of as physical attributes, including quickness, which affects speed of throwing motion and the ability to get off base after a hit; body strength, which helps determine batting power; arm strength, which affects throwing power; and accuracy. Skills are your abilities, and they focus mainly on different kinds of throwing styles, including sliders and knuckle balls, as well as your batting skill. If you're a pitcher, you may need to raise your skills in certain types of throws and increase your arm strength in order to unlock certain pitches.
It's important to note that Ultimate Baseball Online isn't purely a skills-based game, as the developers have created a system that relies both on skills and reflexes. For example, if you're pitching, you must decide which pitch to use and where to aim in the strike zone. (You must coordinate with the catcher, since he or she will indicate where to throw. If you and the catcher aren't working together, the pitch may go wild.) Once the pitch and pitch location have been chosen, you have to rely on a pitch meter that's not unlike the swing meter found in golf games. The challenge is to fill the power meter as high as possible while also nailing the accuracy meter to give you the best possible throw. So even if you have a high-level pitcher, you still must get the timing down on the pitch meter to be successful. Batting is a similar endeavor. Even if you have a high-level slugger with great body strength, it still comes down to your ability to hit the ball. When the ball enters the strike zone, you must move the bat and left-click the mouse to swing. There is a power slider to determine whether you wish to bunt, make a contact swing, or make a power swing. The contact swing, which gives you some leeway to make a hit, is more forgiving than a power swing, which requires you to nail the ball precisely. But you're far less likely to hit deep balls with a contact swing.
Netamin plans to ship Ultimate Baseball Online with seven ballparks, ranging from a rundown urban field to a sleek and modern stadium. For brevity's sake, there's an option to play shorter games, such as a three-inning game, rather than the full nine innings. You also need just five players per team; if you can't muster enough human players, the AI will provide computer players to man the outfield positions and second base. All other positions must be played by human players, and the AI isn't allowed to pitch or hit.
Though Ultimate Baseball Online is relatively easy to pick up, it's hard to master. It's also a game that reinforces the team dynamic of baseball, which can become patently obvious if someone hits a ball to the infield. It's important for each player to know his or her role for every situation and react properly to it, as there's nothing quite as frustrating or hilarious as seeing the chaos erupt as basemen scramble around in confusion.
That said, the game is eerily similar to real life. When you're standing alone in the outfield, you almost tense in anticipation of the ball being hit your way. And when waiting for your turn to hit, it's fun to sit back, relax, chat with your teammates, and throw a few friendly taunts at the pitcher. Ultimate Baseball Online is currently in an open beta test, and Netamin is busy working to polish the game and stamp out bugs. The current plans are to launch the game sometime around Major League Baseball's World Series, with the idea of giving baseball fans something to play while they wait for spring training.