VR Baseball 2000 Preview

Can VR Baseball 2000 erase the mistakes of the first VR Baseball in time to catch the renewed wave of baseball excitement? Tasos Kaiafas takes a look at this next generation baseball game.

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The 1998 Major League Baseball season is undeniably one of the most exciting in recent years. The names McGwire and Sosa have been as pervasive in the press as Clinton and Lewinsky, and fans are responding by revisiting their local ballparks around the country. Unfortunately, the resurgent excitement for this year's Major League Baseball season has not permeated this year's crop of baseball games. Mediocrity is how most baseball gamers would describe what they've seen so far. But the year's not over yet, and there's one more game preparing to take the field.

The Post-Season AdvantageMaybe it's not so important to release your baseball game in the spring, at the start of the baseball season. Common sense would tell you that baseball gamers want to start their virtual seasons at the same time as Major Leaguers. But according to Major League Baseball, the post-season is when many casual baseball fans start to pay closer attention, so it has been urging baseball game publishers to hold off on the release of their games until then.

That's what MLB told VR Sports, anyway. Since VR Sports needed time to convert the PlayStation's VR Baseball 99 graphics over to Shiny's (a sister division of Interplay) Messiah 3D engine, it decided to oblige. The result is the PC-exclusive VR Baseball 2000: Next Generation Baseball. We'll have to wait to see the consequences of this anomalous delayed release date, but the results of the extra development time and the conversion to the Messiah engine look good - real good.

If you don't know what the big deal is all about, Shiny (the developer of MDK) has developed a 3D engine for use in its next game, Messiah. Basically, the Messiah engine renders characters that move more naturally by allowing their "skin" to stretch when their body parts turn and move. With this graphics engine, you can really see the letters on the front of the players' uniforms move when their arms do.

There are also other performance-enhancement features in the Messiah engine, but the end result is one of the best-looking baseball games to come around in a long time. Although there are still some niggling animation oddities in the early version of the game VR Sports gave us, we hope they'll be ironed out before it hits store shelves. And if they are, this could be the first baseball game to bat over .300 this year.

Looks Aren't the Only ThingOf course, the look of the game isn't the only reason we have such high hopes for it - it also plays as well as any we've tried so far. VR Sports seems to have gone to great lengths to ensure a substantial amount of realism on the field. Unlike most other baseball games, there is the requisite number of foul balls, easy-to-read pitches, and easy-to-handle fielders. Fielding assistance can be set on a scale from zero to nine, which determines how long a player will head towards the location of the ball before you must take control. Hitting can be set to arcade or simulation mode, with the latter requiring more input and better timing to make successful contact.

Off the field, team management is pretty standard, with the typical array of statistics and screens. But the arrangement of these screens thankfully breaks the recent trend of console-type interfaces in PC sports games, an unfortunate byproduct of cross-platform development. Instead of navigating through multiple screens to get to the one you want, VR Baseball 2000 arranges them all in a familiar tabbed interface so that everything you want to do can be brought up on the same screen by clicking on the appropriate tab.

The One To WatchIt's obvious to us that the developers of VR Baseball 2000 are definitely baseball gamers. They say that they heard the complaints from users about last year's game and have worked hard all year to fix them. They also know that with this new development cycle that they've adopted - releasing in the fall instead of the spring - they'll have to release an update file for free download from their web site each spring. Not only will the update reflect roster changes and statistics, but it will also modify player abilities based on their performance the previous year. And with the coming addition of Diamond Mind Baseball's statistics engine in VR Baseball 2001, this series could be the one to watch for again in 1999.

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