World Series Baseball 2K3 Preview

We check out the latest entry in Sega's World Series Baseball franchise on the Xbox.

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With the start of the MLB season just around the corner, developers and publishers are in the midst of vying for video game baseball supremacy. Sega will enter the fray with World Series Baseball 2K3, which essentially builds upon the features introduced in last year's World Series Baseball for the Xbox. As such, the newest installment in Sega's baseball franchise will feature its predecessor's incredibly in-depth franchise mode, as well as a variety of other modes and gameplay tweaks. Unfortunately, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of the game will both lack online play this year.

World Series Baseball 2K3 features an in-depth franchise mode.
World Series Baseball 2K3 features an in-depth franchise mode.

As with most sports games, the most appealing feature for fans of the sport is the franchise mode, and World Series Baseball 2K3's franchise mode gets as close as possible to mimicking the duties of a team owner and general manager. After selecting a team, you'll be asked to draft managers for different positions in your club, such as the batting coach, the pitching coach, the minor league director, the scouting director, and the team manager. Each of these coaches has a different rating in various categories, as well as a different price, which will give you a fairly good indication of whether it's worth spending some of your draft points on a particular manager. Depending on your view of the sport, you may want to draft a high-profile scouting manager so you have a better chance of securing high-quality talent in the future, or you might want to take a more balanced approach to constructing a staff.

After completing the management draft, you can then perform general managerial tasks for the team. You can take an in-depth look at your pitching staff and the current team lineup, as well as make trades, sign free agents, bring players up from the minors, manage contracts, or view the team budget, which includes projected income for the season (an important feature, since it affects your ability to draft future talent). The simulation is so deep that even team performance can affect the income level. As a result, if your team isn't playing well, you'll have less money at the end of the season due to lack of fan interest in the team.

There's also a big league challenge mode, which plays like a home run derby.
There's also a big league challenge mode, which plays like a home run derby.

There's quite a bit of information to track, but any stat-savvy baseball fan will undoubtedly love to dive into the list of player names in an effort to create and maintain an excellent team. When the season is over, you'll get to see how your players have improved (or regressed) and draft new players depending on the individual needs of your team. If you're not particularly interested in team management, you can always try out some of the more gameplay-oriented modes.

One such mode is the big league challenge, which is essentially a home run derby in which players from the MLB are pitted against one another. Basically, each player gets a chance to hit as many home runs as possible before getting three outs, which will be given for strikes and foul balls. There's also the Sega Sports challenge, which tracks your statistics over a series of games so you can have them ranked against other users' statistics by entering a code on the Sega Sports Web site. Of course, you can also just jump right into a game with the quick game or exhibition options.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, World Series Baseball 2K3 retains the core mechanics of last year's game. When pitching, a box listing the pitches that are available is shown on the side of the screen. To throw any one of these pitches, you simply hold the corresponding direction on the controller and press the pitch button. If you only want to throw a fastball, you don't hold any direction at all. After a pitch has been selected, you can then determine its placement by moving a small icon in the strike zone image displayed on the screen. When the icon moves out of the strike zone, the controller will start to vibrate, indicating that the pitch you're about to throw will be a ball if you hold that position. It's also worth noting that if you get a little too careless with your pitches and bean the opposing team's batters too often, one of them will charge the mound and get your pitcher ejected from the game.

The player models are pretty detailed...
The player models are pretty detailed...

Batting is relatively straightforward, but it can take some time to get used to if you aren't familiar with certain types of pitches. Basically, you move a small icon around the strike zone, and this icon tells you where your batter is going to swing. So, if you see a pitch going to the outside corner, you have to move the icon to that area in order to make contact with the ball. The key is knowing when to swing and when to hold off, though even then you have to be careful, because a pitch that looks like a ball might suddenly curve into the strike zone (or vice versa), resulting in a strike or an errant swing. If you want to go all out on a pitch, there's a power swing option, but the timing is a little different than with the regular contact swing, making it much more difficult to hit the ball consistently or with any sort of precision. You can also lay down sacrifice and check bunts.

...and so are most of the stadiums.
...and so are most of the stadiums.

Fielding and baserunning are easy to learn but difficult to use effectively in the early moments of the game. One of the new features added for World Series Baseball 2K3 gives outfielders the ability to jump, which can aid them in robbing batters of potential home runs. Diving is also a key aspect of the game, especially when a batter tries to tear one right past the shortstop. Additionally, cutoff men will step in and receive a throw from one of the outfielders, which lets you throw to a different base if one of the runners is trying to advance or retreat.

In terms of visuals, the Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of the game are fairly similar, though the Xbox version seems to have a cleaner overall look. The character models in the game are quite detailed, save for some muddy face textures on some of the players, and they animate quite well. You'll even notice some nice little touches such as player-specific batting stances and smaller animations like fingers twiddling on the base of a bat. The commentary in the current build of the game is pretty solid and seems to succeed in providing a relatively interesting rundown of the action occurring onscreen.

World Series Baseball is scheduled for release on both the Xbox and the PlayStation 2 on March 11.

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