Baseball fans have been waiting a long time for Hardball 6 - something on the order of two and a half years have elapsed since Hardball 5 was released - and if you simply glance at the list of new features you'll get the impression Accolade spent that time wisely. Consecutive season play, with players retiring and rookies being drafted in the off-season, gives Hardball 6 a much greater replay value than in any of its previous incarnations. The dubious sprite-based graphics of Hardball 5 have been replaced with 3D polygonal players with animations based on motion capture, and a custom league option and automatic schedule generator make it simple to do a radical realignment. Finally, the addition of multiplayer action via modem, serial link, LAN, or the Internet makes it a lot simpler to hook up with a friend for some hardball action.
There are other new features - all MLBPA players, more extensive fielding and base-running controls, Direct3D support, interleague play, and revamped play-by-play commentary by Greg Papa - but they aren't as noticeable because they're things you'd expect to find in any big-league baseball sim.
But when you think about it, even the big changes aren't all that special: The new features should be pretty much standard fare. So the real question isn't whether Hardball 6 has the makings of a top-rate baseball title, but how well each of the new features performs. Thankfully, Accolade got the big picture right, but once you start working your way through a season you'll run into some annoyances - some of these are minor, while others border on the unfathomable, especially when you consider this is the sixth installment in a long-running series.
Surprisingly, many of the gripes deal with the play out on the field - an area where the Hardball games have traditionally shined. Take how batting is handled, for instance. The batting view is fairly close up, but even if it bothers you at first it's something you can get used to. But why can't I loosen up at the plate with a couple of warm-up swings? That might seem like a nitpicky complaint, but the truth is that a warm-up swing helps you sharpen your timing and get mentally prepared for the toughest task in sports - to hit a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher. What's more aggravating is that the batter does his warm-up swings automatically - and just as he's shouldering the bat after the last warm-up, the pitch is headed your way. There's just not enough time to set for the pitch, and it's frustrating you can't do anything about it.
The pitching and batting interface isn't exactly perfect either. There's an option to have a targeting crosshair displayed, which will give you an idea where the pitch is being aimed (you can have it displayed both when you're batting and pitching), but it's really not much use when you're at the plate against a computer pitcher: The ball often doesn't come close to where the crosshair led you to believe it would. It's true that the crosshair is a big help when you're pitching, but it gives the proceedings just a little too much of an arcade feel - but if you turn it off for realism's sake when you're on the mound, you can expect to be throwing more wild pitches than you ever dreamed possible. Of course there should be a few wild pitches, but if you choose to play without the crosshair the program should compensate a little bit so you don't throw triple the number of wild pitches as the program's real-life counterpart - especially if you're talking about an ace like Andy Benes or Greg Maddux.
There are a few other oddities when you choose to play out games that'll probably coax you into simply donning the manager's cap and captaining your team through the season. Walks are rare - so rare that I only saw about one for every five full games I played. That might have been because I was swinging at a lot of pitches, but that swinging is understandable: The computer pitchers throw very few balls, and batter-pitcher duels are decidedly in the computer's favor when you're the one at bat.
Base running is especially worrisome: Base runners look like they're doing the moonwalk instead of scrambling to beat out a throw - maybe that's why so many guys get thrown out going from first to second on outfield singles. The play-by-play by Seattle Mariners' announcer Greg Papa is an uninspired sequence of strung-together phrases and names - a far cry from the stunning work EA Sports has done with on-the-fly play-by-play commentary in its sports titles. And it's odd that several players who haven't changed teams since last year don't have their pictures displayed in the "baseball cards" that pop up before each plate appearance.
But things take a decided turn for the better when you stop trying to control every play and just call the shots as manager. The entire league interface is a little confusing and chunky, thanks undoubtedly to the fact that Hardball 6 shipped for both the PlayStation and PC, but once you get used to it you'll be able to do pretty much as you wish. Results from simulated games are highly credible, even though it takes just a few seconds to compute each game, and you don't see any bizarrely high offensive stats like in Accolade's dismal Legends '98 football sim. Computer-controlled managers aren't suckers for lousy trades, and setting up custom leagues is about as easy as you could hope for. The player editor is a breeze to use, too, once you get a feel for how ratings affect performance.
Even so, league play has a couple of holes of its own - nothing like the action game, but still a little worrisome. I appreciate the addition of a draft so you can build up a losing franchise or maintain a dynasty year after year, but it sort of cheapens the process when you start seeing names like Mark McGwire, Orel Hershiser, Paul Molitor, and others in the list of rookies to be drafted. There's no assurance you won't see a pitcher named Orel Hershiser in the draft the year after a future Hall-of-Famer with the same name retired! Also troublesome is that there are no highlights, replays, or box scores for games that you don't actually play out; it's obviously a trade-off for quicker season simulations, and some gamers won't miss these extras at all.
Last year's Front Page Sports: Football Pro '98 showed us that there's no guarantee the latest entry in a series that's been successful for several years will necessarily be the best one ever - and Hardball 6 makes the point again. There's no doubt it's got some good things to offer - just not as many as you might expect for a sequel that spent this long in development.