Looks can be very deceiving. Case in point: 3DO's new High Heat Baseball 1999. If you were to judge this game solely on its looks, you'd probably toss it in the trash heap next to Virgin's Grand Slam before you finished your first complete game. But underneath High Heat's less-than-spectacular graphics engine lies a very impressive baseball game. It has enough of an arcade flavor to keep action fans happy, and it has an excellent, realistic statistical model that should please the sim fans out there. The game lacks a few key features, but it is an impressive rookie effort by 3DO's Team .366.
High Heat's gameplay options include the basics you'd expect: exhibition games, season play (16, 81, or 162 games), play-offs, and a home run derby. The game has the Major League Baseball Players' Association license but not, unfortunately, the Major League Baseball license. So while you can play with familiar names like Mark Grace, Roger Clemens, and Derek Jeter, you cannot play with the Cubs, Blue Jays, or Yankees. Instead, you'll see Chicago-N, Toronto, and New York-A. This might not seem like a big deal, but the lack of real team names and logos gives the game something of a cheap, second-class feel.
The game's graphics engine is a tough one to describe. In some ways, this game looks just as good as Triple Play 99, while in others, the engine looks just plain bad. For example, there are several good player animations that add to the atmosphere of the game, including batters who pound their bats into the dirt after striking out and home run replays that show a bird's-eye view of the ball leaving the park. Fans even throw back home runs hit by the visiting team - an excellent touch. Also, infielders toss the ball underhanded when the play is nearby, and outfielders dive and slide to make tough catches. The quality of these animations is nothing like what you get with Triple Play 99, but it is pretty good. A huge negative tempers all of these positive points, however: the batter's swing.
Batters simply look ridiculous when they swing in this game, and 3DO would do well to correct this in future releases. The way batters follow through on their swings, you'd think they were playing cricket, or golf, or maybe hockey - anything but baseball. While this is just one bad animation among several good ones, it is the one you'll see most often - and it is terrible. High Heat's graphics engine does have a few other quirks, including some "hall of mirrors" effects around the tops of stadiums and outfield walls and poor player slides, which reminded me of the foul territory slide from the Commodore 64 version of Hardball.
Still, most gamers will take good gameplay over good graphics any day - and gameplay is one of the areas in which High Heat shines. From the first pitch to the last, games in High Heat just seem right. Hitting can be a challenge, even on the lowest of four difficulty levels. Pitching is even tougher, and each pitcher's performance varies not only from inning to inning, but also from pitch to pitch. You cannot move the ball once it is in flight, which should make some hard-core realism fans happy. It does seem awfully easy to hit home runs in High Heat - even easier than in Triple Play 99, in fact. Also, baserunning can be a chore, as the controls are quite confusing - and the cluttered reference card included with the game only makes matters worse.
Even with those quirks, however, each game of High Heat unfolds like a real baseball game. The computer will drop down a surprise bunt with the bases loaded, or draw the outfielders in to keep the runner on third from scoring on a sacrifice fly. The computer will also take out a pitcher when he's getting roped - something you just don't see in Triple Play 99. Bloop singles, looping fly balls, and line drives right down the line liven up the game and make it feel very realistic.
Boosting that realism is an impressive statistical engine. You won't find many .500 hitters in this game, nor will you see a slew of 30-game winners. In fact, over the course of five simulated seasons, I only saw a total of four 20-game winners (including Pedro Martinez twice). Of course, I also saw six different hitters break Roger Maris' home run record - once with a tally of 71 dingers (Mark McGwire). I personally don't consider this a major breach of realism, however, since many baseball fans expect Griffey or McGwire to break that record in the very near future. It was a bit surprising to see that Oakland's Matt Stair hit an average of 48 home runs over five seasons - actually notching 61 once. Also, according to High Heat, the Yankees are the team to watch, as they won the World Series four out of five times (with the Cubs claiming the fifth fall classic, to my intense satisfaction).
Crowd reactions are very good in High Heat, with the fans cheering or booing according to the events at hand. The play-by-play, which is done by San Francisco Giants announcer Ted Robinson, is also quite good. While not as humorous or flashy as the banter in Triple Play 99, Robinson's commentary is usually right in sync with the game. Robinson will give you a general appraisal of the starting pitcher when you take him out, and he will note the power hitters in the lineup with little comments like "Here comes the dangerous Mark McGwire." High Heat does not have a lot of contextual commentary, so when a player hits three home runs in a game, you won't hear about it the next time he steps up to bat. But the commentary is timely and accurate, and it never gets annoying - and that's exactly as it should be.
With so much going for it, it's hard to imagine why the game doesn't ring up a perfect ten, right? Well, this is still a first release, and it does lack a few key features that Triple Play 99 and Hardball 6 already offer. For starters, the only multiplayer option available is head-to-head on the same PC - no network or modem support of any kind. Second, High Heat has no league draft feature, so you can't create your own custom leagues. Third, you cannot create or edit players at all, period. Fourth, there is no career mode, which is a real bummer when you consider how solid the stats engine is. Lastly, the game does not offer a manage-only mode.
Do any of these missing features make High Heat a bad game? Certainly not. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable and addictive baseball games in a while. But with a talented field of competition out there, High Heat's great stats and solid gameplay may get overshadowed by the likes of Triple Play 99, Hardball 6, and Microsoft Baseball 3D - games that offer at least comparable gameplay with a broader set of features and, in some cases, a much shinier package.