3DO has a dubious reputation in the video games industry for rushing its products out the door, but one franchise that the company has continually improved has been its High Heat baseball series. On an annual basis High Heat is the closest thing to playing a real Major League Baseball game with realistic player attributes and gameplay, but the game's graphics have kept it from attaining greatness. Now in its second year on the PlayStation 2, High Heat again ups the ante where gameplay is concerned but still fails to match the graphical finesse of its competitors.
If a sports game is to be a contender it must have plenty of gameplay modes to explore, and High Heat 2003 has plenty. You can play exhibition games against a friend, play full seasons with extensive stat tracking on five different difficulty settings, go straight to the playoffs, learn how to swing the lumber in batting practice, play with the stars in the All-Star game, or learn how to swing for the fence in the home run derby. This year 3DO has added a two-on-two minigame called showdown. This addictive little diversion removes the fielding from the game and instead concentrates on the pitcher-batter matchup. Points are awarded for pitching strikes or hitting the ball, making it exciting to play no matter which position you're playing. The lone gameplay mode that is strangely absent is franchise, but the seasons are so in-depth that most players won't notice. Statistics are tracked in more than 20 categories, and all the front-office moves such as free-agent signings or trades are at your disposal. You can also tailor the season to your liking by adjusting the number of games or innings, umpires, wind, errors, and game presentation. There's also a create-a-player mode, but you can't change that many aspects of your player's appearance, and oddly enough it's impossible to see your player while creating him. While the omission of a franchise mode is somewhat disappointing, the addition of the two-on-two showdown and home run derby show that 3DO has continued to take strides toward improving the franchise.
At first it may seem as if High Heat 2003 is a simple game, but this is not true. What will raise the most eyebrows is its pitching and batting interface. Instead of using the tried-and-true cursor interface like most baseball games, High Heat 2003 lets its accurate player ratings handle all the work. Pitching is as simple as selecting a pitch and then choosing whether you want to throw a strike or a ball. The location of the pitch is then determined by the pitcher's statistics and the direction you hold the analog stick or directional pad. The same holds true for batting. Instead of lining up a cursor and timing the swing, you instead must attempt to guess what pitch the pitcher will hurl and then simply time the swing. You may even alter your batter's swing to try to take advantage of a hole in the defense. Playing High Heat 2003 doesn't require as much hand-eye coordination as other baseball games, but the end result is far more realistic. If you have a batter who hasn't hit a home run in several seasons, you're not going to knock one out of the park while he's at the plate--no matter how good of a player you are. The pitching and batting interface allows the game to supply hits of varying speed and angles, and you never get the feeling that a hit was a scripted event that you've seen before. Fielding can be difficult at times--especially in the outfield--due to the camera's inability to zoom in time. Even fielding routine fly balls takes a few games to get used to, and this is one aspect of the gameplay that could use some tweaking. Base running is handled well with one set of commands that will control all the base runners at once and another set that lets you instruct one at a time. Other small details like warming up relief pitchers and sending the manager to the mound to buy some time are what set High Heat apart from other baseball games and make it the deepest simulation of the sport available.
3DO has never been known for its ability to produce stunning graphics, and its reputation won't turn with High Heat 2003. The player models look good enough, with realistic faces and bodies, but the entire game is ruined by poor, repetitive animation. After playing a few games you'll see just about every animation routine the game has to offer, and some of them are downright funny. After a player slides into base he will begin dusting himself off with clenched fists--making him look like a chimpanzee scratching its armpits. When turning double plays the ball will mysteriously jump out of a player's glove without any sort of arm movements, and watching replays reveals that most of the animations in the game need several more frames. The stadiums are rendered well enough to tell them apart, but small details like the walkway that runs along the outfield at Pac Bell Park are strangely absent. Pittsburgh's PNC Park also looks a bit odd because it appears as if there are buildings where the river behind the stadium should be. Within each stadium is a JumboTron that shows the game's proceedings in real time, but the washed-out monochromatic crowd that surrounds it diminishes its effect. The field textures also have a tendency to shimmer, which can make it hard to line up your player with the fielding cursor in the outfield. The only special effects to speak of are simplistic particle effects that show dirt being kicked up and pixilated shadows that follow each player. There is no real-time lighting that would cause the top of the stadium to cast a shadow on the field or environmental mapping on batting helmets. The one bright spot for the game's graphics is the signature batting stances. It's easy to tell when Ichiro or any other player with a distinctive batting style is at the plate. The game also plays with a steady frame rate, making it easy to get the timing down to field ground balls. High Heat 2003 falls well behind its competitors where graphics are concerned, and it would be good to see better motion-captured animations in next year's game instead of the awkward motions in this year's outing.
The audio in High Heat 2003 gets the job done but fails to eclipse that of the competing products. The announcer will talk about previous at-bats in the game but rarely makes reference to how a player's season is going as a whole. The stereotypical calls for balls and strikes are included, and occasionally he'll make a comment about team strategy or a pitcher's stamina level. But his comments tend to repeat fairly often, and before you reach the end of your first season you'll be ready to turn him off. Ambient sound effects are few and far between, but occasionally you'll hear hot dog vendors looking for business or a loudmouth in the crowd trying to rattle a player on the field. While not as immersive as the sound in games like All-Star Baseball or Triple Play, the audio in High Heat 2003 has all the prerequisites with few extras.
High Heat 2003 may not be the best looking or sounding baseball game, but its realistic gameplay laps the competition. It's good to see a sports game in this day and age that places the emphasis on substance instead of style. If you're a serious fan of Major League Baseball, High Heat 2003 is the best option on the PlayStation 2. Graphical junkies will be turned off by its seemingly simplistic look, but hardball purists will appreciate its depth and commitment to being as close to playing the real game as possible.