Out of all the baseball games available for the Xbox, Microsoft's Inside Pitch 2003 is the most disappointing. It doesn't come close to the other games in terms of fundamental play mechanics, available features, or graphical quality, and its only noteworthy characteristic is Xbox Live support, which manifests in the form of downloadable roster updates and one-on-one exhibition matches. Inside Pitch does have a few bright spots--it's the kind of game that you just know will be much, much better next year--but only casual players with an undeniable urge to play online should be interested in the game as it is now.
Regardless of how many baseball video games you've played in the past, you can't help but notice that Inside Pitch 2003 feels shallow. Hitting is purely a matter of timing. If you swing too early or too late, you'll probably hit the ball to one of the fielders in the infield. Swing right on the money, and you'll knock a base hit into the gap in center field. The concern here is that it's not too difficult to learn the proper timing, which means that even the worst players on your team will be clocking hits like Pete Rose or Ted Williams. You do have the option to swing for power or to aim your swing in order to pull the ball, but there isn't much reason to do either since you're already guaranteed success with a standard swing. Pitching is equally underdeveloped. Each pitcher has a repertoire of three or four pitches, and aiming is limited to 17 specific spots around the strike zone. This is enough variety for competition against CPU opponents, but it won't take long for human players to learn how to predict pitches thrown outside the strike zone.
A number of play aspects are just plain sloppy. During the pitcher's windup, your base runners will take off toward the next base right after you input the command, but if you wait until contact is made with the ball, they'll hesitate for what seems like an eternity. Microsoft came up with a great idea to identify a runner's quickness on the base paths according to the color of his nametag, but it's tough to benefit from this information when players refuse to advance. When playing defense, fielding is just as unresponsive and sometimes unpredictable. Similar to the problems you'll encounter with base running, fielders won't respond to a throw command until after they've recovered from catching the ball, which means you have to mash the button like crazy in order to execute tosses to first and second that would otherwise be routine. Following the ball is an effort as it is. Ground balls and line drives tend to die instantly when they hit the turf, and long tosses from the outfield will actually roll until they reach their intended target. There's a dive button for catching balls just out of reach, but it's best to ignore it, since players will often hurl themselves 10 or 20 feet across the field before coming up with the ball.
Even though Inside Pitch 2003 doesn't portray baseball as accurately as other games, it does have one feature that all the rest lack: online play. If you have an account on the Xbox Live service, you can pop into a lobby and set up a game against someone located anywhere in North America within a couple of minutes. Except for isolated instances, lag really isn't an issue. The action will stutter from time to time during long throws from the outfield, but that's about it. Playing against other human beings is much more fun than taking on computer opponents, mainly because the game's problems are easier to tolerate when both players are subjected to them. The online mode also includes the option to download updated team lineups, which you can use to keep rosters current throughout the season.
Other than Xbox Live support, Inside Pitch 2003 doesn't have a wide variety of gameplay modes. The season mode lets you draft players onto a team, perform balanced trades, and play through a full 162-game season--but that's the extent of your involvement. There is no franchise mode, so you can't do things like jockey minor league teams, negotiate player salaries, or experience the joy of following a team through multiple seasons. In addition to the season mode, the game has the usual assortment of exhibition, playoff, and home run derby modes, as well as a unique option called the championship challenge. The championship challenge allows you to participate in nine different events from the 2002 season, which you either have to reenact or alter in some way. Specific examples include breaking the 11-inning All-Star game tie, equaling Shaun Green's 19 total bases in a single game, and racking up Barry Bonds' 600th home run. This is a great feature, even if Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2004 has twice as many challenges available in a similar mode.
Like other baseball games, Inside Pitch 2003 allows you to create your own custom players and trade them onto existing teams. The process is a bit labor-intensive, however. First, you have to complete training drills before you can assign skill points to a new player. The game includes a handful of drills for each position, which can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes to complete. The number of skill points you earn is based on how well you perform in the drills. If you need more skill points, you can earn them by winning games in the exhibition and season modes or by satisfying the championship challenges. Skillful performances during a game can also unlock a series of hidden stadiums. Most of them are mock-ups created just to add spice to the lineup of actual MLB ballparks, although there are a few noteworthy parks included, such as Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico, the home away from home for the 2003 Montreal Expos.
For the most part, the problems and shortcomings evident in Inside Pitch 2003 can be explained away with the knowledge that this is Microsoft's first attempt to create a baseball game for the Xbox. It is surprising, however, that the game doesn't really flex the graphical or audio capabilities of the system, considering that Microsoft's own products tend to offer the gamut of HDTV, Dolby Digital, and custom soundtrack options. Unlike the majority of sports games available for the system, Inside Pitch 2003 doesn't support widescreen, 480p progressive scan, or HDTV display modes, and the implementations of Dolby Digital and custom soundtrack support are both halfhearted at best.
Just looking at the game, it's hard to believe it's running on the Xbox. For every visual that lives up to the system's capabilities, another falls terribly short. The player animations and camera transitions are smooth--as you'd expect--but batting stances and field plays are woefully generic and repetitive. Throughout a nine-inning game, you'll see the same throws to first, double plays, and relays from the outfield more than a dozen times each. Player faces are remarkably lifelike. You'll easily recognize your favorite superstars and second-tier stars with little difficulty. As for the stadiums, they're highly detailed--right down to the specific signs and video screens that are associated with each park. Fenway has the John Hancock Insurance sign, Pac Bell has its giant Coca-Cola bottle, and Minute Maid Park has its flags in the outfield and choo-choo on the wall. The turf and wall textures don't have much color or depth to them, however, so the actual playing surfaces seem flat compared to the intricate grandstands and landmarks within the stadium. Microsoft really needs to improve the animation quality and sharpness level of the graphics in next year's version of Inside Pitch if it wants to go head-to-head with Electronic Arts and Sega.
The audio is pretty much the same story: The crowds are too quiet, and PA announcements and player introductions are few and far between. Even though the game supports Dolby Digital audio setups, there really isn't that much channel separation to speak of. The audio is just too subtle to give an expensive sound system a workout. Inside Pitch does give you the option to use your own music tracks for player introductions, and it's a good idea to take advantage of this feature. Depending on the songs you rip to the hard drive, your own soundtrack is bound to provide more excitement than the default tunes. Unfortunately, you can't assign each player a specific song, which is somewhat disappointing. Joe Buck and Tim McCarver provide the play-by-play commentary, and they're really the highlight of the game's built-in audio. They turn in a fairly organic performance filled with anecdotes about each particular team, and they tend to repeat themselves only on routine calls such as groundball outs and double plays.
In light of all of its inadequacies, the only reasonable justification to add Inside Pitch 2003 to your collection is if you want to play online against human opponents. The majority of flaws and gaffes that are so painfully obvious against the CPU are much more tolerable when they affect both players equally. If you don't intend to go online, you're better off picking up one of the better available alternatives, such as Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3 or Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2004--the latter of which also offers downloadable roster updates from the Xbox Live service.