This year's version of Microsoft Baseball was supposed to challenge 3DO's High Heat franchise for the PC baseball crown. At first glance, Microsoft Baseball 2001 certainly seems to have the right stuff to contend, including excellent 3D graphics, slick general-management features, and realistic statistics over the course of a season. Unfortunately, an almost ludicrous number of bugs and flaws knock the game out of serious contention.
Microsoft Baseball 2001 offers a single-game exhibition mode, as well as play-offs, full-season play, and a home-run derby. As with last year's version, Microsoft Baseball 2001 limits full-season play to a complete 162-game season - you can't play shorter seasons. Also, the game offers no multiplayer support aside from head-to-head games on a single system.
The most important new feature in Microsoft Baseball 2001 is the overhaul of the game's back end, which is now based on the excellent Baseball Mogul simulation. Over the course of a season, you can now track your team's expenses while signing free agents, making trades, and preparing for next season via scouting and farm-system development. Each free agent comes with a price tag and a desired length of contract, so you can build a team to last for several seasons instead of for one season at a time. Trades are fairly well implemented, though you cannot shop a player around and wait for the offers to pour in (as was possible in the old Sierra Front Page Sports: Football series). Instead, you must make a specific player-for-player trade and see if the other team is amenable to the deal. Occasionally, the computer will make insane trade offers - such as five top-tier prospects for Henry Rodriquez - but for the most part, the general-management features are well implemented in Baseball 2001. It's on the field that the game stumbles.
Graphically, Microsoft Baseball 2001 has what it takes to be the best-looking game in the category. Excellent player models and an array of smooth animations give the game a crisp, lifelike look in most instances. The detail on many players' faces is startling. Big-name stars like McGwire, Sosa, and Griffey all look exactly like their real-life counterparts, thanks to exceptionally well-textured photographs on the faces of their player models. Also, the stadiums look better and more detailed than in any other baseball game currently available.
The big problem with the graphics is that several glitches pop up during a typical game, marring the otherwise impressive presentation of Microsoft Baseball 2001. For one thing, several times during a game you will notice that batters line up right on home plate with their bats sticking practically into the opposite batters' box. You can move the batter back and forth, but doing so when this problem arises often results in a poorly placed hitting target. Also, the baseball itself is extremely difficult to track, especially on hard-hit ground balls. Turning on the ball-trail option does little to help, since it just clutters the screen.Microsoft Baseball 2001's gameplay is exactly like last year's version, and it retains a timed pitcher-batter interface, though you can turn off the automatic pitcher windup if you'd rather control the process. From the batter's perspective, you must line up your target box with the location of the pitch in order to make contact. Though quite challenging at first, the batting system actually works very well. It's especially good for "sitting on a pitch" because you can target a portion of the strike zone and then just take pitches until one comes near your spot. When you score a solid hit using the game's advanced hitting controls, it's actually a satisfying accomplishment that's unique to Microsoft Baseball 2001.
However, aside from the pitcher-batter interface, the game doesn't do anything impressive. For one thing, throwing-errors are plentiful, and it's not uncommon to see three or four errors for each team in a single game. Even worse, the game often registers an error on routine throws back to the infield after a clean base hit - even when the runner stays at first base. Its other problems include a bizarre glitch whereby two base runners occupy the same base, but the defense cannot tag either one of them out until somebody actually steps off. It's also nearly impossible to steal bases, even when you get a gigantic jump with a fast runner. The only time base-stealing seems to work is when the game mysteriously decides ahead of time to allow it, so that your runner clearly slides in after the tag and is still called safe.
But Microsoft Baseball 2001's worst problem is that it sometimes ignores the rules and regulations of real baseball: Computer teams often send in pinch hitters for their players and then put the players back in the lineup the following inning. Another glitch arises if you decide to replay a game after it's finished: The starting pitchers begin the game with the same fatigue level at which they had finished the previous attempt. And to top things off, you can actually cheat your way out of a home run. If the computer team hits a homer, and you hit escape to save the game and quit before any base runners cross home plate, you can then restore the saved game, and the home run disappears. The player who had hit it ends up on first base, and the batter at the plate typically has a full count. On top of everything else, the game's audio tends to skip and stutter if you set your screen resolution to anything above 800x600 with high detail selected.
The good news is that 99 percent of the game's problems should be plenty fixable with a patch or two. Whether or not Microsoft addresses the problems remains to be seen, but if it does, then Baseball 2001 could easily challenge Sammy Sosa High Heat 2001 as the best baseball game on the market. However, until then, Microsoft Baseball 2001 is a game you should play at your own risk.