In this final year of the PlayStation's reign, no less than three companies are vying for the baseball fan's gaming dollar. EA returns with Triple Play, 3DO is back with High Heat, and 989 Studios presents MLB 2001. Though 989's previous attempt was rich in gameplay and statistics, it lacked the graphical and auditory niceties to set it apart from EA's more energetic offering. Tired of playing second fiddle, 989 Sports executes a major renovation with this year's release of MLB 2001.
Once again, the 2001 release of MLB claims the title of the most feature-ridden, stat-heavy baseball game. From Home Run Derby and Spring Training to the obligatory Full Season and Playoffs options, the game's mode selections read like a laundry list. Knowing that rosters become outdated, MLB 2001 also lets you have copious amounts of player creation, trading, and minor-league call-ups. Wrapped around these options is the most comprehensive stat-keeping of any home baseball game. Be it the frequency with which a player hits doubles during day games or the player's on-base average plus slugging percentage, every possible stat category is present - 88 distinct categories in all, with a multitude of team and league leader variations therein. All that, plus 30 major-league stadiums and five spring-training stadiums in which to play. Contained within MLB2001's diverse feature set is gameplay on par with anything the competition has to offer. Computer AI is smart, responsive, and realistic in behavior - never falling for common AI tricks while allowing some margin of error. Some will gripe that the AI is a bit too difficult at times, but realistic scores and a decent win/loss ratio reward the player who is willing to invest time in the game. On higher difficulty levels, hit ratios are comparable to real life, with doubles occurring semifrequently while triples and homers remain at moderate levels of rarity. If anything, it's the game's slow pacing rather than AI that most will find aggravating. Home-run trots can't be bypassed, prepitch gesticulations require seconds of wait, and the delay between outs is interminable. For some, this will create pacing faithful to the actual baseball experience, but an average 60 minutes a sitting might be a bit much to ask.Controlwise, MLB 2001 is mostly exceptional. Pitch selection is done via a menu that provides the choice of four key pitches per player, with location designated by an onscreen cursor. Although it's not mentioned in the manual, Pitch speed can also be controlled based upon how long you keep the X button depressed. Fielding is simple in that the D-pad movement and one-button diving comprise the long and the short of the defensive experience. On the flipside, MLB 2001's batting system maintains the status quo, with an onscreen batting indicator and pitch-guessing options providing a variety of swing types. For the most part, base-runner control is also precise, with one notable exception. Once in a while, players take forever to respond to the command to return to a base, even when they're user-created players with full-tilt reaction time.
For the eye-candy crowd, MLB 2001 aims to please. Stadiums are colorful and detailed, with crisp lines and a minimum of graininess. Though the detail level isn't quite on par with Triple Play 2001, the sheer refinement of MLB 2001's graphical niceties actually makes for a more enjoyable experience. Furthermore, player models contain a higher number of polygons than in previous MLB games, giving you more realistic body movement and better player animation than last year's release. Surprisingly, the frame rate remains steady throughout, never once stuttering during home-run trots or diving plays.
While MLB 2001's graphical quality has improved, sound quality remains iffy at best. The color commentary of Vin Scully and Dave Campbell is more diverse than in previous years, but the urge to shut them up still sets in rapidly. On the other hand, in-game sound effects, crowd noises, music snippets, and stadium-announcer sound bites exceed last year's release in quality - doing their job without annoyance. In comparison though, EA's Triple Play 2001 still sounds better.
Pacing and sound issues aside, 989 Studios has fixed many of the glaring flaws of last year's release and as such has created a game superior to EA's offering. Though only a tad better in most categories, the game scores a veritable home run in terms of realism and stat tracking, while containing a variety of features and near-perfect gameplay. Furthermore, the game's roster-editing capabilities coupled with seven memory-card blocks makes for a game that may never become obsolete.