If you're into action-oriented baseball games, chances are you're already a fan of the Triple Play series. Even the original 2D Triple Play 97 was one of the most enjoyable arcade-style baseball games around. Last year, Triple Play 98 got even better, with 3D polygonal players, stunning visuals, and improved gameplay. TP 98 was plagued by annoying bugs, however, and many fans have been looking forward to this year's version in the hopes that an even better, bug-free Triple Play would step up to the plate. Well, the good news is that Triple Play 99 does deliver many notable improvements, including 3D hardware support, career mode, and a full-league draft. The bad news is that this year's version comes complete with its own set of annoying bugs.
As the game loads and you hear the looping John Fogerty-style theme music begin, you'll see that Triple Play 99 supports the usual lineup of gameplay options: Single-game exhibition, home run derby, play-off, tournament, and season (15, 30, 60, or 162 games) are all available. Additionally, you can play TP 99 in career mode, which allows you to string together multiple seasons. Tournament mode is kind of neat: It lets you put together a custom single-elimination or mini-season competition between two to eight teams.
Possibly the game's best new feature, TP 99's full-league draft allows you to dump all Major League players into a pool then build up a team from scratch. Unlike NBA Live 98, which also has a draft feature, TP 99 imposes a "trade point" cap on each team during the draft. Each team gets 1875 points to spend on the draft, and each player is worth a certain amount of points (Roger Clemens is worth 93 points, Mark Langston is worth 63). So you can't simply take all the best players - you have to balance your team's skill level and point allocation wisely. During the season, you also have to monitor your points when you want to trade for better players. Trading Devon White for Ken Griffey Jr., for example, sucked up 150 of my 300 total trade points.
The game also offers a decent array of multiplayer options. You can play head-to-head over modem, LAN, and Internet. Yes, that's right, you can play TP 99 over the Internet, but only in manager mode, which is practically a story in itself. The manager mode lets you sit back and control the game with your brain instead of your thumbs. You have complete control over your team and can track a wealth of statistics through a series of collapsible windows. Hard-core baseball purists will welcome the new option, though I'm not convinced that this feature alone will convert too many anti-arcade baseball fans.
TP 99 offers four basic difficulty levels, with a great selection of adjustable settings for each (such as "computer-assisted fielding"). Triple Play veterans should welcome the new difficulty levels, as the game's highest difficulty setting is not nearly as easy as it has been in the past. Basic gameplay is largely unchanged from last year, though EA Sports revamped the baserunning commands. The new controls are a bit simpler, but I really didn't find them very reliable in some instances. I often had a hell of a time trying to convince my lead runner to advance. Apart from that, most of the controls are the same, which is basically a good thing.
The Triple Play franchise has always been known for its graphics, and this year's version looks awfully good. To be honest, however, the player graphics are basically the same as last year's version - they just look a little smoother now with 3D acceleration. The game seems to have a number of new player animations, including several off-balance throws and some really nice collisions. Also, you'll notice several new camera angles, some of which automatically come into play when you make a routine throw to first or try to pick off a runner. My favorite new angle is the "home run strut" view, which gives you a ground-level view of any monster shot that carries over 420 feet. Another new feature is the option to bat from a first-person perspective. This is sure to get more hype than it deserves, but it is kind of fun to play with in the Home Run Derby mode. You'll find it damn hard to hit anything using this perspective, but it's good for a laugh.
The game's play-by-play commentary - once again supplied by Jim Hughson and Buck Martinez - is as enjoyable and humorous as ever. The play-by-play seems a bit more accurate than it was in last year's version, though some plays are still called twice. Also, Martinez offers more context-sensitive information this time around and the sponsor messages are even funnier than they were last year.
The game tracks a healthy array of statistics, which should make any serious baseball fan happy. However, the interface for viewing these stats is just plain awful and involves far too much repetitive scrolling to see simple items, such as a pitcher's energy rating.
As with most EA Sports titles, Triple Play 99 suffers from a number of bugs. For starters, the game refused to work properly with my Creative 3D Blaster Voodoo2 card. The game loaded and I could actually play, but there was no sound at all. When I disabled 3D acceleration, the game ran fine (EA Sports is aware of this problem and a patch should be available soon). Other annoying bugs included a consistent baserunning glitch that had me fuming. For some reason, base runners - after reaching second and stopping safely - will suddenly lunge for third even when the second baseman is standing on the bag with the ball in his glove. Needless to say, it led to a number of needless outs. My only consolation was that the computer teams did it too.
TP 99 also seems a bit overzealous when it comes to scoring errors. Some very obvious base hits were scored as errors on the pitcher, while others went to the nearest outfielder. I once saw the computer team's second baseman field the ball in the infield and throw it directly to the left fielder - despite the fact that the only play was at first base.
Finally, there is one bizarre graphics glitch that just seems too sloppy for EA: Most Major League pitchers have their names cut off on their jerseys. Mark Portugal, for example, is simply "Portug." True, this has no impact whatsoever on gameplay, but for a game that built its reputation on graphics first and gameplay second, it is quite odd.
Despite the bucket of bugs, Triple Play 99 is a better game than it was last year, when it was arguably the best baseball game on the market. TP 99 will face some serious competition this year from Hardball 6 and Microsoft's debut diamond title, but it seems to be solid enough to hold its own. With a few bug fixes, TP 99 could be a repeat champion.