Looking back on the past year's baseball titles, I can't help but be underwhelmed by the overall quality of the genre. Most baseball games released in 1998 offered something of value - good graphics, good gameplay, good statistical realism - but none came close to offering a complete package. VR Baseball 2000 from VR Sports doesn't change this situation much. The game does back into playoff contention thanks to impressive graphics and solid gameplay, but an array of flaws and missing features keeps it from being a true contender.
VR Baseball 2000 offers exhibition, season (20, 40, 86, or 162 games), and home run derby play modes. The game is licensed by Major League Baseball and the Players' Association but for some reason does not include complete team rosters. There are no glaring omissions, but each team has exactly five relievers, and the selection of those relievers seems random in some cases. Also, you cannot shorten or even modify your starting rotation in this game, which is ludicrous. You also cannot save changes to your daily lineup, which was even more annoying, as I had to make the same changes before every game.
The same sort of theme is intact during trades as well. The game will only allow you to trade a fielder for another fielder and a pitcher for another pitcher. This is simply way too restrictive. A player-movement system like the one in EA Sports' NHL 99 would be more elegant, where you can make any move you want so long as you maintain a minimum number of players in each category (fielders and pitchers).
Roster management issues aside, VR Baseball 2000 can be pretty impressive in the gameplay department. The game uses no visible pitching or batting interface, which I felt made the game just slightly more realistic - or at least immersive - than other baseball games. Fielding is pretty straightforward, though I ran into occasional problems convincing my outfielders to move diagonally. This happened with three separate gamepads (and two different sound card gameports). Batting is easy on the basic setting but gets tougher as you raise the difficulty level. Hits spray all over the field, and, unlike in Triple Play 99, the locations really seem to depend on the timing of your swing. There are lots of foul balls in this game, as well as a good amount of bloop singles, doubles, and high choppers to the infield. All in all, the hits in VR Baseball 2000 are realistic and well varied.
The difficulty and AI levels are highly customizable, so you can modify the game to suit your particular skill level. Even on the lowest difficulty level with the highest possible setting for computer-assisted fielding, the game can be challenging. Computer-controlled teams are feisty and will punish you for any tactical error you make. For example, I allowed my starter - who had given up only two hits and held a 4-0 lead - to come out to pitch the ninth inning in a crucial game. The computer promptly jumped all over him and launched a three-run home run before I brought in my closer. VR Baseball 2000 does a great job of depicting a believable nine-innings and of keeping each game competitive without giving the impression that the AI is "cheating."
I did run across a few gameplay elements that annoyed the hell out of me, however. The first was the game's tendency to flash graphics on the screen exactly where you were supposed to see an approaching pitch. Whenever the computer replaced his pitcher, a player-stat graphic would appear right in the middle of the screen and would only disappear as the pitcher released the ball. This was incredibly distracting and - on the higher difficulty settings - made hitting the ball nearly impossible. Also, I encountered a bug in the game that allowed teams to reuse a relief pitcher after he had already been replaced by a pinch hitter. Even more amazing, the game does not allow you to shift your infielders at all, though you are able to move your outfielders. While VR Baseball 2000 won't satisfy hard-core sim fans, it does offer a fairly solid statistics engine. Complete games and 20-game winners are rare, as are stolen bases and triples. League-leading batting averages are a bit too high in general, but the biggest deficiency in statistical accuracy is the overabundance of home runs. In each of five full simulated seasons, well over 200 players in the league cranked out at least 25 round-trippers. Mark Grace, who hit a career-high 17 homers this season, whacked an average of 35 in each of the five seasons, while Mark McGwire only surpassed 40 homers once. Basically, the overall stats engine is good; it just needs some tuning to address these issues.
The graphics offer a similar situation. Though good overall, VR Baseball 2000's graphics engine has its share of problems. The much-vaunted Messiah engine does enable the game to use smooth player models that don't look nearly as angular and chunky as polygonal characters found in other games. Animations for hitting, fielding, and pitching are also impressive - especially the swing-and-miss animation, which is great. For some reason, however, the developers seem convinced that major league ballplayers are unable to stand up straight - ever. Once in a great while, I saw a fielder stand up after a play was over, but even then it was only for a second before the player resumed his ever-present and exaggerated crouch.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the graphics engine was the poor texture mapping used to depict the player uniforms. Not only are most logos and team names distorted, but every player looks like he's wearing a wide-collared disco shirt under his uniform instead of a colored T-shirt. Accuracy is also a concern, as every single team wears black batting helmets and has names on its jerseys (even the Yankees). Also, while Triple Play 99 and Microsoft Baseball 3D each made an effort to make player models look like their real-life counterparts, the same cannot be said of VR Baseball 2000. The only difference between players' bodies is their skin tone and size (neither of which varies by all that much anyway). Facially, each player looks like one of the peasants from Might & Magic VI. Finally, the virtual stadium art is average at best, ranking well below Microsoft Baseball 3D and even Triple Play 99 in terms of detail and accuracy.
VR Baseball 2000 is a decent game but one that does not hold a clear edge over any of the others in the genre. The graphics are better than average in most respects, and the gameplay is solid, so long as you can overlook all of the home runs and the lack of management options. But as the PC baseball season draws to a close, I realize that all we had to play with this year was a group of wild card teams. Hopefully, next year's crop of games will include at least one clear-cut champion.