Sports fans have waited three years for the resurrection of Sega's World Series Baseball franchise. Many of the ideas in WSB '98 were so revolutionary that competing titles borrowed its innovations and still spent two years playing catch-up. As you can imagine, anticipation for the DC release of WSB 2K1 has been high. It may be a few weeks late, but World Series Baseball 2K1 is now a reality. Has Sega delivered another killer baseball app that will leave the competition years behind? In a word: No.
At the outset, you have five options: exhibition, quick play, season, playoffs, and customize. Exhibition and quick play let you begin a single one- or two-player game, whereas the season mode lets you play 13/15, 26/30, 52, 104, and 162 game seasons. There is no home run derby mode. The absence of such a mode isn't a major crime in itself, but it seems suspicious that a feature hyped at E3 didn't make it into the final game. Rosters are current as of June 2000, but not entirely correct. For example, instead of Brian Daubach playing first for the Red Sox as he has been all season, there's some guy named Clay Sasse. There aren't any Hall of Fame teams or minor league call-ups, either.
While diverse player selection and a home run derby are subjective needs, stat tracking is an area where World Series Baseball 2K1 really falters. Even the worst baseball games nowadays have plentiful statistics. There's a fine line between too little and too much, but WSB 2K1's 11 team, 16 batting, and 14 pitching categories barely scratch the surface. Sure, you have on-base average and slugging percentage, but where's the combined stat OBA+SLG% that stands as a true indicator of offensive skill? Yes, the game tracks basic stuff like runs, hits and walks, but what about righty vs. lefty comparisons? Strangely, the game doesn't track errors either. Oh well. At least WSB 2K1's customization features are decent, allowing you to name a player, alter his facial and body features, and assign him a number of offensive and defensive skills. Each player has a reserve of points that can be added to various slider bars: contact, power, speed, defense, and arm. For pitchers, there are six pitching styles to choose from, enabling you to dole out points between five possible pitches: slider, curve, sinker, screwball, and their trademark pitch.
Since the season mode seems to be where it's at, let's discuss gameplay. First, the good: pitching. Pitch choice is shown via a circular indicator with hash marks protruding from eight possible sides. The hash marks represent where to position the analog pad for each pitch, and the length represents how effective the pitch is at the time. After choosing the pitch, a fluctuating bar appears, representing both the speed and control of the pitch you're about to throw. For best results, you need to hit the A button when it reaches the top. Once you've done that, you can use the analog stick to control pitch location until the ball is released. It sounds complex, but the entire process is both intuitive and realistic.
Although innovative, WSB 2K1's batting isn't nearly as refined as the pitching experience. You don't press the R trigger to swing, rather you hold it down to tighten up your stance and release the trigger to swing. Swing too soon, and you'll blow by the pitch or loft a pop-up. Let go too late, and you'll strike out or hit an easy grounder. After each swing, the game tells you via a printed indicator how good your timing is, whether "too early," "perfect timing," or "too late." The problem in this system isn't the novelty of it, but how the game incorporates player strengths and timing. For no apparent reason, sometimes a player will take a full second to swing after you've released the trigger, while at other times he'll go off like a cocked cannon. If certain players had a greater tendency toward this than others, it wouldn't be so bad, but the effect seems to be random.
Although Sega chose to use an analog button for batting, there is no way to check your swing or vary the strength of it. Additionally, you can't really control the type of swing (push or pull, for example), nor can you position the batter in the batters box. Also worth noting is the lack of hot/cold indicators for hitters. Not only is this concept a modern baseball video game standard, but it is also falsely advertised as an in-game feature on the back of WSB 2K1's own jewel case. Contrary to what the case states, there simply aren't any hot/cold indicators or scouting reports for hitting. Unless you have expert knowledge of MLB players, you'll never know what pitches are effective against what hitter or which player to use in pinch-hit situations.
After WSB 2K1's superior pitching and acceptable batting, you're left with its rendition of fielding. World Series Baseball 2K1 has an interesting take on fielding: There isn't any. None. Once the ball leaves the bat, your fielders automatically go after it. You don't even have control over how they catch the ball, as the CPU dictates whether they attempt a leap, slide, or bare-hand grab. Once they've gloved the ball, then you can tell them where to throw it. Some people may enjoy auto-fielding, but the complete lack of a manual fielding option is questionable. Enabling auto-fielding by default is one thing, but forcing its use reeks of cutting corners. After all, fielding is an integral part of baseball.
Since fielding is CPU controlled, it also allows the CPU to control the flow of the game. There are five difficulty levels and a handicap option, but none of these variables actually varies the simulation level, so all you're ever adjusting is how much the computer cheats. The more you disable the handicap and raise the difficulty, the more the computer will outright control the game's outcome. You'll release the batting trigger, but Nomar will swing a second later. Bonds will loft a pop-up into the air, but your fielders won't budge until the ball is about to land. You'll tell Buhner to shotgun the ball to second, only to watch him delay two or three seconds before doing so. This kind of manipulation is so blatant that you'd think you were playing a baseball version of NBA Jam.
Just as WSB 2K1 is a big pile of mixed blessings and disappointments when it comes to gameplay, the "sweating the details" portion of the game is also hit or miss. CPU-controlled pitchers throw strikes more often than not, and they will intentionally walk a player to set up the double play - but unintentional walks are few and far between. The percentage of ground balls vs. line drives seems to be spot on, but home runs are far too common. For example, Nomar Garciaparra has 35 dingers in 32 games! There's also something wrong with the base running. Human-controlled runners always take off after a hit, but CPU players rarely do. Even worse, the game sometimes blatantly ignores the command to run back. Since there's no option to disable automatic lead-offs and base advancement, you'll find yourself in a lot of bizarre double play situations that simply shouldn't happen. WSB '98 had a similar problem, but WSB 2K1's rendition of it is doubly aggravating.
Despite a number of glaring flaws, there is one area where WSB 2K1 succeeds - visuals. No baseball game has ever looked this nice. Just as NBA 2K approaches broadcast quality, so does WSB 2K1. Each of the game's 30 stadium models is immaculately detailed, right down to surrounding landmarks, concourse layout, and speaker locations. Crowd animation is a bit on the "looped" side, but they are a welcome change from the flat single textures of the Triple Play and MLB series on the PlayStation. The player models are amazing. There are a plethora of body types and facial features that, when coupled with the high polygon count, make for players that not only look human, but also lack obvious polygon seams. While the game doesn't have a separate body for every player, the game's graphic artists made sure that overly popular or skilled players had their own physical traits. Mark McGwire, Pedro Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, and players of their ilk are all rendered perfectly. John Olerud even wears a batting helmet in the field. Admittedly, there is slowdown at times, usually when more than two base runners are on the field or during stolen base attempts, but it never gets in the way of actual gameplay.
While WSB 2K1's gameplay is a source of controversy and the visuals are a source of giddy pleasure, the game's audio is surprisingly average. Play-by-play is an improvement over the last WSB, but it is lacking in diversity compared to offerings on other systems. You'd think an extra 250MB of space would yield more variety or clarity, but such is not the case. If the score remains unchanged, the announcer will always say "The score: Seattle nothing, Boston nothing" between each inning. How about mixing it up a little? Would it have been difficult to include phrases such as "At the end of the first, no score" or "Into the top of the fifth, scoreless?" Crowd noise is fairly good at least, though the booing effect sounds like eight people sitting in a garage in front of a tape recorder. The crack of the bat, though, is dead on, as are all the catching and fielding effects. Having a variety of singers doing the national anthem is also a nice touch.
Were expectations too high? Have years of nostalgia over WSB '98 marred the reception of WSB 2K1? Maybe, but only a little. One can't use high expectations to explain away all of WSB 2K1's flaws. The lack of manual fielding is ridiculous, and the statistics tracking is laughable. There are scouting reports and hot/cold meters for pitching, but not batting. Why? There's also the lack of a home run derby and the CPU-controlled pacing to consider. The game literally has so many flaws that it is impossible to mention them all in a single review. In fact, even though it's in final packaging, WSB 2K1 is obviously an unfinished product. If you're asking yourself if you should you buy this game, the answer is an emphatic "No."