Game Description: What better way to pass the time than with the national pastime? Thanks to World Series Baseball 2K1, you can bring home the whole year's worth of Major League Baseball—from the earliest spring exhibition game to the last dramatic out of the fall classic. The game features everything it should: updated 2000 MLB rosters and stats for all National League and American League teams; all the parks, including San Francisco's new Pacific Bell Park and Seattle's Safeco Field; and all the management functionality needed to replace a tired pitcher or send in a left-handed pinch hitter.
I can't recall in recent memory a console launching with a sports franchise the likes of Sega Enterprises' Sega Sports. From the very beginning these sports titles showed off the power of the console at launch, and more to the point, they set new watermarks in their respective genre. Needless to say, with such stellar products like NBA2K, NFL2K and to a lesser extent, NHL2K behind them, gamers couldn't wait to get their hands on the baseball line of the Sega Sports brand. It didn't hurt that the new baseball title was a continuation of one of the most regarded console baseball franchises, Sega's own World Series Baseball. With such high expectations and Sega's proven ability to deliver, I was certain this would be the defining baseball game of the year the way Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2000 was last year. It pains me to say that after putting World Series Baseball 2K1 (WSB2K1) through its paces, it is actually a step backward for the prolific developer and a game truly unworthy of the Sega Sports moniker.
Sega's sports titles have universally had one distinct advantage over their competition: the surreally authentic in-game graphics that fill the games. From the opening intro, where real-time animated scenes are used in place of live-action full-motion video, WSB2K1 is a veritable feast for the eyes. Everything in the game is rendered with a painstaking attention to detail -- from realistic player models to the authentically modeled 3-D ballparks. It was truly impressive how well the developer captured the look and feel of playing in the big name ball parks like Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, as well as the lesser known ones like the Arlington Ballpark. There are a few hard to ignore blemishes, like player faces that rarely resemble those of their real-life counterparts, as well poorly rendered fans that are nothing more than low resolution 2-D, cardboard cutouts. While these points aren't horrible missteps on the part of the developer, they are still noticeable while playing.
Sega's most damaging mistake was deciding that its graphical presentation was not going to be sullied by silly things like gameplay and player interactivity. If you watch even a moment of footage of the game in action, you'll see outfielders dive for the ball and infielders perform the most acrobatic catches and throws that would make the likes of Ken Griffey Jr. and Roberto Alomar jealous with envy. But if you think you'll be doing any of that while playing then I've got some bad news for you. Maybe it was to justify the use of motion-capturing throughout the game or to hide the fact that they didn't implement solid defensive AI, but whatever the reason, as soon as a ball leaves the bat, you're reduced to nothing more than a spectator as the computer automatically does the fielding. Well, that's not completely true, because unlike a spectator at a real-life game, you can at least control which base the ball is thrown to.
Sega only makes things worse with its choice of camera angles. While such a tight camera angle works great to showcase the action in a replay mode, it is not at all conducive to gameplay. Many times, a bloop pop-up might as well have been a moonshot because I could not see it nor which fielder was going to get it until it was too late. Often times, neither the fielder nor the ball were on screen at the same time -- making it hard to tell when, where or if it would be caught. If there were any runners on base after a hit like that, I always had to try to hold them back (the computer advances runners on contact for some reason) and this was never an easy task.
As annoying as these issues may be, they could have been overlooked had the hitting and pitching interface been better. While I did have some control over the direction of pitches thrown, and to a certain extent, their velocity as they hurtled toward the plate, there was no clear way of knowing what kind of pitch I was throwing and therefore where it would end up. This is only a problem because Sega choose to throw away the more tried-and-true formula of assigning pitches to specific face buttons. Instead, Sega designated each pitch to a direction on the analog stick (i.e. down for the curveball and down-left for the changeup). It may have sounded great on paper, but in action it is very problematic. For one thing, there was no on-screen indicator of which pitches were which -- leaving me to either commit the designations to memory or play with the instruction manual in hand. The second thing is that the analog joystick can be touchy, resulting in the wrong pitches being thrown regardless of how often I carefully checked.
In baseball videogames, hitting is a matter of following the ball into the strike zone and making contact by either moving the player, the contact area of the bat or both, as the pitch is delivered. WSB2K1 does not afford the player this option so things are needlessly difficult. And since there is no contact area to speak of, I had no idea where the bat would pass through in the strike zone. If the pitch was on the outside or inside, I was left to hope that I could time the swing and somehow make contact. If there were an option to move the hitter around in the batter's box for better plate coverage, this wouldn't even have been an issue. What's worse is that this limited any offensive strategy like advancing runners with opposite field hits or pulling off a sacrifice-fly or two to drive in a run. In Sega's obvious attempt to simplify the interface, it wound up making things more difficult.
As features go, WSB2K1 is lacking (there is no Home Run Derby or Franchise mode) and aside from its above average create-a-player mode, there's nothing I haven't seen a hundred times before. The trade feature is also silly as it allows any trades to be performed regardless of the disparity -- I went through a good portion of the game with Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwuire on my team, and all I had to do to get them was give up some relief pitchers. The other peeve I have is with the inability of the outfielders to throw anyone out at the plate. After seeing the hefty slugger, Mo Vaughn, chug around second and make it to home before Barry Bonds could chase down a ball and get it to homeplate -- this happened on more than one occasion -- I dropped the controller in frustration. This is not what I've come to expect from Sega Sports.
After playing through WSB2K1, I'm surprised this game was even released. Graphics aside, it is nowhere near the level of quality of past Sega Sports releases, and I would hardly call this a decent game if it came from any other developer. To be sure Sega wasn't misleading gamers, I checked the advertisements and press releases for the game and noticed WSB2K1 isn't heralded as a baseball sim so much as it is a fawning tribute to the great Pedro Martinez. In that regard, it is successful, as he is the most realistically represented of all the players in the game. But that doesn't excuse Sega for releasing a game that is obviously not ready for the big leagues.
Most critics (including Dale) have written off World Series Baseball 2K1 (WSB2K1) as a certifiable disaster, and it's hard not to see why. Most of their complaints are extremely valid. Extra modes and features are non-existent. The control response is horrid due to the over use of motion-capture. The lack of control over defensive fielding had me scratching my head twice as hard when you consider that the developers do a complete turn around on offense and expect players to unrealistically handle base-running with fine precision. I can barely describe how infuriating it is to work potential scoring runners on base only to get double or even triple-played constantly on the most routine fly-balls because runners take off with every crack of the bat. Even the old 8-bit baseball games like RBI Baseball and Baseball Stars had the wisdom and AI to have runners to hold-up or tag-up on pop-ups and potential sacrifice flies! And again this wouldn't be such an issue if the control to make runners return to base weren't so unresponsive.
Yet much to my own surprise, despite these usually unforgiving errors, I actually started to enjoy playing WSB2K1 after extended games. Chalk it up mainly to the pitcher/batter interface. There are going to be some obvious complaints like the ones that Dale made about the indistinguishable pitch selection and the lack of batter movement around the box. But there are also some really great positives to the system.
For one, I liked how I had minimal control over the location of my pitches after release, which felt natural. There isn't any overly mechanical pitching crosshair to give away the position of the pitch, and the inclusion of a charging power meter that must be timed for each pitch made a lot of sense (throw a fastball or curve without the proper juice, and you can expect batters to smack it out of the park). The batting interface was similar in that I felt like I was in control of my swing. Making contact with pitches seems a bit difficult at first, but for those who take the time to read pitches and observe placement, batting becomes a rewarding contest at the plate.
What I enjoyed most about the pitcher/batter interface was that each match-up at the plate was a hard-fought battle that I had to earn. I liked trying to throw strikes and eventually nicking the corner of a strike zone for the out after multiple pitches. I liked how as a batter I needed to work the count and chip away at pitches to stay alive. WSB2K1 screws up most other aspects of the game, but the pitcher/batter interface worked for me.
Actually there are a couple of other positives to the WSB2K1. Most obviously are the graphics (which could be a double-edged sword with the camera-angles and motion-capture) and audio presentation, but the other thing the developers got right was that both the physics and scores stay realistic. The lack of fielding control may be the main reason, but for those hardcore fanatics who hate getting gunned out at first base from what should be a line-drive single into outfield or overly ridiculous double digit scores, WSB2K1 manages to keep things on the up and up.
Unfortunately, the positives that I mentioned are not nearly enough for me to recommend WSB2K1 wholeheartedly, but I didn't find the game totally unredeeming like most other critics and gamers. Make no mistake; this isn't a revolutionary sports title, a dream simulation or even an arcade-style romp. WSB2K1 is a decent baseball game with some good qualities with just as many, if not more, bad ones.
Baseball purists will not like this game. It has player stats and updated team rosters, but the non-interactive gameplay and its dearth of features make it one to pass up.
Arcade baseball fans may prefer this game's less cerebral approach to the game, but it is such a poor game, I can't even recommend it to its core audience.
Dreamcast owners have nowhere else to go if they want a baseball game on their console, although I would suggest they buckle down and pick up Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2001 on the Nintendo 64 or EA Sports' Triple Play 2001 on the PlayStation.