When Major League Baseball needed to reclaim fans lost to the more kinetic sports like basketball and football, it employed a brilliant ad campaign that featured the slogan: "Chicks dig the long ball." Clearly aimed at the male fan who is more enamored with Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter's aerial theatrics, it was a funny and somewhat self-deprecating jab at the sport while trying to make it cool again. It helped that it was employed at the same time that Mark McGwuire and Sammy Sosa were setting distance records with each at bat—and thanks to a juiced baseball and miniscule strike zones, even lowly bench-warmers were pleasing the crowds with unprecedented homerun proclivity. One look at baseball's improved standings these days, not to mention the Sportcenter highlights, offer proof that it was a successful move. After playing Treyarch's and Electronic Arts' Triple Play 2001, it is clear that they were watching.
EA Sports' titles usually come with a main attraction—some special feature exclusive to their titles to supplement whatever sports experience they were producing. In this case, there are two: the long ball and the inclusion of baseball's best players of old. Somehow unable to license (or interested in licensing) the Home Run Derby, Trey Arch creates the Big League Challenge (BLC). In the BLC I get to choose on of favorite big league hitters as well any number of the game's best all-time ball players and take them through a homerun tournament. Almost immediately, my biggest gripe was how easy it was to hit homeruns. Even an average hitter could ring off 10-30 homeruns in an inning! Just imagine how insane it got when Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth went toe-to-toe.
What sets the BLC apart from other homerun modes is that it is complemented by some rather unorthodox options. I could play in the standard baseball fields, or when that grew tiring, I could take the game to a number or bizarre environments like a giant living room. As if that weren't enough, I also have the option of turning homerun hitting—something that should be hard enough as is—into a game of target practice. Bright yellow and red targets spring up in the backgrounds worth varying degrees of points that are tallied after each competition is complete. Quite frankly, these were novel alternatives for a little while and could be fun when competing against friends, but it all grew old very quickly.
Triple Play 2001's catalog of playing modes could very well please hardcore baseball fans. Though a horde of menus that must be navigated before even starting a game, Trey Arch did its best to include every conceivable option a baseball fan would want. The most notable is Team Management. Here, a gamer has control over trades, creating players, signing free agents, adjusting line-ups, and even changing the pitching rotation and defensive positions before a game. The create-a-player mode in particular proved to be fun since it some degree of freedom by doing away with the usual stat restrictions common in other games. To be honest, my 7' 4", 300-lb. second baseman with Mike Piazza's power and Derek Jeter's defensive skills certainly wouldn't have been possible in any other game.
As deep as these options would appear to make Triple Play 2001, any such illusion quickly disappears after playing. The hitting interface comes in three different views. The first, an overhead view popularized during baseball's 8-bit heyday, represents the easiest mode—eliminating such things as ball placement and batter box positioning. The second view, one that is lower to the ground but still slightly overhead, is the medium setting because it still allows batters to make contact by being even remotely close to the ball. The third view is at ground level and is the most sim-like and therefore difficult setting in the game. These different views are great because they literally offer a different view of the game; still, I would have rather had such a choice of views to play the game no matter what difficulty settings were chosen.
Another problem with these modes is that with the exception of the hardest setting, the interfaces still favor the hitter. For that matter with a simple tap of the square button, a player is almost guaranteed to hit one out. Why is that? Well, that is the homerun button, that's why! I haven't come across such a thing since I played Home Run on the Atari 2600—remember when you pulled down on the joystick and hit the red button to hit the ball out of the park? Well for whatever reason, Trey Arch brought this back for this 32-Bit release. It is probably one of the cheaper part of the game, but since it is quite easy to make contact no matter who is on the mound, it seems totally unnecessary.
Fielding is also problematic. Trey Arch added a new feature that is (literally) supposed to offer a news perspective to fielding, but winds up only getting in the way. I'm referring to the new behind the back camera angle that follows a fielder, generally an outfielder, as he chases a grounder or tries to center himself under a fly ball. It looks nice in a screenshot—perhaps even seeming like the most natural progression for games to take with the graphical power afforded to developers—but in its execution it is plain to see that the limitations of a TV screen and sluggish controls will make playing this way near impossible. I can't tell how many times I misplayed balls while in this new mode, though fielding wasn't much better in the standard defensive mode. The gigantic icons that are supposed to help lead you to the ball, but they aren't exactly accurate and I found I was better off ignoring them.
Triple Play 2001 seems to bury itself further by not going the extra mile when it needs to. Its graphics are standard PlayStation fare, although cleaner in appearance than Sony's own MLB 2001. Trey Arch went to the great pains to copy the trademark batting stances and swings of baseball's big hitters as well as the pitching motions of most pitchers, but neglected the other animations that players perform on a ball field. Fielders run about the field with astounding awkwardness. At times they look like uniformed Steve Urkel's (sans hiked-up pants). It can be so bad at times that I can't see how this wasnt improved prior to its release. And as far as sounds go, about the only redeemable feature Triple Play 2001 has to be the sterling rendition of Magic Carpet Ride that plays during the title screen. The aforementioned legends, once unlocked, are only playable during the Big League Challenge. Don't get me wrong, I had fun hitting dingers with Babe Ruth, but it would have been much more fun to take these guys into a game against today's all-stars. Another so-called feature is dubbed "rewards" since you are rewarded for accomplishing some unknown feat during a game. But as interesting as this may sound, it is anything but. What it basically boils down to are silly extras like a "skinny players" mode—essentially anything that can be accessed on any competing game through passwords or codes.
Like most of this year's baseball releases, Triple Play 2001 seems to be stuck in mediocrity. It could be argued that this is a case of the PlayStation's limits finally being met, but I think it is far more likely that developers have simply given up on doing anything even remotely interesting on the five-year old console in favor of its new big brother, the PlayStation 2. But whatever the reason, there is nothing in this game to make Triple Play 2001 stand out aside from an updated roster, and that would only be of worth to someone who is already a fan of the series.
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