though were being treated to one of the best NCAA tournaments ever,
sports fans are also aware that the end of the college basketball season
signals the beginning of baseball season. With opening day just around the
corner, its time to start reading up on off-season moves and get those
fantasy league cheat sheets ready. Its also time to get ready for the
annual flood of PC baseball games. The first game out of the gate this
year is 3DOs Sammy Sosa High Heat Baseball 2001 (as unwieldy a name as
you could ask for).
This is the third year for the High Heat franchise, and its a vintage one. Developed by Team .366, a dedicated bunch of self-described baseball nuts, the first two games of the series were excellent and realistic, but hampered somewhat by bugs. Nevertheless, High Heat Baseballs combination of solid graphics, deep statistical models, and spot-on gameplay made them the clear choice of baseball aficionados. In one of those cosmic injustices, however, High Heat never sold in the numbers it should have. Even worse, it was spectacularly outsold by EAs mega-hyped, arcadey, and slipshod Triple Play gamesthe name of which alone makes SABRE members gag. Stung by this, 3DO pulled a brilliant marketing move and stole last years Triple Play spokesman, Sammy Sosa. I know that in a perfect world shiny pictures of celebrities wouldnt sell baseball games, but in this one they do, and the difference between last years rather plain High Heat box and this years flashy edition should make a big difference in sales. Usually I dont approve of this sort of thing, but I do in this case--because if Sammys picture gets one more person to buy High Heat Baseball 2001, its one more gamer who will play what is the best PC baseball game ever madeand one of best video games ever made, period.
One of the best things about SSHH2K1 is its amazing number of options. If you want to play a single game, you can. If you want to play a full season, no problem. Career mode? You bet. And even within these options, there are scads of other ones. You can manage your minor leagues and make trades in career mode or leave it to the computer. You can play with authentic rosters or draft a fantasy league. In games, you can choose from five levels of difficulty, but even within those levels you can decide whether youll control your teams hitting, pitching, fielding, running, and defensive alignments. In other words, if you want to play an exactingly realistic game of baseball and micro-manage like Tony LaRussa, you can. But if you want to take a nap on the bench, a la Don Zimmer, you can do that, too. This makes it a lot easier for beginners to get into than last years version, which was a bit too much for neophytes, including my kids. I was a concerned that this would again be the case with SSHH2K1, and that the lads would be stuck playing nothing but the games enjoyable-but-arcadey Home Run Derby. However, the games scalabilty allowed me to start them off at rookie level and slowly introduce more features until theyre now regularly whipping up on ol da.
the games graphics are incredible. Theyre a marked improvement over
last years, though the games distinctive look has not
changed--ballparks are scrupulously modeled and look almost painted. This
may not be for everyone, but to me it captures that ballpark feel
more than other games more photorealistic stadium models. Players look
good too; again, theyre not exactly realistic, and with the exception
of some superstars faces tend to look the same, but SSHH2K1 does a good
job of modeling body types. Dante Bichette looks a little portly, Jeff
Bagwell looks cut, and Mark McGwire looks like hes from another planet.
The game also includes loads of new animations, including diving and
over-the-shoulder catches thatll have you holding your breath. Ive
always been impressed by High Heats ball physics, and this years are
no exception: line drives rattle impressively off walls, soft flares drop
just out of fielders reaches, towering homerswell, tower. There are
a few little niggles with the graphics. Clipping is still a bit of a
problem, and sometimes players will meld together or run through walls
while chasing a ball. But other than that, the game is a true visual
feast. Even better, it runs extraordinarily smoothly. I run a PIII 450
with a TNT 2 and 128 megs of RAM, and I played High Heat at 1024x760 with
all the graphics options maxed and never once witnessed any chop. The
games sound is also exceptional, with authentic crowd noise and bat
cracks. I also like the
games announcing, which is understated and (mostly) accurate.
the meat of High Heat is its extraordinary pitching and batting interface.
Never has a baseball game captured the essence of the hitter/batter
struggle like High Heat. As a hitter, each pitch is an adventure. Is the
pitcher gonna try to sneak a high fastball by you, or is he going to come
at you with the bender? At-bats in High Heat tend to be as much mental
exercise as a physical one; guessing fastball and getting a slider will
make you look ridiculous, just like real life. Learning to hit is tough in
High Heat, especially at the higher difficulty levels and against good
pitchers. In High Heat, again as in real life, a Greg Maddux change-up
looks a lot like a fastball until the last secondand by then its too
late. Fortunately, this
years version has a batting practice mode to get you up to speed before
taking on Pedro. Pitching is realistic, tooyour pitchers will be armed
with an array of two to seven possible pitchessome of which they will
throw better than others. To be successful, you have to change speeds, hit
the corners, and move the ball around. Even Randy Johnson and Kerry Wood
will get hammered if they throw nothing but heat.
All this realism is implemented with simple controls and in a way
that makes hitting and pitching both challenging and amazingly fun. Even
better, youll learn a little something about baseball with every High
Heat at batlike why its important wait on breaking balls and go to
the opposite field with them, or why an 0-2 count is death, or why you
want to keep your pitches high and tight or down and away.
This combination of
realism, fun, and insight into the game also extends to High Heats play
in the field. Like hitting and pitching, fielding, throwing, and running
are easy to control, extremely realistic, and vastly entertaining.
Again, the wide variety of options available allows you to take as
much or as little control in the field as you want. Some of last years
more problematic on-field glitches-- including a puzzling amount of balls
that caromed off the walls for mere singles and a dearth of double
playshave been remedied. Its
still a challenge to turn a double play, but it can be done.
But the best thing about High Heats gameplay
is how much it seems like real baseball. Things can go splendidly
for seven innings, and then a fielding error, an overthrow and a missed
cutoff man in the eighth can lose the game for you.
Though my favorite
way to play High Heat multiplayer is hotseat (the better to taunt ones
opponent), its multiplayer options include LAN and internet, as well as
For years, I have
insisted that Earl Weaver Baseball was the best baseball game ever. Last
years High Heat almost changed my mind. This years Sammy Sosas
High Heat 2001 has wholeheartedly converted me. This game is an instant
classicnot just a great baseball or even sports game, but a great game,
period. From now on, picking
up a copy of High Heat Baseball will be as much of an annual baseball
ritual for me as picking the Cubs to win their division. That way, at
least one of my picks will be the right one.