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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by 3DO and Team .366

Ups: Amazing gameplay: great depth, realism, and graphics. The best baseball game ever. Will make you forget Strat-o-matic forever. 

Downs:  Some clipping, few audio glitches.

System Reqs: P166, 32MB RAM, 4X CD< 110 MB HD space, 3D accelerator.

Even though we’re 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, it’s time to start reading up on off-season moves and get those fantasy league cheat sheets ready. It’s also time to get ready for the annual flood of PC baseball games. The first game out of the gate this year is 3DO’s 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 it’s 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 Baseball’s 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 EA’s mega-hyped, arcadey, and slipshod Triple Play games—the name of which alone makes SABRE members gag.  Stung by this, 3DO pulled a brilliant marketing move and stole last year’s Triple Play spokesman, Sammy Sosa. I know that in a perfect world shiny pictures of celebrities wouldn’t sell baseball games, but in this one they do, and the difference between last year’s rather plain High Heat box and this year’s flashy edition should make a big difference in sales. Usually I don’t approve of this sort of thing, but I do in this case--because if Sammy’s picture gets one more person to buy High Heat Baseball 2001, it’s one more gamer who will play what is the best PC baseball game ever made—and 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 you’ll control your team’s 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 year’s 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 game’s enjoyable-but-arcadey Home Run Derby. However, the game’s “scalabilty” allowed me to start them off at rookie level and slowly introduce more features until they’re now regularly whipping up on ol’ da. 

And the game’s graphics are incredible. They’re a marked improvement over last year’s, though the game’s 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, they’re 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 he’s from another planet. The game also includes loads of new animations, including diving and over-the-shoulder catches that’ll have you holding your breath. I’ve always been impressed by High Heat’s ball physics, and this year’s are no exception: line drives rattle impressively off walls, soft flares drop just out of fielders’ reaches, towering homers—well, 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 game’s sound is also exceptional, with authentic crowd noise and bat cracks.  I also like the game’s announcing, which is understated and (mostly) accurate.

But 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 second—and by then it’s too late.  Fortunately, this year’s version has a batting practice mode to get you up to speed before taking on Pedro. Pitching is realistic, too—your pitchers will be armed with an array of two to seven possible pitches—some 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, you’ll learn a little something about baseball with every High Heat at bat—like why it’s 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 Heat’s 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 year’s more problematic on-field glitches-- including a puzzling amount of balls that caromed off the walls for mere singles and a dearth of double plays—have been remedied.  It’s still a challenge to turn a double play, but it can be done.  But the best thing about High Heat’s 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 one’s opponent), its multiplayer options include LAN and internet, as well as over HEAT.

For years, I have insisted that Earl Weaver Baseball was the best baseball game ever. Last year’s High Heat almost changed my mind. This year’s Sammy Sosa’s High Heat 2001 has wholeheartedly converted me. This game is an instant classic—not 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.

--Rick Fehrenbacher