I play a lot of MLB The Show these days, and before that even, I used to play some of the classic videogames like RBI Baseball and Baseball Stars. It would be hard to even estimate the amount of time I spent on these games, and recently, I’ve wondered what it might be like to perform the game live and in the flesh. You know, like, out on a field or something. Well thanks to some brilliant work by Abner Doubleday and the folks from Cooperstown, I have been given my chance – and what an experience it was.
What struck me first about Baseball was the stunning graphics. Building on the highly touted reality graphics engine, Baseball offers some of the most visually arresting moments in all of gaming. Whether watching the ball dribble of the end of my bat toward the third baseman, or tracking a fly ball as it graceful precipitates into my opened outfield mitt, all the animations are seamless and the character models are unbelievably life-like. Even the crowds in the stands seem to behave like I imagine a real crowd should, getting up to go to the bathroom, cheering, and interacting with each other. It is clear that the folks at Cooperstown really invested a lot into leveraging the reality engine to produce the highest quality graphics available, and their hard work has really paid off. Even if you don’t like this genre of “reality” sports games, you owe it to yourself to at least download the demo to witness a glimpse of the future of gaming graphics.
Beyond just the amazing graphical advances technologically of Baseball the art direction truly shines as well. The game sports a slightly retro aesthetic, while incorporating cultural images that really make the world come alive. The in-game advertisements, a feature that usually leads to many groans from players, actually enhances the experience of the game. The world of Baseball is a world of beer and hot dogs, and insurance and airlines. The seamless integration of the advertisements and the architectural design of the stadiums and even the cities in which the stadium resides totally immerses you in the game. You’ll feel like you are really in the world of baseball when you play Baseball. Not since Bioshock have I felt so immersed in a game world.
The rules of Baseball are simple, but very deep. To win the game you need to only score more points (called runs) than the other team. To score a run, a player must move from station to station around a diamond from base to base. You may only advance bases when a small stitched leather ball is “in play.” The game is played in un-timed rounds (called innings) and a single game will last 9 innings, or more in the event of a tie after the initial set. Each inning is divided in half with a “top” and “bottom” of the inning. In any given half inning, one team is said to be on defense, trying to stop the other team from scoring runs. Teams then switch, back and forth, until the game is over. There is a lot more to how an inning begins and ends, and the order of events, but this comprises the fundamental sequence of events in a game.
The real heart of baseball is the pitching and hitting mechanic. To put a ball “in play” a member of the defensive team called the “pitcher” will throw the ball to a teammate standing at one of the bases, designated “home.” The offensive player tries to hit the flying ball with a club to initiate the scoring phase of the game. The depth of the pitching and hitting mechanic is incredible. Because of the stitching on the ball, and because of the physics of the world, a pitcher can throw the ball so that it “curves” or “drops.” There is a variety of different pitches that one may choose from the straight flying “fastball” to the angling dropping “slider” and everything in between. Perhaps the most deadly skill a pitcher has is the ability to change the speed of the pitch but pulling off some on the energy meter, or by gripping the ball differently.
Because of the unpredictability of the flight of the ball, batting is quite difficult. The mechanics of swinging the bat alone are hard, but combine that with the strategy of trying to guess or react to unpredictable pitches, and hitting becomes one of the hardest skills in any game I have ever played.
Baseball is, in fact, a very hard game. You could spend your entire life devoted to trying to master the game, but you never will. The best batters are successful only about 30% of the time, and that is remarkable. For many hardcore gamers, the challenge will be welcome. But if your idea of a good time is more like playing Bejeweled on the subway, then it may be that Baseball is not for you. That said, if you can get into Baseball at all, then you will be rewarded with a game that has tremendous replay value.
Bottom of the Ninth
Baseball is an instant classic. The mind-blowing graphics, and the tremendously deep and re-playable gameplay are outstanding for first time developers Cooperstown. This is the type of game that will stay with you for the entirety of your life. The experiences you will have in Baseball will be so varied and nuanced, that after years of playing you will still be surprised by new animations and new in game events. The cutscenes are spectacular and riveting, and the games stories are engaging. The only disappointing part of the game is the music and sound. The style of music is too diverse and lacks any coherence. At any point in the game you might switch from a Latin American Salsa to any of a number of Nickleback songs. The sound effects, specifically that of the ball hitting the catchers mitt, are repetitive and grow annoying. Most of you will play with your own soundtrack on anyway, so this limitation does not really devalue the game as a whole too much.
You owe it to yourself to play Baseball. It is one of the greatest games I have ever experienced, and that is not hyperbole. It belongs in any gamers top ten list right alongside Super Mario Bros. 3, Halo, and any of a number other classic games. Don’t let this one pass you by. Trust me.