Reviewed: May 14, 2003
Released: March 4, 2003
High Heat Major League Baseball 2004 is the latest in a series of baseball games dating back to when Sammy Sosa’s name was being used to sell 3DO’s franchise. Each year the game gets slightly better and a bit more refined. High Heat is almost always critically acclaimed as one of the best, if not the best, electronic baseball game each year; a view that often varies between press and fans.
This year’s crop of sports titles has never been bigger or better. With Sega, EA, Midway, and Acclaim all developing games for all the various formats the competition has never been fiercer in the battle for your gaming dollar. Unfortunately, High Heat is beginning to show its age and in the midst of stiff competition MLB 2004 just isn’t the game it could or should have been. This fact is even further emphasized when you play it on a powerful system such as the Xbox.
At the core of MLB 2004 is the same solid engine as previous games in the series so if you have played any of those you will slip right into the gameplay like a comfortable pair of cleats. This lack of change is perhaps also the game’s downfall. While 3DO relies on tried and true gameplay mechanics the rest of the industry is moving forward with new interfaces, enhanced visuals and presentation elements that are notably lacking in MLB 2004.
MLB 2004 features:
All of the traditional gameplay modes are in place. Gamers can tackle the Practice, Exhibition, All-Star and Home Run Derby modes. Back from last year’s PS2 release and perhaps the most fun part of the entire game is the Two-on-Two Showdown mode. This console-exclusive gaming mode allows you to pick your favorite two players (a batter and pitcher) and face off against another pair of players. It’s a very cool feature that will probably end up dominating a sizeable portion of the time you spend with this title.
Of course the Career mode is the core of the game and if you enjoy taking a player through a simulated career of unlimited seasons, player trades, drafts, and increasing salaries then you are going to love this. There are a lot of complex details and options that flesh out the franchise operation, although a “coaching” option is sorely missing. Of all the baseball games out there, MLB 2004 has one of the friendliest franchise modes going.
For those of you who enjoy tinkering with settings and options you will get lost in the Game Tuning Menu where more than 20 sliders await your finessing. Tweak settings like runner AI, pitching speed, errors, foul balls, and just about anything else to create a tailor-made baseball experience.
MLB 2004 is fully licensed so you get all the players and teams from the current season. Exclusive to the Xbox version is the ability to download roster updates via Xbox Live. It’s a nice perk but certainly no substitute for actual online gameplay.
High Heat has never been praised for its interface and MLB 2004 carries on the tradition of poor menu design and navigation. Cycling through options requires a lots of D-pad maneuvering and button presses as you go through multiple screens of options and sub-menus. A printed diagram of the interface tree would have been helpful, but so would a functional menu system. Doing simple tasks is overly complicated and attempting major functions like drafting or trading players will have you reaching for the Tylenol.
Once you take to the field things get a bit better. MLB 2004, just like any other baseball game boils down to pitching, hitting, running and fielding the ball. Pitchers choose from more than two-dozen throws. You can tweak these pitches but since there is no target cursor this is guesswork at best. Most every other game either gives you a cursor in single player games or a rumble effect in two-player games.
Hitting the ball is all about guessing the type of pitch being thrown then timing your swing with the ball as it passes over the plate. It’s more time-based than skill based. For those of you who have followed the High Heat series for any length of time, you will probably find the entire design just as intuitive as always, but anyone who has played any other recently released baseball game will certainly notice the lack gameplay enhancements that make those other games a bit more “fun” to play.
And that is perhaps my single biggest complain with MLB 2004. I simply didn’t have “fun” playing it. MLB SlugFest is fun, and All-Star Baseball is fun and educational, especially the 2004 edition that features all the legends of baseball. 3DO seems content to shovel yet another yearly installment of their game out the door with very little to entice the more discerning gamer to choose it above the rest of the competition.
I was entirely unimpressed with the graphics in MLB 2004. All of the pre-release hype had promised new mo-cap technology to bring better looking and better animated players into the game. While the players do indeed look better than past installments they pale in comparison to efforts of Acclaim and especially Midway.
The player models look great when they are standing around and even when moving, but when they execute complex moves that require chaining of multiple animations there are noticeable gaps in the animations. Your first baseman may be looking at home plate when the throw from the field comes in. He will simply flip from looking left to looking right with no transitional animation. It almost looks like sprite graphics. The same thing goes for fielding pop flies. If your player is close enough to catch the ball he may “warp” several feet to magically appear under the ball. There is no smooth motion or “preloading” your throw back to base prior to the catch.
Facial textures are downright terrible. If you didn’t see the player name on the HUD you would never know who was making the play. I had to double check the box to make sure the game was actually endorsed by the MLBPA for player likenesses. When other games – even irreverent ones like SlugFest - are offering photo-realistic player faces this is simply not acceptable.
Like the players, the stadiums have never looked better, but only when compared to games within the High Heat series. As soon as you start comparing the various ballparks with other offerings there are obvious visual variances that send High Heat to the bottom of the batting order. To its credit, MLB 2004 offers some of the best scale I’ve seen in any game. The larger stadiums have never looked bigger, but I suspect this is due more to clever camera angles than stadium design.
You can play MLB 2004 from all the popular camera angles including pitcher and batter views and there are the traditional TV angles that capture the outstanding plays and even a descent replay system. The framerate takes a surprising hit considering the power of the Xbox versus the quality of the visuals. Most of this is due to the streaming of the data from the CD into the Xbox cache, but other more complex games don’t have this problem, so there is certainly no optimization going on here.
HDTV owners will enjoy the 480p video mode, but this extra level of quality will only bring out the rest of the game’s shortcomings. Everything is very clean and sharp. There is no shimmer or jaggies but there is also a disturbing lack of detail and color. Visually, the game is washed out and draws from a palette of earth tones creating a very depressing experience. It might be realistic but it’s not very exciting.
Dave O’Brien and Chuck Valenches are back in the broadcast booth for 2004 and so are most of their comments from 2003. Perhaps 3DO is banking on the fact that Xbox owners might not have played last year’s PS2 game, but if you have then you will hear most of that commentary along with a few new quips tossed in. It’s certainly a lackluster effort on behalf of the sound design team.
When you aren’t listening to Dave and Chuck you get to hear all the ambience you’d expect from a day at the ballpark. The PA system echoes in the background and even seems cued to the events in the game. Vendors sell their wares in the stands while the organ cranks out stylish baseball tunes in the classic traditional of baseball before licensed music like Queen’s, “We Will Rock You" replaced the man at the keyboard.
New to the High Heat series is heckling from the crowd. I first heard this in Acclaim’s ASB games and MLB 2004 has taken the art of heckling a bit further. It’s still not customized to the player being heckled but it is a valiant effort on the team to add a bit of additional realism.
Contrasting the HDTV support is the total lack of any support for any high-end audio. MLB 2004 is basic stereo ONLY, which is a huge blunder on the part of 3DO. Sports games especially benefit from 3D sound with all the reverb potential and various sounds coming from an enclosed stadium. The lack of even a basic Dolby 4.0 mix makes for a very flat audio experience.
If you enjoy MLB 2004 then there is more than enough content to keep you playing until the 2005 version arrives. The Career mode is unrestricted in seasons so it will last as long as your interest in the game. The Two-on-Two mode is great fun and will have you breaking out the game at parties or casual gaming get-togethers.
Perhaps I am being overly critical of High Heat Major League Baseball 2004, but in all fairness, this game simply doesn’t measure up to the competition or even the expected level of improvement you should get with a new installment within an established series. The game has migrated to a much more powerful system yet the visuals and sounds are relatively unchanged.
As previously stated, I didn’t have “fun” playing MLB 2004. Admittedly, High Heat has always been more about realism than fun. The people who truly enjoy the High Heat games are those who are looking for a pure baseball experience. These are probably the same people who may enjoy a good text-only fantasy league baseball game, so graphics and sound might not be as important to them.
But at the end of the day, I think most people play games to have fun and escape from “real life” for a few hours. If it’s fun you are looking for then I can think of several baseball games already out and more on the way that offer plenty of fun and great baseball action. Unfortunately, High Heat isn't one of them.