While some games claim to duplicate the ballpark atmosphere, Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3 goes a step further. As you play it, you get the impression that you're sitting on your couch watching Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. The presence of genuine ESPN logos, graphics, and background music gives the game a style that most sports fans can easily recognize and appreciate. Moreover, it's simply the best and most addictive baseball game available this year.
Last year, World Series Baseball was exclusive to Microsoft's Xbox console. This year, it's also available for the PlayStation 2. No matter which version you play, World Series Baseball 2K3 is a definite improvement on its predecessor. Basic features that were notoriously absent from last year's game--such as drag bunts, extended leadoffs, vertical jumping catches, and bullpen warm-ups--are at hand in 2K3. Along with being able to make players perform diving catches, you now have the option to make players scale the outfield wall in an effort to rob home runs. It's not an easy feat to accomplish, but it's much more realistic than the vertical leap you'll see in other baseball games. Other new features include the ability to save games in progress, sliders that allow you to adjust the skill of CPU batters and pitchers independently of one another, and the option to store your own user file, which the computer can use to track your personal strengths and weaknesses in numerous areas.
WSB 2K3 has many new features, such as diving catches, bullpen warm-ups, and the option to save in the middle of a game.
The overall selection of play modes and extras is just right to satisfy the needs of both casual players and fantasy enthusiasts. It takes only a minute or so to dive into an exhibition game, start a season, or participate in a playoff bracket. The home run derby mode is based upon the actual Big League Home Run Challenge that occurs every year at Cashman Field in Las Vegas. The event is basically an All-Star Game without fielders, where National League and American League hitters compete to see which team can smash the most home runs. Although you can't play against your friends online, the Sega Sports challenge lets you submit codes to the Sega Sports Web site in order to compare your skills with those of other players around the world.
All 30 MLB teams and their stadiums are available, and rosters are current as of January 2003. The included player editor lets you create an almost unlimited number of custom players. In addition to the 30 standard teams and venues, the game includes a legends team and five classic ballparks. A handful of throwback and alternate jerseys are available from the game setup menu.
Devoted baseball buffs will love the franchise mode, where you control a team throughout a span of multiple seasons. World Series Baseball 2K3 has the deepest franchise mode of any baseball game. You're in charge of every aspect of your team. This includes drafting players, setting lineups, and making trades, as well as managing the disabled list, performing minor league call-ups, and deciding when to give your players some rest. Tired players don't perform as well in the field, so it's necessary to provide a day off once in a while. You have the option to specify the percentage of time off given to each member of your team, which the CPU can use to automatically adjust your lineup whenever a fatigued player takes a day off.
The franchise mode also captures the spirit of baseball as a business. During the season, your team's success will influence the number of spectators that come to see your team play. This in turn gives you a bigger budget to spend on free agents and to retain veterans who are in the final year of their contracts. In the off-season, you have a 10-day period within which to negotiate with free agents throughout the league. You can make multiple offers per day, but you won't know if a player has accepted or rejected your offer until the following day. In this fashion, you can negotiate with players, but the limited time frame challenges you to sign players before the deadline arrives.
Player loyalty is another new feature of World Series Baseball 2K3. If you make it to the playoffs, give your players plenty of time off, and tend to pay well, you'll have a better shot at signing a star player to an extension or getting an aging veteran to sign a cheaper contract. If your team does poorly, however, or you work your players to death, a star player may opt to test the free-agent market instead.
Each team has one or two throwback uniform styles.
In addition to paying the players you sign, you have to spend money on the managers, coaches, and scouts that support your team. It costs more to hire a top-notch support staff, but their skill ratings play a considerable role in the quality of prospects you develop, as well as in the strength and stamina of your everyday players. Throughout the season, you have the option of modifying the areas that your staff members focus on. For example, if your pitchers are tiring out by the fifth inning, you can have your pitching coach spend less time working on velocity and more time on building up the stamina of your pitching staff. If a member of your staff doesn't do his or her job, you have the option of firing that person and trying to hire a replacement.
Even though the franchise mode in World Series Baseball 2K3 is more comprehensive than the franchise modes offered by other baseball games, it does have a few omissions that are worth noting. The minor league system has only one level, as opposed to the multitiered farm club system you'll find in 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball 2004. The ability to participate in spring training games is also absent, which is disappointing since every other game currently available has this feature. Everything else you could want is here though: fictional rookies, retirements, weekly and postseason awards, Hall of Fame inductions, minor league development, historical statistics, statistical tracking in more than 88 categories, and so on. The franchise mode is truly a micromanager's dream come true.
On the field, World Series Baseball 2K3 is fun to play and generally faithful to the nuances of the sport. Pitchers will shake off pitches they don't like, and you can have them take a look toward runners on base before leading into their windups. As is true in an actual game, balls hit low in the strike zone result in grounders more often than those hit high, and breaking pitches such as curveballs and sliders are more apt to result in weak hits than fastballs and change-ups. Baserunning is one of the game's strongest aspects. You can have your runners take a lead, break for a steal, or hold position on the line while the ball is in play. When you're up to bat, you can call for an immediate steal, or you can queue up the steal such that the runner will take off when the pitcher starts his delivery. This leaves you free to concentrate on taking a swing.
You use a batting cursor to aim your swing, but you also have the option to swing for contact or for power.
The default batting interface uses an oval-shaped cursor to portray the contact zone. As the pitch comes in, you have to move the cursor toward the general direction of the ball and decide whether or not to swing. Balls hit in the center of the cursor tend to land in the gaps more often than those hit along the diameter. You also have the option to swing for contact or for power depending on the button you press. If you want more control over the strength of your swing, you can enable an option that allows you to charge power into your swing during the pitcher's windup. Conversely, there's also a setting to take away the cursor altogether so that all you have to do is focus on the timing of your swing.
Pitching is relatively straightforward as well. An overall selection of nine pitches is shown on the screen in a three-by-three grid. To select a pitch, you press the control stick in the direction represented by the pitch's box on the grid and then tap the action button. Some pitches are blacked out, which means that your pitcher doesn't have that particular pitch in his repertoire. After you select the pitch, you use a cursor that's shaped like a ball to choose the location. Pressing the action button will cause the pitcher to step into his windup motion, but you still have time to change the location of the pitch up until the moment the ball is released. In this manner, it's possible to play against human opponents without telegraphing your pitches.