Visible hot and cold zones add an additional element of strategy to the pitching process. The strike zone is separated into nine rectangular areas. These areas represent the hot and cold tendencies of the hitter at the plate. Pitches thrown into the red areas are more likely to be lofted for base hits and home runs, while pitches aimed at the blue areas are more apt to bounce toward an infielder or fly out. This gives you some idea of where to locate a pitch if you're going to throw into the zone, but it's possible for a batter's tendencies to change if you continually toss pitches into the same spot.
Defense is similar to what you'll find in other baseball games. Once the ball flies off the bat, you have control over the fielder located nearest to the ball. If you're close to the ball, you'll automatically catch it. The setup menu lets you enable assisted fielding, which moves your player under the ball once you near the landing area, and automatic fielding, where the CPU controls the fielding for your team. Relay throws from the outfield incorporate the use of a cutoff man, which gives you a great deal of leeway if you change your mind about where you'd like a throw to go. All you have to do is press the button for a different base, and the second baseman or shortstop will intercept and redirect the throw. A good aspect of the defense is that fielders don't always make accurate throws. Your players may need to step off base or jump in order to catch the ball, which means that quick runners may leg out a base hit from time to time.
You can make use of hot and cold zones, as well as a pitch location chart, to figure out your pitching strategy.
Diving and jump plays are another feature new to World Series Baseball 2K3, and they're designed fairly well. When diving after a ball, players can't throw toward a base until they've picked themselves up. On a jump play, such as when you're going after a home run ball in the outfield, you have to push the button a few seconds before the ball reaches its spot in order to give the fielder time to wind up into a leap.
When it comes to play mechanics, World Series Baseball 2K3 is just shy of perfect. The only areas that need improvement relate to the pitching interface: intentional walks and pitch selection. There isn't an option to signal an intentional walk, so you have to sit through four straight outside pitches before the batter takes his base. Other games allow you to select a distinct intentional walk command and only subject you to the final pitch. As for pitch selection, the game is missing a number of advanced pitches that many superstar pitchers have in their repertoires. The fosh, knuckle curve, forkball, and biting curve are just a few that come to mind. Unless you're intensely fussy, neither of these gripes should diminish your enjoyment of the game.
Although the game plays well, most people are likely to point out its rich, broadcast-style presentation as the factor that sets it apart from other baseball video games. Sega teamed with ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, to give World Series Baseball 2K3 an authentic look. This means that you'll see familiar ESPN overlays and transitions while you play the game. The postgame recaps and menus are identical to the score summaries shown on SportsCenter, and the score display in the batting view is reminiscent of the graphics that overlay the screen during a live telecast on ESPN. The default audio settings also mimic the tone of a television broadcast. There are separate volume levels for the crowd, PA announcer, music, sound effects, umpires, and commentators, and they're initially set up such that the ballpark atmosphere is subdued compared to the commentary and music that originate in the broadcast booth. A particularly nice touch is that the musical selections are actually the same ditties you can hear while tuning in to the various sports wrap-ups on ESPN. This includes the themes to Baseball Tonight and SportsCenter.
The use of TV-style camera angles and the presence of official ESPN overlays help WSB 2K3 mimic an actual baseball telecast.
ESPN influences notwithstanding, the graphics and audio in World Series Baseball 2K3 are exceptional. The game's visuals are sharper than those in any other baseball game currently on the market, which means that you can actually see things like the grass designs cut into the field or the eyelids of the players as they come up to bat. The amount of detail is astonishing. Cars drive along the freeways outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, and you can actually see the spectator boxes sitting atop the sports bars outside Wrigley Field in Chicago. Inside ballparks with an open-air design, birds often make impromptu flights onto the field. For the most part, the faces of the players and their uniforms are right on. The lighting in the ballpark is especially impressive. You've probably come to expect player shadows and overcast shade in baseball video games, but World Series Baseball 2K3 goes so far as to dynamically shade the wrinkles on players' uniforms.
Player animation is an area where there is some room for improvement. In the field, players execute all of their various leaps, grabs, and throws with a high level of fluidity. It's also nice to watch the umpires and coaches dive out of the way of line drives. Up at the plate, however, batting stances loop so quickly that the players seem almost robotic in their actions. Also, the expressions on their faces hardly move during close-ups, which comes across as eerie much of the time. A little more mouth and eye movement, as well as livelier motions at the plate, would go a long way toward making the players appear more human. As with the concerns mentioned above pertaining to the pitching interface, these problems don't have much influence over whether or not you'll appreciate the game's overall look. It's gorgeous, despite a few rough edges.
The primary thing Sega needs to do next year to improve the game's production values is to pep up the audio. Even though the volume level of the commentary is meant to drown out the noise of the crowd and the public-address music, the atmosphere within the stadium doesn't change much in response to rallies, close games, or blowouts. If you've ever watched a baseball game on television, you know how loud the stadium music and the spectators can get during a late-inning rally.
Griffey looks perfect, but he needs to blink his eyes and move his head a little more.
Aside from the lack of vigor, the audio in World Series Baseball 2K3 conveys everything necessary to create a realistic ballpark setting. Fans in the seats respond to balls, strikes, walks, and fly balls with varying degrees of excitement. If you're playing the home team, for example, and you pop up to the infield, the spectators will boo knowing that the opposing team is going to catch the ball for an out. When the situation is reversed, however, and you're on the visiting team, they'll cheer instead. World Series Baseball 2K3 is also one of the few games that feature player-specific catcalls. Fans behind the plate express their fair share of positive and negative comments about the batter currently up to bat, and they have specific phrases reserved for individual players as well. It isn't uncommon, for example, for someone in the stands to make fun of Derek Jeter's proclivity for dating supermodels. In addition to the fans, you'll also hear the PA announcer introduce players during their at-bats, vendors hawking food in the stands, and musical snippets prior to the at-bats of home-team players.
It's too bad that Sega didn't enlist any familiar ESPN personalities to provide the play-by-play and color commentary. Nonetheless, the in-game commentary does a nice job of keeping pace with the events displayed on the screen. Ted Robinson, a broadcaster who covers the Mets organization, has the play-calling duties. His voice is the auditory equivalent of sleeping pills, but the vocabulary he uses to describe the various teams and the plays that occur is satisfying due to its diversity. Rex Hudler provides the color commentary, giving anecdotes and historical background whenever an interesting player comes to the plate. Hudler is a former player himself and is currently a broadcaster for the Anaheim Angels. He has a gruff voice and speaks in a blue-collar style that's quite a contrast to Robinson's clean-cut mannerisms.
Minor criticisms aside, World Series Baseball 2K3 is spectacular. It's easy to play and deep enough to lose yourself in. The ESPN branding may seem like a gimmick at first, but it's really just one part of a thoroughly enjoyable product.