The next in the long line of All-Star Baseball games dating back to the Nintendo 64. This series has been known to offer the same basic foundation with little to no updates on the gameplay side. Does this game give us more of the same or something new and exciting this year? Time to find out.

All-Star Baseball 2004 is not the graphical powerhouse it once was. I honestly have not played this series since the Nintendo 64 days, so I do not know what kind of graphical improvements were done between last year and this year. I can only go on the fact that what I see is very schizophrenic in nature.

The batting section is good, but does not do a better job than other baseball games from this year. There are some nice little things put into this game that I did not see in the other baseball games. An example of this is Barry Bonds’ earrings are shown in this game. It is a pretty nice ancillary thing, but it does not help the overall graphics package. The batting stances for the most part seem to be the same as in real life, which gives it a leg up on WSB for example. This is the good section of the graphics, the rest are just ok. Let me get to those.

In the same screen we have the pitcher. The pitcher does his leg movements and all that, but there is no definition in his face at all. This game’s graphics fall far flat on the defensive side of things. The ballparks look pretty good, but once the ball is hit everything goes south. It is very jarring to see the miniscule fielding players once the ball is hit into the field. They all have the same movements and have no definition at all with the players. There is really no difference between a black and white player other than the color of their skin in this game. The graphics as a whole in this game are just ok.

The sound in this game sits somewhere in-between MVP and WSB in its presentation. There seems to be quite a bit of licensed music in this game and I give props to this game for using “The Natural” theme song for its own. It is just awesome to hear. The general sounds of the game are presented pretty well. The fans get somewhat into the game. It is not as good as MVP in this respect, but is better than WSB. The announcer crew is pretty good as well. They give an in-depth talk at the beginning of the game in relation to the pitchers and how they did against the team last year, how they did on the road, etc. The in-game announcing is ok, but not as exciting as MVP‘s offering this year.

The control is another aspect of the game that is schizophrenic. You have control somewhat over the offensive side of the ball, but the defensive side seems to be less forgiving. Let us start with the offensive side.

The batting interface has been a stickler of mine from when I played this game on the Nintendo 64. The basic batting interface consists of a cursor that you move around depending on where the ball is being thrown. The problem with this interface is that the pitching is so fast in this game that you have barely any time to react to it and get the cursor to the ball and hit the ball. I am convinced you have to be a practicing psychic and watch the pitcher’s delivery to know what kind of pitch is coming. Even if you know what kind of pitch is coming, you still have barely any time to move the cursor to hit it. In the cursor batting you can also hit the square button to change to power hitting where you get a little square. If you hit the ball you have more of a chance to hit a home run. This year they at least have brought in other non-cursor batting options: zone hitting and timed hitting. Zone hitting, from my best guess (the instructions do not go into it at all), gives you better hits if you push the analog stick toward where the pitch is going and hit the X button (swing button). Timed hitting is just that, you swing when the ball is near you. I have yet to hit a home run trying either the cursor or zone/timed hitting and that really bums me out.

The fielding controls are good, but I have a couple huge problems with it. Much like other baseball games the face buttons correspond to the bases you throw to. You can also push the R1 button to jump and dive when the ball is slightly out of your reach, but the lag between pushing and the player doing it is a little too large for my tastes. There are a couple big problems with fielding though. The first one is when a pop fly is hit you have to be right on the ball and know what fielder you are controlling in order to track it down. The computer has an uncanny knack for hitting pop flies into the gaps where either the 2nd baseman or outfielders could go after it. You have to have your eyes trained on which fielder you are controlling or it will be a hit. These are routine fly balls that end up being hits. Another problem with the fly balls is even when you run down the ball if you do not set yourself up correctly it can bounce right in front of you for a hit. The other major problem (and I have done switches back and forth to fix this) is that you have to get it into your head to push the base you want to throw to before you actually receive the ball. The problem is if you wait until after you get the ball the fielder may decide to just throw it to home plate (their default for some reason). This will screw up an easy put out at first in many cases and can screw you up with keeping the computer on bases and not allowing them to get extra bases. I have switched things back and forth and I have not seen any way to change the default base throw. It may be out there, but I have not found it.

Overall the controls are ok except for those two glaring exceptions from what I have played. I am seriously bummed out that I have yet to beat the computer even on the Rookie level and that I have not hit a home run as of yet. The controls seem to be somewhat broken and I certainly hope Acclaim can fix it for next year as this game does have a bit going for it.

Where the game shines is in the franchise mode and the extra DVD-type modes. I will get into the franchise mode here along with general gameplay. The franchise mode is a statistics lover’s dreams. In fact the stats go far deeper in this game than the other baseball games from my perspective. The franchise mode is also a manager/GM wannabe’s dream as well. You can run the franchise from either position or you can have the computer do it all (except for one key ingredient that I shall get into later). The franchise mode is just huge in scope. You have such things as the Rule 5 draft and arbitration that you have to worry about that other baseball games this year do not have. If you are into the realness of baseball as a whole (playing and administrative) this game is totally for you. If you are not into this type of thing you may want to look elsewhere as you have to have at least a basic understanding of such things as the Rule 5 draft and arbitration or you will find yourself on the short end of the stick with your team.

The one ingredient that annoyed me in the franchise mode was the arbitration part after the season is over. You have to go into arbitration with each player and sometimes you can have 10+ players in arbitration. You can finagle the amount of years and price point and see if the player bites just like in real life, but having to manually do it is annoying to me. I did not see any way to allow the computer to do this part, as it seems very tedious to me. I realize many out there will enjoy this section though. In most cases you can allow the computer to do things if you want it to. For those that want to be hands on with everything though, this game is right up your alley.

The gameplay in and of itself is schizophrenic. I talked about it in the controls section, but I will repeat it here. The fielding can be very difficult to get the hang of. You must keep your eyes pasted on the screen to know which fielder is going after a pop fly or it will fall in for a hit. The other problem is you have to get in the habit of pushing the button for the base you want to throw to before you receive the ball. If you do not do this, the player has a habit of throwing it to home plate, which can stop an easy put out at first.

The pitching is somewhat difficult as well. You aim and choose a pitch with your analog joystick and the pitch button. I have found that where I aimed is not even close to where the ball ends up though, so I tested something. I decided to keep sending pitches down the pipe. In many cases the pitch ended up somewhere other than the pipe, although the computer seemed to hit more often when the aiming was down the pipe. To me this makes the game seem very flighty in its pitching presentation. There is no hot/cold zone indicator in this game, so you have to know where a batter’s hot/cold zone is at so you can pitch to it. It is a little more intensive than MVP and WSB in this regard, but the pitching mechanics on their own are far below those two.

Overall the franchise mode is the big ticket item in gameplay and saves it from an even lower score.

I am really disappointed in the fact that after playing 10+ games in All-Star Baseball 2004 that I was not able to beat the computer, even on Rookie mode or as a straight manager. The replay value in this game is totally in the franchise mode as I do not see this being a big pick up and play type game. If you are into doing all facets of a franchise, this game is definitely up your alley as it does far more than the other baseball titles this year. However the general problems with gameplay really bring down the enjoyment of this game, which is too bad.

An added value to this game is the plethora of information about the Negro League and extras from such players as Derek Jeter and Cal Ripkin, Jr. You have to unlock some of these things though, which means you have to play the game. Unfortunately the PS2 version does not have any downloadable rosters option, so that brings the score down a bit.

This game is for those of you that love franchise modes, but not necessarily for a pick up and play game. The gameplay problems really hurt this game, especially from the defensive perspective. Overall this is a good game, but not a great one in the 2003 baseball battle.