Friday, April 27, 2007

Out of the Park Baseball 2007 Review

Out of the Park Baseball 2007, developed and published by Sports Interactive.
The Good: Lots of league options, ability to manage minor league teams, player disposition plays an important role, good user interface with more data than any other simulation, robust online options, shopping players makes trading simple
The Not So Good: Steep learning curve, no 2007 rosters, unrealistic scheduling, computer adjusts your minor league lineup without telling you
What say you? Avid baseball fans will enjoy this very comprehensive management game: 8/8

It’s that time of the year again. You know, the time where I recycle the same introduction I use for every baseball game I review. I did it for PureSim Baseball 2007 and I did it for Baseball Mogul 2007, so go read those and then we can talk about Out of the Park Baseball 2007, the only “2007” sports game actually released in 2007. Out of the Park Baseball has a pretty storied tradition on the PC, serving up an in-depth simulation geared towards baseball enthusiasts. I’m not a baseball enthusiast, but I do like baseball management games for some reason. So let’s check out my third baseball management franchise and see what it has to offer.

For a 2-D management game, the most important aspect of the graphics is the user interface, and Out of the Park Baseball 2007’s is well-designed. The graphics are largely unchanged from the 2006 version of Out of the Park Baseball, but they still hold up well. Everything of importance in the game is one click away, either through the top menu, the bottom menu, or clicking on a hyperlink. A single page can be accessed multiple ways, which makes navigating the game easy for beginners. For the large amount of information that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 presents, I can’t imagine it being organized any better. The in-game graphics are typical of a text-based simulation: the game is devoid of any animations (like the ball or players) during a game, resorting to a text play-by-play. It’s not very exciting to look at, but this is a relatively minor complaint. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 does generate faces for each player in the game and ages them over time, which is a unique and neat addition. Still, I’d like a bit more dynamic action during the games themselves. The sound is non-existent in Out of the Park Baseball 2007: no crowds, no hits, nothing. The presentation of PureSim Baseball 2007 is better overall, but Out of the Park Baseball 2007 still holds up pretty well against other management games.

In Out of the Park Baseball 2007, you are a manager in the baseball ranks, leading your teams onto spectacular defeat. You can start out as the manager of any team of your choosing, or decide to start as a new hire, guiding minor league teams as you work your way to the top. Managing a minor league team is a completely different challenge, as you must contend with roster moves that are beyond your control. The AI managers make moves a lot and don't like to tell you about them, and then your carefully crafted rosters are automatically rearragned by the computer when new players arrive and old ones depart. That really makes me mad and it's easily my biggest gripe about the game. You actually have less to worry about in the minors, though, and it’s a very good place to start as a new player. The game can be played through the single player mode or online, and Out of the Park Baseball 2007 features some robust online options. The online options allow you to do anything you can do in the single player mode, except against human players. The ample options available for setting in-game strategy makes simulating games more palatable and less of a crap-shoot like in other management games. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is absolutely huge, and getting into it can be tough, especially if you’ve never played a baseball management game before. Luckily, the 500-page manual is very comprehensive, and the in-game help and online tutorials make getting new players accustomed to the game as painless as you could reasonably expect.

The options are thrown at you from the beginning, as there are quite literally hundreds of choices to make in just creating a league. Everything can be changed, from basic things like league structure to league home run averages. The game features all of the major (and their minor) leagues of the world; the nicknames and logos are missing (due to licensing), but these can be easily changed. All of the players in these leagues will be fictional, but you can import the Lahman database and play any major league season with the real players from 1901 to 2006. Unfortunately, you can’t import real players into the standard leagues with the proper minor league arrangements, and 2007 players and their teams are not present (again, due to expensive licensing). However, I would imagine that completely accurate 2007 rosters will start appearing online quite soon, put together by third-party modders. The league structure and minor league affiliations can be set (or pre-set in a standard league), along with scheduling and league expansion options. The scheduling in Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is not very realistic, as everyone plays on the same days, and everyone has off on the same days. This is probably the most glaring error of the game, and although it’s not really that important, it is kind of annoying. I mean, how hard could scheduling 162 games for every team possibly be? The depth of Out of the Park Baseball 2007 can be seen in many different places. For example, you can set how quickly players age in the game (along with a standard deviation), apply dynamically generated faces to each player (that also age), and set injury and fatigue options. Your general suite of rules are available: the designated hitter, roster sizes, trading deadlines, amateur and expansion drafts, and financial options. You can also set the stats required to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, AI strategies during the game, and whether spring training is held. All of these options mean that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is one of the most complete (and subsequently complex) baseball simulations available, and you can change any of these values at any time, even in the middle of a season.

Considering the amount of data that Out of the Park Baseball 2007 throws at you, navigating through the game is pretty easy. Most of the important information can be accessed from the manager menu, where accessing your rosters, league news, available jobs, trading players, team and league stats, and simulating games are just a mouse click away. It’s very nice to make everything accessible from one page and makes getting through the game much easier. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 has all of the stats and reports that baseball nuts crave, designed like a website. Power rankings, injury reports, positional strength, salary, the waiver wire, league batting leaders, and complete league history are all available for your perusal. If you’d like to know how many double plays your biggest rival has, that information is just one click away. It’s quite ridiculous (in a good way, I think) how much data is available to the players.

You’ll be spending a lot of your time tweaking lineups and (not surprisingly) Out of the Park Baseball 2007 gives you lots of options here as well. Besides just setting your lineups for left-handed and right-handed opposing pitchers, you can choose how often a bench player is substituted into your starting lineup (either when the starter is tired, or after a specific number of games). This helps with realistically simulating a large number of games, as does the robust strategy options at your disposal. You can set twenty-five total strategies to use during games, including base stealing, sacrifice bunts, pitching, defensive alignments, pinch running, pinch hitting, hooking pitchers, and roster favoring. These twenty-five options are set for every possible situation in the game (for example, innings 1-3 and leading by one run). While this means you can have the AI do exactly what you want when games are simulated, having to set twenty-five options thirty-six times (for each inning and lead variation) can be quite daunting and even a bit overkill. You can ask your bench coach for help, though, which may ease some of the pain associated with setting 900 sliders.

Each player is rated in the game in several areas, although the accuracy of the numbers you are provided with is dependent on your scout’s skill level. Most of the ratings are present in other games, but Out of the Park Baseball 2007 adds a couple of new attributes to the mix. Ratings determine things like the ability to get doubles and triples, avoiding strikeouts, pitch quality, holding runners, throwing range, turning double plays, and stealing bases. Out of the Park Baseball 2007 features enough different statistical areas that there is usually a player suitable for each strategic situation, and taking advantage of these situations is what separates good managers from Buck Showalter. Speaking of managers, you’ll need to hire coaches for hitting, pitching, and the bench (in charge of providing Gatorade, no doubt), choose your scouts, and even employ team doctors. Scouts can be used to scout an opposing player, team, organization, league, draft pool, or entire nation (scouting your players is automatic). If you spot a good prospect, you can use the draft or trades to acquire them. Standard plays are available in Out of the Park Baseball 2007, but you can also shop a disgruntled player who isn’t getting enough playing time and receive good feedback from AI managers and owners on how to make a trade happen. Shopping players is very useful and it makes getting straight-up trades very easy to do. You’ll also have to deal with finances, and your owner can either give you a restricted budget or allow you to use the entire revenue. Your revenue from ticket sales and merchandising is used mostly for player salaries, and any of the special clauses (like no trading and an optional final year) and incentives that are included in real major league contracts are found here.

After all of this stuff, it’s time to actually play a game. You can simulate games, where Out of the Park Baseball 2007 will use your 900 settings and rosters to help determine outcome, or play the games yourself. Although you don’t have any direct action over swings and fielding like in an arcade console baseball game, you can give instructions to your batters and pitchers, as well as changing defensive positioning. Batters can be instructed to swing away, bunt, take a pitch, steal, hit & run, or do a squeeze play, while pitchers can be told to pitch around a dangerous hitter, pitch out, intentionally walk or hit a batter, and throw to a base. These instructions can be given on a pitch-by-pitch basis, or once per at-bat to make the game run a lot faster. The game’s presentation during a game can be shown with the standard field view with a box score and upcoming batters information, or a webcast that shows pitch locations and more in-depth stats. Also, other league games are going on in real time as you play and scores are accessible from the network menu. This is really cool and well done, and it makes the baseball universe you are playing in more believable. In general, the games result in realistic stats, due to the great model that the game uses. The AI managers seem to sub a lot, especially in later innings, and fatigue information for pitchers seems to be off (they are always “OK”), but the games are still fun to play and wrap up a convincing gaming experience.

Out of the Park Baseball 2007 is easily the most complete baseball simulation game available. The sheer number of options given to the player is quite staggering, from forming to league to all of the data and stats available in the game. There are a couple of minor issues with scheduling and importing real players, but most of the simulation is impressive in its realistic scope. You can literally change the game to feature any kind of baseball known to man, and even some unrealistic versions with tweaked stats you can come up with. Guiding your teams while you work your way up the baseball ranks is very fun, and playing a minor league team is a different yet rewarding experience. The graphics might need a little polish during games, but all of the data is easily accessible and presented in an easy to use manner. The results seen in Out of the Park Baseball 2007 are very believable, and the simulated games are more in your control due to the strategic options than in other titles, where you set a roster and hope for the best. While Out of the Park Baseball 2007 isn’t the most novice friendly game, it is the most comprehensive, and players looking for a deep simulation of baseball will not be disappointed.