Thursday, June 11, 2009

Out of the Park Baseball 10 Review

Out of the Park Baseball 10, developed and published by Out of the Park Developments.
The Good: Comprehensive 2009 rosters with enhanced ratings, historical data included, better AI in several areas, nice game day atmosphere for a text-based sim, realistic salary arbitration, credible injury system
The Not So Good: AI GMs make some nonsensical moves, players can be confusingly more skilled at a secondary position, some interface quirks remain
What say you? Still the best text-based baseball simulation around: 8/8

It’s the doldrums of the annual sports seasons, between the Super Bowl and the start of NFL training camps in July. NASCAR is typically interesting, especially this year since my favorite driver is doing well (particularly for a 50-year-old). Other than that, though, we have to settle for the unending, infinite boredom that is baseball. Of course, things would be a lot more interesting if you were in charge of an organization, setting lineups and conducting trades. Lucky for us it’s time for Out of the Park Baseball 10, the latest iteration in the quality text-based simulation series. We last saw this game two years ago, and a two-year window is usually a good benchmark for sports games, as a significant enough amount of content typically gets added then. Does Out of the Park Baseball 10 successfully refine an already great series?

Being a text-based game, Out of the Park Baseball 10 looks almost entirely the same as the earlier version, with some subtle additions. Face generation quality has been increased and the in-game broadcast display can be customized by changing window placement and addition more information (the amount of room you have to play with is determined by your screen resolution). You are also given a choice of a number of themes that change the colors of the primary interface and change around some of the icons: a purely cosmetic and non-functional upgrade. The rest of the interface remains the same; I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There are still some oddities, like having both HTML hyperlinked data and a more traditional display for doing the same tasks, or some information (like the minor league report or positional strength) that is available using one interface but not the other, but these are minor quibbles. The sound design is fantastic for a text-based game. You will only hear sound during games you play, but it is quite well done. The ambient crowd noise reacts to on-field events in a satisfyingly subtle fashion, never sounding like canned sound files. The umpire calls is also done in the same manner, and the audio never sounds like a collection of ten effects that play over and over again. In short (too late!), Out of the Park Baseball 10 features the type of enhancements and presentation you would expect for a text-based game.

Because I already did a review of Out of the Park two years ago, I am mainly going to focus on the new features here, as all of the features of the past games are included here (take that, sequels that remove stuff). The most usual feature of any yearly sports franchise is the inclusion of up-to-date rosters, and Out of the Park Baseball 10 is no exception. Here, you get every player in the major leagues plus almost every player in the minors: an impressive collection of information, especially since everyone has a robust set of attributes (loyalty, greed, intelligence, desire for winning, infield arm, contact against left-handed pitchers, pitch movement, plus many, many others). While having accurate 2009 rosters all the way down through the minor leagues is a fantastic feature, the game does suffer from a lot of rating repetition in the lower leagues. In addition, a lot of the smaller leagues do not have proper team names (just the name of the league, like “GCL,” and their major league nickname), leading to a lot of confusion when looking at the standing and seeing that everyone has the same city name (CORRECTION: Apparently all of the teams are named GCL, which is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Shows how much I know about baseball). Also included with the game is the historical Lahman database that provides players from 1901 to 2008; too bad I spent all that time downloading it in advance. Out of the Park Baseball 10 gives you the option to start out with a fixed team as the GM or begin at the bottom of the ladder as the manager of a single-A team and work your way to the top. While it is much less work to run a single team, you are at the mercy of the AI GM who likes to change your rosters around on a bi-weekly basis.

The most significant addition to the already stout player ratings is individual pitch ratings for all players. This isn’t just a superficial change, either, as it will impact the game simulations as it determines what kinds of hits pitchers give up (and which hitters they give them up to). Pitchers are also rated for their pitch velocity and frequency of ground balls to produce even more accurate game results. The new pitching ratings system has exciting ramifications for managing your players. Not only do starting pitchers have to be “good,” but they also need to have at least three decent pitches in order to be a quality player and keep their opponents guessing. It’s not enough to just take your best players with high enough endurance and magically make them starters; now, you have to pay attention to the pitches they are able to throw as well. This also has ramifications in developing talent, as potential starters will need to learn additional pitches in order to succeed at the major league level. The game uses historical data to “guess” at what a pitcher’s pitches would be for leagues that start before 2009, and it does a good enough job, especially for someone like me who has no idea what their real pitches actually were. Another new feature for Out of the Park Baseball 10 is that you can input stats to produce ratings for a player; this is great for people who like to create custom players and import them into the game. The player ratings are not without their little annoyances. First, players might actually be more adept at a secondary position (other than the one they are displayed to be), leading to some confusion when you are putting together your roster. You can manually adjust which primary position is displayed for a particular player, but this is something that should have been correctly determined automatically in the first place. Also, another one of my pet peeves: why are contact and power ratings against left-handed hitters on the left side of the batting ratings when it's on the right side of the lineup card? That confuses me to no end. In addition, you still can’t sort the transaction menu by star ratings, making it more difficult to find your forty best players. Also, the complete team roster does not indicate who is actually on your 40-man roster (all they need to do is add the star next to the name), making the process even more difficult. These complaints are minor to be sure, but they should have been fixed by now.

If you start a new league with a draft, you can limit each team to draft within their budget. This makes it so that clubs in larger cities with more income will draft better players, intended to create realistically unbalanced teams. Drafting rookies also makes a lot more sense, as new players have high potential but low initial ratings. Previously, rookies (especially first round picks) would commonly have multi-star ratings and could step right in to the starting lineup. Now, it’s a lot more plausible and realistic overall. Another enhancement in Out of the Park Baseball 10 is realistic arbitration: before, it was all automated, but now you can submit team offers and the arbiter will judge in favor of either the team or the player. Arbitration is another touch of realism that makes for a more complete game. Another enhancement has to due with more plausible injuries and the introduction of minor league disabled lists; the injuries seem to be “better,” although this is admittedly a difficult thing to judge.

Out of the Park Baseball 10 advertises improved AI, and the computer seems to be more intelligent overall, handling player transactions and gameday strategy in a realistic manner. The game is definitely more difficult; I have been able to steam-roll over the competition in the past, but now earning a World Series victory is much more difficult and requires astute planning. AI general managers can still pull some boneheaded moves, like releasing the best player from my Rookie League team. Or not leaving any catchers on my roster. Jerk. That’s the kind of moves I would expect to make, not the efficient AI. Rounding out the complete package is enhanced in-game play-by-play and enlarged e-mail support for the ever-popular MMO-like online leagues, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

So here is the conundrum: what to rate Out of the Park Baseball 10? Usually when I review a sequel, I compare it against the original game and rate the changes and improvements. Sports games are notorious for not adding a terribly large amount of features from year to year (I’m looking at you, old guy), but I feel that the new features of Out of the Park Baseball 10 justify purchase even if you have a previous version of the game. Accurate rosters down to the rookie leagues? Check. Enhanced salary arbitration? Check. Individual pitch ratings? Check. These new features are not just superficial, either, as they have a noteworthy impact on the accuracy of game simulation and overall strategy, especially the new pitch ratings. The AI has also been improved, resulting in a much more difficult game, but they AI GMs will make the occasional irrational transaction that leaves you scratching your head. There are still some interface oddities that frankly should have been eliminated by now: having information on both web pages and the traditional interface, not being able to sort the transaction menu by star ratings, players who are better at secondary positions, having the left-handed lineup on the right side of the overview page, and too much manual searching for your forty best players. However, this is still the best text-based sports simulation I have played, and I hate baseball, so that should tell you something. While the improvements since Out of the Park Baseball 10 probably deserve a point or two less, they are “worth it” and the game as a whole is terrific and earns the highest score. For aspiring managers everywhere, Out of the Park Baseball 10 is highly recommended.