Inside Pitch 2003

Inside Pitch 2003

Written by Charlie Sinhaseni on 6/17/2003 for Xbox  

I’m a huge Dodger fan. Strike that, I’m a huge baseball fan. I’m a purist at heart, I think that it’s pitching and not hitting that wins games. Strikeouts, not homeruns that keep the fans glued to their seats. No-hitters, not three homerun games, keep me coming back for more. In recent years I’ve become less of a fan of the game mainly because of the inflated statistics and off-field drudgery. Do I really need to hear about Derek Jeter’s partying habits? Do I need to see 15 kids in the Giants dugout during the World Series? Do I care if Sammy Sosa is taking steroids? Not really, I care about what happens on the field, not off.

This is why I’m such a huge fan of baseball games; they throw out all of the unnecessary distractions and let me get straight to the action. All right so I like deep simulations like Out of the Park Baseball on occasion but I’m all about the action. I loved the action in MVP Baseball, I loved the action in World Series Baseball and I loved it in High Heat Baseball. I didn’t like the action in Microsoft’s recently revived Inside Pitch franchise. There’s more to the problem than just the action though, there are a whole host of problems that plague this otherwise decent first outing from Microsoft.

It’s not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the game it’s more like there’s nothing fundamentally right with it. There are some nice touches abound (such as the Championship Challenges) but the fact of matter here is that everything is rather ho-hum and lags light-years behind what the competition is offering. Baseball games need to offer something over the competition to remain competitive and while Inside Pitch has the distinction of being the first Xbox Live enabled baseball title, it still feels empty and on the whole, shallow.

Inside Pitch features the requisite exhibition, season and playoff modes that we’ve come to expect from our modern baseball titles. Where this game deviates from the competition is in the online and Championship Challenges modes. Championship Challenges has you trying to top some of the most spectacular feats from the 2002-2003 season. For instance one of the goals is to try to top Shawn Green’s record-setting performance where he earned a total of 19 bases in one game against the Brewers. Another has you hitting for the cycle with Craig Biggio in five at-bats. This is definitely one of the best modes to come along in quite some time and beats the hell out of those lame trivia games that some of the competition offers.

Propelling itself ahead of the competition (albeit on paper), Inside Pitch is the first baseball title to pit players from across the nation against each over via the Xbox Live network. Don’t expect something groundbreaking or monumental though as gameplay is limited to one-on-one exhibition games where one basically feels like he or she is playing for nothing. There’s absolutely nothing at stake, no rankings, no ratings and no bragging rights to speak of. Because of this the online mode becomes appealing only to those who want to play against their friends across the country or those who have no actual friends to speak of.

Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. This is all assuming that someone can actually derive some enjoyment from this rather lackadaisical title. Trust me on this one, this is no easy feat by any stretch of the imagination.
Most of the meat and the potatoes in a baseball game reside in the pitcher/batter interface. Instead of opting to go with the new school idea of a cursor-based interface, Inside Pitch 2003 goes with the old-school High Heat-style interface where you press the direction of where you want the ball to go and pray that the batter doesn’t hit it. It works fine for a bit, until you realize that it’s all a matter of timing. It doesn’t matter what kind of pitch is being thrown, it doesn’t matter where it’s being thrown, just get the timing right and you’ll knock it out of the park. It got to the point where I knocked five straight Randy Johnson pitches out of the park. Triple Play ain’t got nuttin on this puppy. How easy it is? Let’s just say my first time out I beat the Dbacks 10-0 with the power starved Dodgers.

Things don’t get better from the mound either. Once you select whether you want to pitch a ball or a strike you can’t go back. Sure you can change your location while the pitcher is going through his delivery but you can’t change your mind and throw it outside the zone? It just makes no sense to me. To make matters worse borderline pitches that are obviously strikes, even in accordance with the game’s strike zone marker, are called balls for no apparent reason. It’s like the game’s mind is already predetermined, it’s going to call a ball even if the pitch happens to land in the zone. Looks like the game needs a new set of eyes. Who did Microsoft hire to do the calls, QuesTec? Where’s Curt Schilling when you need him?

Something I found odd was that one of the tips in the manual alluded to pitchers who like to keep tabs on how they pitch to specific batters. It’s neat that the game alluded to it and being that I read the manual before I jumped into the game I was expecting some sort of elaborate means of pitch tracking. What did I get? Nothing, absolutely nothing. There’s no way to see how you pitched a specific batter in his last at bat. Something like All-Star Baseball’s pitch count history would have been great here. There aren’t even any hot-cold charts so I basically had to blindly dive into each and every batter. Why allude to something if you’re not even going to include it in your game? It just gives me a reminder as to why the competition’s product is far superior to yours.

But at least the defensive aspects of the game are pretty decent. Playing D is simple enough that any person with the basic knowledge of the game can jump right in and play. Due to the game’s weird ball physics fielders have plenty of time to react to even the hardest of line drives. It makes it easy, sometimes too easy, but at least it gives you a fighting chance on those tough to handle infield grounders. A nice touch is the ability to throw to bases via the use of the right thumbstick. I found this method of throwing to be very simple and intuitive. If that’s not your bag you can always go with the four button method of fielding of the old-school button and directional press method from the old RBI Baseball days.

The player models can best be described as scarecrows with uniforms and bats. They lack definition, fluidity and perhaps worst of all, animate in some very unhumanlike ways. Instead of looking like limber and mobile like humans they’re very lanky and awkward and very simian like. It’s painful to watch some of them move around, especially when they’re swinging the lumber. They move and animate in some of the most unrealistic ways that you could possibly fathom. Their fielding animations are rather weak as well, especially the dive animation. They’ll literally warp from one point of the field to the other in a split second. Calling it disastrous would be putting it kindly. For some strange reason outfielders have a tendency to catch routine fly balls at around waist height. They don’t even do it Mays’ basket-style but rather kind of swipe at it like some nine-year-old at a Little League game.

To be fair there are a great deal of impressive animations as well, but they’re just not as noticeable. I was especially impressed by the seamless transition between a first baseman catching a toss to first and then throwing a ball down to third. He catches the ball from his teammate, picks it out of his glove and hurls it across the diamond in one natural motion, just simply fantastic. Equally impressive is the fact that the animators motion capped the fielders actually tagging the bag as opposed to just running over them. It adds a whole sense of realism to the action that many games have still failed to grasp. Even with those nice touches the bulk of the player models and animation could use a little work.

Most of the rest of the game looks weak as well. Players who happen to run into shadows cast by the stadium look exactly the same as another who happens to be in the sun. The lack of shading or brightness change really makes this feature just look god awful, why even add in the stadium shadows if you’re not going to compensate for the players?

Without a shadow of a doubt, the stadiums are the true highlight of this game. I’ll throw my hat in the ring and say that Inside Pitch features some of the most beautifully recreated ballparks that I have ever seen. Structurally these things are impressive and feature all of the little touches and nuances that keep us coming into those seats 81 times a year. To put it succinctly they’re gorgeous and if you’re a fan of the ballparks you’ll be in heaven here. There are some amazing touches that really add some life and flair to the parks as well. Small nuances like the John Hancock sign in Fenway Park and the number 9 that was mowed into left field to honor Ted Williams for the All-Star game add an extra layer of depth to these parks.

Professional photographers will tell you that they enjoy taking night photography because the darkness allows them to highlight the focus of their shots while fazing out the potential clutter that could ruin a shot. It seems that some of the artistic designers took this premise into account because the stadiums are just downright gorgeous at night. I’m especially impressed by the way that the artists decided to represent the stadium lights, opting to go for a sort of incandescent hue that lends the stadiums a surrealistic feeling. It’s an amazing work of art and one that I’m amazed by each and every time I see it.

It’s not all great though as this is where the game’s bipolar nature begins to rear its ugly head. You’ll see some great things in the park such as jumbotrons that animate and give you a graphic on the result of a big play but then just as far on the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see scoreboards that are rendered but aren’t updated along with the game. It’s pretty awkward to know you’re in the sixth inning of a 5-5 tie while the scoreboard in the background tells you that the game hasn’t even begun yet. As a strange juxtaposition the cardboard cutouts are noticeably weaker than the rest of the ambiance and could use a major overhaul.
It’s one thing for a game like High Heat, which was released before opening day, to have a few inaccuracies in the starting lineups, but there’s absolutely no excuse for a game that was released well after the season’s start to have errors in the lineup. There are some huge inaccuracies that hardcore fans will pickup right off the bat, such as how Jason Romano (who?) is the starting second baseman for the Dodgers as opposed to Alex Cora. As a strange oddity Daryle Ward is in the Dodgers lineup, a small trade that many of the bigger games neglected to pick up on. Win some, lose some, pick your poison.

Most of the ball physics appear to be out of whack as well. Most balls up in the air seem to hang for an eternity, just floating there while begging for someone to get underneath it. I haven’t seen fly balls have such hang time since Sega’s horrendous Tommy Lasorda Baseball games for the Sega Genesis, but at least in that game the hang time was exaggerated on purpose, here it just makes the game move like its in slow-motion. To offset the ridiculous hang times are the equally ridiculous line drives that shoot off of the barrel of the bat as if they had just been shot out of a cannon. It’s pretty outlandish as a whole and makes the game very difficult to become accustomed to. Some consistency would be nice every once in awhile.

The action itself is pretty unrealistic as well. It’s insanely easy to score runners on base; any sort of drive hit to the wall should do the trick, even with a slow runner like Kevin Brown running the bases. Again to showcase the bipolar nature of this game any ball hit into the infield is most likely a guaranteed out. One time I had runners on first and second and I managed to ground into the all-too routine inning-ending triple play. Textbook, simply textbook.

I’m a big fan of play-by-play commentary so you may understand my disappointment with Inside Pitch 2003’s broadcast booth. The commentators that Microsoft lined up for the game, Fox’s Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, are competent enough but they just weren’t given enough to work with. Dead air is the order of the day here. Hit a fly ball? Expect to hear one or two lines and then dead air for the remainder of the play. Homerun? A line and dead air. And perhaps the weakest part of the commentary is that there is absolutely no back-and-forth banter to speak of. When I left the game alone for awhile I was expecting to at least hear an anecdote or two about the ballpark. Too bad, dead air is what greeted me.

When the guys are speaking it’s also very uneven and disjointed. You’ll get lines like “Here comes…. Chad Moeller… last season he batted… 238? With… 2 homeruns.” It’s obvious that the different portions of that line were recorded separately so that they can be used over and over but most games don’t make it appear so blatantly obvious. In addition to being boring and dull it’s usually wrong as well, sometimes I’ll swing away at a pitch and Buck will tell me that I “missed the bunt attempt,” other times I’d successfully steal a base only to be told by the commentators that I was out. Tim McCarver’s color commentary doesn’t fare much better either, he gives us classic lines like “Man how do you swing late…. At stuff like that?” as Eric Gagne hurls a 98mph fastball past the hitter.

It’s not all bad though as the rest of the audio elements are pretty nice. One of the nice audio touches comes in the form of custom soundtracks that play throughout the menus and during the ballgame. Its appearance on the field is limited to those little riffs that play between innings and when a batter steps up to the plate so you probably won’t want to put that 10-minute live version of Inna Godda Divida into your soundtrack. A strange oddity of this is that the music plays for hitters on the visiting team as well, a huge no-no in Major League parks. Why would you want to get the home teams pumped up to see the opposing players?

In order to replicate the feeling of being at a ball park all of the songs feature a reverberation effect that is supposed to simulate the sound of an echo in a large arena. It’s a nice little touch but sadly it’s pretty poorly implemented. Instead of sounding like it’s being played at a ballpark it sounds like it’s being played in a small office bathroom with all of the doors and windows tightly sealed. Oh and the worst offense, the inclusion of female hecklers. Not only are their voices grating on my nerves but they also say the most inane things. Calling it heckling would be a disservice to the drunken men who make each trip to the ballpark such a treat. It’s actually more akin to shrilling. Even the opening theme song bothers me, when will people learn that women and punk rock just don’t mix?

The AI also seems to always be one step ahead of me. Whenever I put on the hit and run the AI will almost always throw a pitch out or it’ll keep its second baseman in position and set me up for the easy double play grounder. Even when I put on the suicide squeeze with Shawn Green the computer was ahead of me and had already moved up its fielders. It’s very disheartening and unrealistic, especially in a tight game. I’m just waiting for the game to say “nuh-uh, I know what you’re doing you bad little boy” in a highly condescending tone. Just wait until you lead off the ninth with a triple and then proceed to hit three straight grounders to Junior Spivey to end the game and you’ll know what I mean.

To add on to the game’s numerous problems it seems to have trouble keeping score correctly. In a 0-0 ballgame and a runner on first I served up a homerun to my opponent. One could probably expect the scoreboard to read 2-0 after that moment but a quick glance at the scoreboard revealed that the game had awarded my opponent 3 runs as opposed to two. Great so now the game can’t call balls and strikes and it has a score keeping problem. I would have liked to check the replay so that I could check my math but Inside Pitch has no replay feature to speak of, not even after a big play.

It’s not all bad though, even with the game’s numerous faults and problems I’m still compelled to see how the series will turn out in future incarnations. It may be dim right now but there’s definitely light at the end of this tunnel; it’s just up to the guys at Microsoft to figure out the shortest and quickest path to it. Sure this series has plenty of promise but why settle for promise when you’ve got great games like World Series Baseball and High Heat on the market? I’ll check back on this one next year but in the meantime, I’m compelled to enjoy the other significantly superior titles already available on the market.
A decent revival of some sorts, but not something that I’m compelled to spend my hard-earned money on. Unless you’re seriously starved for an online baseball title, try to hold off on this series until next season. It shows a lot of promise and good intentions but it’s like Ned Flanders says, you can’t build homes (great baseball games) with good intentions.

Rating: 5.4 Flawed

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.


About Author

Gaming has been a part of my life for as long as I could remember. I can still recall many a lost nights spent playing Gyromite with that stupid robot contraption for the old NES. While I'm not as old as the rest of the crew around these parts, I still have a solid understanding of the heritage and the history of the video gaming industry.

It's funny, when I see other people reference games like Doom as "old-school" I almost begin to cringe. I bet that half of these supposed "old-school" gamers don't even remember classic games like Rise of the Triad and Commander Keen. How about Halloween Harry? Does anyone even remember the term "shareware" anymore? If you want to know "old-school" just talk to John. He'll tell you all about his favorite Atari game, Custer's Revenge.

It's okay though, ignorance is bliss and what the kids don't know won't hurt them. I'll just simply smile and nod the next time someone tells me that the best entry in the Final Fantasy franchise was Final Fantasy VII.

When I'm not playing games I'm usually busy sleeping through classes at a boring college in Southern Oregon. My current hobbies are: writing songs for punk rock bands that never quite make it, and teasing Bart about... well just teasing Bart in general. I swear the material writes itself when you're around this guy. He gives new meaning to the term "moving punching bag."

As for games, I enjoy all types except those long-winded turn-based strategy games. I send those games to my good pal Tyler, I hear he has a thing for those games that none of us actually have the time to play.

When I'm not busy plowing through a massive pile of video games I spend all of my time trying to keep my cute little girl fed. She eats a ton but damn she's so hot. Does anyone understand the Asian girl weight principal? Like they'll clean out your fridge yet still weigh less than 110 pounds.

Currently I'm playing: THUG, True Crime, Prince of Persia, Project Gotham 2 and Beyond Good & Evil. View Profile

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