Spring training is well underway (go Yanks) and that means it's time for the new crop of video baseball games. Featuring fully up-to-date rosters (well, sorta... Strawberry is still on the Yankees' roster. Maybe some day sports sims will factor in drug relapses and brushes with the law), Triple Play 2001 is poised to be the end-all be-all of baseball sims for your Sony Playstation. After all, this may very well be the last or next to last EA game for our aging Sony platform, so shouldn't it use all the latter-day know-how and code-crunching available to produce a near-flawless baseball sim?
Well, EA may have done their best, but the Playstation is really starting to show its age (how long have we been saying that now?), especially compared to the recent Sega Sports efforts and even some N64 titles (Acclaim's All-Star Baseball 2000, a personal favorite, comes to mind). Not that one can dismiss the platform outright... for instance, Tony Hawk Pro Skater is the kind of sports title that manages to transcend the system's limitations and makes you forget just how old the hardware is. But even a fun game like Triple Play 2001, and it is fun, somehow only serves to get you excited about the next generation of baseball games (more specifically, World Series Baseball 2K1).
I was very disappointed when I first played the game. Going head to head with a compatriot, the game crashed in the seventh inning on a brand new Playstation. Coupled with a relatively low-fi presentation (the player models are a bit weird, jagged and hump-backed, and some of the animations feature a piss-poor frame rate), I couldn't believe that this was what EA had to offer to its well-established fan base. And if you do bother to check this one out (and I think it's worth it in the end) you'll have to be prepared for this. The stadiums are accurately rendered but harbor jagged curves and chunky textures. When you foul a ball off it looks like the ball from Pong... a four-pixel, white dot that just kind of moves into the distance and suddenly disappears. And there are times in the outfield when the camera is so far away from the already low-resolution fielders that I swore I was playing a Super Nintendo game. Scratch that... Super Nintendo baseball games had smoother frame rates than this often does.
But there's lots of good stuff. The pitching system is A-1, simple and yet allowing for a deep pitching game. You basically pick your pitch, then decide whether to throw a ball or a strike, influenced in part by the directionality you give using the d-pad or analog stick (my preference). Your throwing a strike does not mean you will get it, however, as the picayune umpire, the pitcher's ability, energy level, and how hard you throw all figure into your successful pitch placement. It makes for some baited breath when on a full count, David Cone needs that strike in the bottom of the seventh and you're not sure you're going to get it.
On a similar note, the batting is dead on. I've never really come across a game I felt was so accurate in representing just how the ball reacts to the bat. Similar to the pitching system, there is a binary system in place that force you to choose between an aggressive swing and a conservative swing. Coupled with the d-pad, you can intentionally swing for the ground ball, or for the air (when you want a sac-fly, or to swing for the fences). When you make contact just right, the ball rockets through the air with a cannon sound and a comet trail. It's a bit Midway-ish, but very satisfying. Together with the pitching game, things behave just as they should. Get a batter the go around early on a change-up, and the catcher's got an easy behind-the-plate pop-up. Keep your pitches down and you can get the opposition to hit into that double play you so desperately need. Jam the batter with a fastball up and in and he'll most likely hit an infield fly, unless he manages to fight it off to the opposite field.
Included are all the things EA makes itself known for, including charmingly accurate batters' stances and pitchers' windups, plus maddeningly labyrinthine menus and options. There are special modes, including a home run derby and a Big League Challenge mode, which pits you against other major leaguers in contests of baseball skill. For me the appeal of these features was a bit limited. Once I got over the thrill of using Hank Aaron (there are a bunch of classic players available in the game) in a Home Run Derby, I was quickly disenchanted by the arduous task of matching Roberto Alomar's 90 home runs in the first "inning". TP2001's home run animation is cute but a little long, and makes the Derby a boring prospect, sadly. There are also rewards you can unlock during gameplay, like big heads, tall players, and other Midway-ish tripe, and if you're into that sort of thing, God bless 'ya.
After a while spent with the game, I soon forgot the visions of Sega Sports games running at 60 fps, and was able to enjoy TP2001 as the good, challenging baseball game/sim that it is. However I wish the presentation could have been a bit more slick, streamlined, and smooth. So many things are being done right here. I loved it when a grounder hit the pitcher's rubber and bounced over the infield's heads for a single. I loved it when Mike Piazza and Mike Hampton both chased an infield fly, ran into each other and both fell to the ground as the ball plunked onto the grass. But there's an imprecision to the graphics and presentation that keeps TP2001 from being as playable as I imagine, say TP2002 will be... for that next system.
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