Out of the Park Baseball 13 makes baseball history

, | Game reviews

I’m a baseball gamer, generally in it for the majestic flight path of a home run driven into the stands of increasingly photo-realistic polygonal stadiums, or the cortisol spike of protecting a one run lead in the ninth, trying to pin a pitching meter with nervous fingers. I mostly spend my time in the reflex-driven, console end of the baseball gaming pool, where the word “simulation” largely refers to the delicate negotiation between making user input meaningful while making sure players still play like their real-life counterparts.

So why am I writing about a baseball management sim, after the jump?

As a text sim, Out of the Park Baseball ’13 takes a different tack than the MLB 2K or MLB: The Show series, instead granting you dominion over proceedings on a scale ranging from dugout manager to Supreme Lord of the Baseball Universe. An exhaustive database of statistics and customizable league functions allows you to generate believable and hugely varied experiences, depending on what you want to get out of it. Do the personnel decisions on your current MLB team of choice drive you batty? See if you can do better at managing the bullpen, bringing in new talent, getting out from under bad contracts, or striking the right balance between youth and veteran savvy. Replay a season from your childhood or way before your time with the actual players, lineups, and pitching rotations, spawning an alternate history where the ball bounced this way instead of that. Create a fictional league with all new players and teams, ready for exploration and play free from preconceptions. Or rewind to the very start of organized baseball and chart a new course for the national pastime.

No matter your chosen point of influence, this is an engaging title that generates narrative far faster and more nimbly than the higher profile console counterparts. Free from the yoke of wanting to put my personal stamp on every development (something I fall prey to in, say, MLB: The Show), it’s quite satisfying simulating large chunks of a 2012 Mets season and watching our place in the standings shift, while league-wide individual statistics simultaneously accrue on clear, well-arranged screens packed with information. Abdicating responsibility for minor league minutiae, I chose to intervene only for major league roster moves, and if anything veers towards drudgery, it’s that the game can become an injury simulator due to the realistic frequency, both grievous and niggling. You’ll become intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the disabled list for injured players, and the intricacies of calling up (and later sending down) players from the minors as fill-ins when contract stipulations limit their maneuverability. It’s the kind of insider stuff that can deepen your understanding and connection to the actual sport. Still, your AI coaches are only too happy to take on any responsibilities you don’t wish to partake in.

Thankfully personnel administration is made easy with well arranged informational screens, drag-and-drop functionality, right-click menus, promotion/demotion suggestion icons, and a helpful trade interface which includes clear counter-offers to help get deals done (I would kill for this in MLB: The Show). I pried a promising Japanese middle infielder from the Twins when my shortstop kept succumbing to injury, and really look forward to seeing what he does next year when I give him a shot at the starting job. It takes a bit of time to become familiarized with the exact location of certain functions, simply because there are so many available, but it does come rather quickly, and many moves can be performed from anywhere by way of right-clicking or persistent “action” tabs. The game also makes a point to highlight salient in-season or off-season tasks needing your attention on your main manager or team home screen. The breadth of information is really incredible, and I’m always one or two clicks away from putting current achievements in the context of baseball history in its entirety.

Actual in-game “play”, should you choose to go that route, involves guiding your team’s actions step-by-step with a visual representation of the field, the ball’s movement upon it, and basic player positions. Events are fleshed out by a text-based announcer relating the action to you, and while it’s strange in this day and age to equate any great depth of feeling with the appearance of some up-scrolling text, the cartoon announcer’s play by play becomes a surprising source of moment to moment triumph and tragedy. There’s a long history of baseball remaining effective even when communicated via non-visual means, be it radio, or even pre-radio, teletype-based mechanical contraptions like the Coleman Lifelike, the Nokes Electrascore Board, or the Jackson Manikin Baseball Indicator, all of which helped relay early World Series events to out-of-town audiences. Perhaps it’s baseball’s relatively rigid positioning, in direct contrast to the constantly shifting and weaving formations of basketball and football, that helps it play so well in the mind’s eye.

With some careful editing of stadium reference points with regards to the ball’s animation, any stadium imagery can be imported and used within the game’s “broadcast” mode, which is indicative of the entire visual experience; simple, but highly customizable. While replete with official team and player names from the outset, the game isn’t licensed to include official MLB league or team logos and uniforms, and in fact the default generated artwork can be a real eyesore. A simple file structure and self-explanatory “add-ons” panel gives you quick access to user-generated iconography encompassing the Major Leagues of almost any era, international leagues, and decent player faces by way of FaceGen technology that can even age players into their twilight years. For my historical replay of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers season, having even a still image of Ebbets Field for the game’s broadcast mode to play out upon, plus era-appropriate mid-1950’s logos for most teams, made all the difference. Tools are available to incorporate your own artwork and team color schemes as well, perfect for fleshing out fictional and online leagues.

Historical replay probably intrigues me most about the game. It’s one thing to watch selected highlights in a Ken Burns documentary, and another to rub virtual elbows on a day-to-day basis with all the players of a bygone era, even crappy players with incredible names you’d think someone made up. Inevitable tensions arise between baseball history, your expectations, and the game itself as that history spins off in new directions. In trying to recreate the championship run of that ’55 Brooklyn team, Jackie Robinson had an even more sub-par season than he did in real life, batting just .234 and often left out of the starting lineup. The team’s run ultimately proved a disappointment, finishing the season 86-67 and 7.5 games out of first. 1956 saw my alterna-Dodger squad rack up 92 wins but just miss the post-season thanks to the unforgiving league structure of the time, where it was division pennant or bust. However centerfielder Duke Snider made new history in that ’56 campaign, smashing 64 home runs and breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record a full five years before Maris did it in ’61. Snider then matched his own home run mark in ’57, the team’s first year without Robinson.

Player personalities (viewable on a player’s page) are purportedly more than just flavor text, affecting contract decisions and the performance of fellow players, but they feel a bit dicey with regards to the historical rosters. Jackie Robinson was branded with “a questionable work ethic” in my Dodgers franchise, which seemed all kinds of wrong. While replaying the revered 1986 Mets season of my youth, my CPU coaches were inclined to favor younger, more highly rated upstarts like Kevin Mitchell and Dave Magadan at third base over the real life ’86 World Series MVP Ray Knight. That Knight in-game was also being described as “a selfish player” that “often show(ed) a lack of effort” only added insult to injury. Nevertheless, actual injuries along the way meant that he found himself manning the hot corner after all, and we won the division handily, compiling a 114-48 record (the second highest win total in major league history).

Out of the Park veterans have been singing the praises of the series for years, and laud the iterative refinements of each edition. For gamers out there like myself who cut their teeth on R.B.I. Baseball rather than Strat-O-Matic, I highly recommend this as a supplemental experience to today’s console baseball titles. It may just supplant them in your imagination, as it’s a platform to weave believable baseball tales of any stripe, at whatever speed or level of control you desire.

5 stars