Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review: Out of the Park X

Developer: OOTP Developments
Publisher: OOTP Developments

You would think there would be a very small niche for stat-based sports simulation games. You could draw a Venn diagram with "Sports Fans" on one side and "People who like reading spreadsheets" on the other and see a very, very tiny overlap. However, for some reason, baseball seems to attract a lot more amateur sabermetricians and Billy Beane wannabes than your average sport.
At its heart, baseball is not a very cerebral game. The pitcher throws the ball and the batter tries to hit it. The great thing about baseball is that the devil is in the details: Suicide squeezes, intentional walks, substituting the pitchers at the right time, stealing bases and all the other little quirks that America's national pastime has. Sometimes, baseball video games focus too much on "pitch the ball and hit it...home run!" than the things that really make baseball great. While chicks may dig the long ball, devotees of the sport dig the parts that require more thinking: Lineup cards, pitching rotations and juggling bullpens.

Out of the Park Baseball is on its 10th iteration providing just that. By providing a game that digs into the meat of baseball, they've made something that statheads can appreciate and fans of a more fast-paced approach can at least understand, if not fully enjoy. What makes Out of the Park X a good choice for baseball gamers?

Out of the Park simulates everything, from minor league teams onward. It's a little daunting how many options you have, but for the faint of heart you're able to turn off certain features so that you don't get overwhelmed. The documentation is all online and very extensive, but once again, it's all a little overwhelming. You may spend your first few sessions staring at numbers and wondering what they mean until you go online to try and figure out what exactly it means that a player has an "18" in Sacrifice Bunts. I kept all the options on since I wanted to get a good taste of everything that was involved, and after a few false starts I was good to go.

I started out managing the Gulf Coast League Mets and worked through the season. The GM of the Mets, Omar Minaya, kept moving around my players which would screw up my lineup, but fortunately you can automate certain tasks. I would generally tell my bench coach to make the lineups and then tweak them if I didn't like them. I got especially enamored with a player named Carl Puello who quickly made his way into my leadoff spot (and the leadoff spot in my heart) due to his spray hitting and quickness on the basepaths. Unfortunately, there's no player photos, but you can make your own if you like.

The options here are unreal. You can also start out by managing a big-league team, which I recommend doing in order to get a handle on bullpens and what player stats mean. It's easier to understand ratings once you see players that you recognize with their own ratings. You can also play historical leagues from 1871 onward, which is a kick. The bad news is that there's no MLB license, so while it the names of the teams and players may be there, logos and pictures aren't really represented. It's not a huge loss, though, and it's easy enough to put in whomever you need to.

(A side note: Some people on the forums complain about historical pitching not being up to snuff, but I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. It may be something for the Out of the Park devotees to consider when deciding to make their purchase.)

Another thing you should know before jumping into Out of the Park X is that there is very little in the way of flash and/or dazzle. Most of the time, you'll be poring over spreadsheets and statistics. Granted, you can't really make a spreadsheet pretty, but text on white backgrounds is a little dull. However, it's easy to read and understand what's going on from the get-go, which is kind of the point.

During games, you're once again able to manage everything, from your bullpen to suicide squeezes. At a glance you'll be able to tell if your players are good sacrifice bunters, power hitters or contact hitters. You'll be able to see what your pitcher's velocity is and whether or not they're tired or good to go. You can visit the mound. You can order a hit & run or a run & hit. You can see how good the opposing catcher's arm is so you know whether or not to attempt a steal. You can sim through to 9th inning or even just sit back and let the computer sim the games.

I have to say, the game interface is spectacular. I never had a moment where I didn't completely understand exactly what I needed to do or how to do it. Bullpen management was as easy as clicking on "Substitutions" and dragging one or two of my middle relievers over to the bullpen and letting them warm up while I play. You can also turn off the option to warm up your relievers and just insert them if you need to, but I chose to leave it on just for accuracy's sake.

For previous users, they've added a feature where you're able to use widgets to customize the game view. For instance, if you want to get a closer look at how your batter handles himself against lefties, you can do that by popping open the batter's window instead of having to click on the player and dig through a spreadsheet. If you want to move the field view over to the right side of the screen and all the stat boxes to the left, you can. It's a very nice idea, but there's a several-second delay in between when you click on the windows or try and move them. It's a little disconcerting, but for the patient it's not a bad idea. I'm sure they'll improve and expand upon the idea in future releases.

Another complaint I had: Out of the Park X only plays in a windowed mode. You can get the window to fill up your screen, so if you have a large monitor you really can't take advantage of the extra viewing area to give yourself more data or a bigger advantage. It wasn't a dealbreaker, but it was annoying.

Another thing that's worth mentioning: The type of people who play stat-based sports sims are not your typical sports-game playing cavemen. On the Out of the Park forums, you'll find respectful people who actually use complete sentences. It's a good thing, since it's nice to have a place where you can ask questions that won't be met with icy stares or "LOL NEWB" retorts.

I walked into Out of the Park X as a complete neophyte and came out rather impressed. Everything was easy to understand, if a little daunting at first. It's not the kind of game you can really get a handle on after dabbling in it. It requires a commitment in order to unlock it's mysteries, not unlike baseball itself. I haven't even touched on other features, like online leagues (which have been also improved for this year's version, if documentation is to be believed). For those who are willing to put forth the effort, there's a lot to love within.

Final Grade: A-

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