Release Date: June 2006
For fans of sports games, there has always been a lack of options for multiple players. Some sports lend themselves a bit more to two-on-two or even three-on-three, but you usually have one-on-one games while everyone else watches. Looking to solve that problem while immersing players in the first true team sports game, Netamin's Ultimate Baseball Online 2006 holds lofty goals.
Upon startup, players are given the same sort of creation options as in any MMORPG, except instead of knights and mages, these are pitchers and shortstops. At the moment, there are not very many different combinations, but of interest is the ability to create female players. While they are statistically identical, there is an option to allow underhand pitching, so that in the long term, this could evolve into a game with what might be considered "softball" leagues, where all female gamers could get together and play. Although this still needs to be expanded, it's definitely a nice touch and may end up being one of the most interesting facets of the game.
Your character can choose from any of the nine positions, with two types of pitchers available – one pitcher is more accurate, while the other throws faster pitches. Beyond that, different players have their own attributes based on their field position. As you play through the game, you receive progression points which can be spent on leveling up your characters' different attributes (sound familiar?). You decide what kind of a player you want to create; in standard MMOs, this usually means, "What class does a raid group need the most?" In UBO, you can build an entire team of players based on any specifications you'd like. This level of customization moves beyond your normal online title and yields an entirely different gaming experience. After character customization, player go through UBO training camp, where they learn how to hit, field, and pitch – the equivalent of killing rats in EverQuest.
Gameplay itself is identical to that of most preceding baseball games, with the difference being that you select an individual position to play from a chart that pops up when you join the game. When batting, players can hold down their right mouse button; moving the mouse up and down either enlarges or shrinks the hitting zone, so the harder you are hitting, the smaller the zone becomes. Batting is controlled with a cursor system, in which you hold down the left mouse button and move the cursor around until it's in the spot you expect the pitch to arrive, and then you let go, which initiates the swing. Although it takes a few minutes to really understand and work with the system, once you get to that point, hitting tends to become a lot of fun. One of the trainable areas for hitters to use their progression points is their strike zone, where they can select individual spots to add points, making them stronger hitters.
Pitching is a little different in that it goes against the established convention of other baseball titles. Instead of having only four or five set pitches, players have a very large variety. I would imagine the biggest reason for not specializing in pitches would be that pitching itself does not have the depth it does in real-life baseball games. For instance, pitchers in UBO are starters who play for the entire game, as opposed to their real-life counterparts, who can be starters, middle relievers, set-up men, or closers.
The pitching itself is very intuitive and easy to pick up. Selecting from your variety of pitches, players click on the area in the strike zone where they would like to throw. Each pitch has its own movement, so some break far away from the intended destination if you are not accurate. Accuracy and power are chosen through a method similar to a golf game's swing. Clicking once starts the power meter, where you choose how powerful you want your shot to be, and the second click determines your accuracy. The give-and-take relationship between a pitcher and hitter works well, with smart pitchers feeling out a player's strike zone to see where they are strongest and weakest, trying to do their best to manage the game. On the higher levels, it is especially great to watch a face-off between a pitcher and hitter who are both great at what they do. This is one of those places where the feel of the real game can shine through, and Ultimate Baseball Online can really pull in its audience.
Fielding is not particularly complicated, with the ball creating an orange "shadow" on the ground as it lands. Clicking the left mouse button catches the ball, and then the number keys are used to throw pitches to individual bases (e.g., "1" throws to first, "2" throws to second). The biggest difficulty I had here was trying to see what was going on, as the camera angle is statically behind your player. Although you can move it around, there is no way to zoom back and forth, which severely limits your ability to watch fly balls.
As baseball is a nine-player game, you need someone to fill in the spots for which real players are not available. Therefore, the AI takes those spots and tries to perform the tasks that a regular player could easily do. The problem that I ran into was that AI players would miss catches and make wrong throws and game decisions, but the developers "dumbed down" the AI on purpose in order to promote team play. As an example, I caught the ball on a grounder, threw it to second base, and the AI just stood there for a few seconds instead of tagging the base and throwing it to first. Because of this, the throw arrived at first base after the runner had already gotten there, and by not tagging the runner at second, the double-play opportunity was taken away entirely. The moral of the story is that you should play online baseball games with real people. Robots are not your friends (at least, in this title).
Graphically, UBO is a bit rough around the edges right now, and it can only get better as the final version comes down the pipeline. With only one stadium to play in and a lot of similarities between the individual players' looks, it's exciting to see what is in store in the final shelved iteration. Knowing that I can expect more team customization and player options in the future only gets me more excited to play the final game. Sound-wise there is no play-by-play commentary at all, but the sound of the hot dog man in the stands and the umpire screaming out plays does add a lot of ambiance.
Ultimate Baseball Online 2006 is shaping up to be a fun, exciting, and different multiplayer experience. With some gameplay tweaks and more options, which are expected in the final game, this could become a trend that a lot of other sports follow. Ultimate Football Online, anyone?