At first glance, baseball games and MMOs don’t seem like a natural marriage. Sure, there are a few similarities: For every giant, ogre-like beast in World of Warcraft, baseball has a Roger Clemens. And for every diabolical genius bent on world-domination in City of Villains, baseball has, well, a Roger Clemens. But the common features really end there, which is why it’s surprising to see that Ultimate Baseball Online 2007 actually works pretty well.
After all, this free game is treading into some unfamiliar territory for a baseball sim. Instead of a one vs one match up, the two teams can be filled with 18 real players, each manning their own position on the field and waiting for their turn in the lineup. What’s more, you’re not picking a player from a pre-existing team. Everyone brings their own user-created character for a chance to gain experience points and level up in an RPG-style skill progression system.
The pitching and hitting interfaces are equally simple. While on the mound, simply click to spot your location, and then use a gauge to adjust for power and accuracy. When you’re hitting, you’ll see an oval-shaped zone in the batter’s box that represents the area where the bat can make contact, something you can shrink if you want to take a vicious Gary Sheffield-type hack at the ball. Both systems are fairly easy to master, but the real depth comes from the aforementioned character leveling system. The accessible mechanics work well enough to lure you in, but the rewards gained from leveling up your character really help to keep things from getting stale. It’s hard to resist adding a bit more zip to your fastball or just enough foot speed to shave a few tenths of a second off your dash to first.
Fielding is just as simple. Move to the direction of the ball and click the mouse to glove it. Press a numbered key to throw the ball to a certain base and you’ve pretty much got a hang of things. It’s simple, but the sense of teamwork and camaraderie makes even the most routine double play an incredible thrill. It’s hard to describe the highs and lows of being complimented by teammates for a great play or scorned for a bone-headed one (like when we were picked off at first… three times in a row). What makes things really exciting is that nerves and anxiety aren’t uncommon if you see the ball coming your way when a close game is on the line.
In practice, though, the fielding is far from perfect. Errors are much too easy to come by. Often you’ll be standing right in front of a baserunner and the tag doesn’t register, or a groundball will simply zoom through you. And playing the infield is still ten times more fun than playing outfield, even with the diving catches new to this year’s version. Oh, and try to get as many real players on your team as you can, because the AI fielders look like they’ve been knocking a few back in the clubhouse before the game.
Unfortunately, the free price tag is really reflected in the presentation. The graphics are just enough to get the job done without being distractingly bad, and the game is totally lacking in either announcers or flashy visual effects (which might not be such a bad thing if you’ve ever suffered through the mystifying explosions and jet noises of a FOX broadcast). Animations are a mixed bag, where a diving catch looks good but sliding into a base looks more like tripping and falling. If you catch a glimpse of this game over your buddy’s shoulder, you likely won’t be impressed.
That said, comparing UBO to the details-heavy MLB 2K7 would be bordering dangerously close to apples and oranges territory. It offers a unique experience driven by the satisfaction that comes from teamwork and gradually building your character from a nobody to an MVP. It’s also a game built around the community, which is reflected in the leagues, tournaments and a rather extensive (though often annoying and difficult to navigate) website that showcases statistical league leaders and sports page-style tournament coverage.
To say this game isn’t pretty would be putting it nicely, but what UBO 2007 lacks in polish and gameplay depth, it makes up for with a genuinely rewarding sense of teamwork and personal progress. It’s a far cry from baseball perfection, but it’s certainly worth a look from hardball fans on a budget.