Looks can be deceiving, especially when you're reviewing a sports-themed
videogame release. On its surface, Activision's latest update of the
popular Little League series may suggest a more realistic simulation of junior
league baseball, but it turns out that Little League World Series 2010
for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles is full of surprises. I may
not be the biggest fan of true sport simulations, but I do enjoy the occasional
arcade-style slugger and have been known to throw a pitch or two in my day.
One look at the game's box-art (featuring actual Little Leaguers) and the
promise to bring your team all the way to the main event in South Williamsport,
Pennsylvania, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it might be the next best thing
to being there.
It turns out many of these assumptions were incorrect, as the developers at
NOW Production must’ve
taken more than a few 'creative liberties' to create a more enjoyable baseball game. A sim
this ain’t, as anime style that’s more in line with Konami’s Power Pro series
that foregoes any sort of realism in favor of abundant over-the-top effects and
big eyed pitchers that most would describe as ‘kawaii’. This is fitting,
given the developer is a frequent Konami collaborator who's also worked on such
key titles as Katamari Damacy and Dance Dance Revolution, among others.
While the cartoonish appearance of the players may surprise those expecting a
photorealistic presentation (understandable, given the actual player photos on
the box) the game's upbeat personality and cheery throngs of spectators will
most likely win them over in the long run.
A quick word on the game's use of what many might call a super-deformed (SD
for short) look and feel, instead of opting for more realistic graphics that
would better represent the actual participants. Apart from the enormous
licensing fees that publisher Activision would most likely have to fork over
(nothing's free), there's actually a long and respected history with
Japanese-developed baseball games employing this strange look that dates back to
the days of 8-bit sprites. While game consoles have come a long way since
the Famicon (i.e. NES) days, many Japanese developers have simply held onto this
quirky style and have evolved it little, outside of cleaner lines and more
distinctive and colorful characters. That the game's graphics look more
like a Saturday morning cartoon than ESPN shouldn't be taken as a sign of cheap
development, but a cultural one.
Gameplay as you can expect takes a more arcade-like
approach, with subtle (and I do mean subtle) attention to detail of a more traditional baseball game thrown in for good measure.
Options let you relive
the best of the Little League series from divisions within the United States and
international teams through tournaments, or simply enter into exhibition matches
with a few friends in local play; all can be great fun, but it’s
not the more serious game of baseball out there. Even the game's
instruction manual is less than 11 pages long, and that's counting its cover as
an actual page.
You can mix up pitches and marginally adjust your
outfielders, but the game really comes alive when you add features like the
three-bar 'game-changer' meter that, once filled, enables special
power-ups that can have catchers leaping across the green for pop flies and
batters with aluminum bats set ablaze for deeper hits. Extra grunt can also be
obtained by unlocking attribute Cards that can strengthen player skills and add
bonus features (such as extra innings or more accurate batting percentages).
the expected modes provide mild entertainment during regular games, but time is
better spent actually playing the various mini-games such as pitch bowling
or home-run challenges, with the general theme involves either throwing or
hitting to improve your skill or extending much-needed replay value. None
have the necessary depth to be that involving on their own, but they provide
plenty of distractions when the standard game becomes a little mundane.
Indeed, much of these distractions are welcome as the game can quickly become a victim of its own core fundamentals.
The idea of anime-influenced baseball antics works for those less discerning, but
take away all those over flamboyant touches and the gameplay is pretty lacking
in depth, leaving a fairly basic routine of “throw and hit”. The methods are
streamlined: choose a pitch style and hold the trigger button until just the right
moment, the same holds true for those at bat, except you only need to worry about
the trigger part. It's a shame these mechanics don't offer much variety or
nuance, and can be hard to work out when it really counts.
This also leads me to criticize the game's most glaring flaw, namely it's
bothersome AI and obtrusive camera angles. These can (and often do) turn
an otherwise engaging session into a frustrating one. Whether
you’re on defense or offense, the camera has a nasty habit of following your
ball so closely that you can't see your players on the outfield. You'd
better believe that the CPU has little problem exploiting this design flaw.
I'm curious why this annoying tick was left in the final version of the game,
especially how bad outfield angles have been the bane of most baseball
videogames since there were baseball videogames.
For those who might be curious, the game is absolutely identical on both the
Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, although you'd best make sure you've got extra
controllers handy if you plan on experiencing multiplayer as there's no online
play. As with any competitive game, the lack of online play is
disappointing for many reasons, the least of which means no having the chance to
digitally recreate games with other Little League fans across the world.
While online leaderboards are available, this only serves to make the experience
more frustrating when you see players ranked and wish you could compete against.
Those looking for an accurate representation of the sport may be asking too
much of Little League World Series 2010, as the game's emphasis
on arcade-style gameplay and rudimentary fundamentals will probably have true
enthusiasts wanting more. The Japanese-inspired visuals are bright and
colorful, and the ability to increase players' power and abilities through
unlockable Cards adds much-needed replay value, though the lack of online play
is disappointing, and the game's whimsical approach (while endearing) and
frustrating camera angles may threaten to shorten its lifespan to just a few
innings. Still, the game has its charms and can be fun in small doses, and
let's hope it has a better season next year.