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April 27, 2010

Out of the Park

Reviewing OOTP 11

by Marc Normandin

Out of the Park Baseball has long been known as the baseball simulator, as it offers more options and depth than any other game on the market. The latest edition, OOTP 11, adds to that tradition by giving you more features and options than you will probably ever use, but that also guarantees that almost everyone will find something to love about it.

Let's get this out of the way now though: if you're looking for a baseball game where the games are the focus, then OOTP is not for you. It does have a play-by-play feature where you "watch" the games, but this is essentially like watching MLB.com's Gameday. It's not exactly a thrilling way to spend a few hours, especially when you can create dynasties and franchises that last for years. If, however, your goal is to act more as a general manager, and control a team on a day-to-day level in that capacity, then this is the title for you.

You can get lost exploring all of the different options available, even prior to starting the game. When the game loads, you are given the chance to check out the online manual, tutorial videos, or the OOTP forums for some seasoning. You can jump in with a Quick Start game, which uses preset formats and allows you to skip a lot of the customization, but chances are good you are going to want to dig a bit deeper than that.

You can also create a Custom Game, a Historical Game, or a 2010 Game, or even import a game from OOTP 10. My personal favorite is the historical game, mostly so you can go back and change history. Ever imagine what would happen if the strike never occurred in 1994? You can give it a shot (I did) and see if the Montreal Expos still come away with the division lead. It's also somewhat amazing to see how much things change—for example, I traded Larry Walker for Mike Mussina prior to the start of the season, then signed Moose to an extension, as well as Marquis Grissom (who in real life was dealt to the rival Atlanta Braves), and John Wetteland. This changes the face of the league in many ways—Grissom helped the '95 Braves, who won the World Series, and Wetteland was an important part of the Yankees at the same time. The Orioles ended up representing the American League in the World Series, in no small part because they received Larry Walker, and, when not forced with financial troubles and the loss of key players, the Expos were able to field just as good of a club the following year.

This ability to alter history for your own entertainment is very well done. Real-life players continue to appear in amateur entry drafts, meaning you can sign them and hope that you strike gold, just like real organizations did. Since the game develops players based on many factors (potential, your own scouting and development, etc.) you will not necessarily get, say, Derek Jeter, if you draft him. He may turn into something else in this alternative universe, which makes for a compelling experience.

The game also changes as you move through the era you have selected—ticket prices will increase, the face of the league will change (expansion and expansion drafts are something you can toggle on and off if you desire), and you can start as early as 1871 or as late as 2009. OOTP also gives you a small summary of the season in which you began, so as to give you some context before you make your decision, which is a nice touch.

You can change the names of clubs and cities, set the minor leagues (do you want Rookie League through Triple-A, none of the above, or a random grouping of them? You can do all of those things), make it so fictional players are never promoted to the majors on the clubs you are not controlling…if you can think it, you can tweak it, and that kind of freedom goes a long way toward ensuring that your experience with OOTP will be a positive one.

In a custom game, you do not necessarily need to use the league formats for Major League Baseball—you could set up a league in the Japanese style, or maybe Cuban, Korean, Taiwan, Mexican—the list goes on. From here you can make a fictional league (any structure you want to create from scratch, with fictional players) a standard league where the players are fictional but the formatting is based on real-world leagues, a historical league like the one mentioned above, or one set up from a template that is already created.

If you want to be carefree and mess around, you can turn off the ability for the owner to fire you. If you want to play more realistically, though, you're going to have to worry about player morale, fan interest in your team, how the owner feels about things (and whether or not you are matching their expectations about your season) in addition to the things you would expect, like building 25-man and 40-man rosters, your lineups, your rotation, etc. The owners at times are a little too fickle—it's odd to see them upset with you when you are two games out of first in August (in a year when many key players are injured, even), especially when your fans are more interested in you as the year goes by. The good news is that they don't can you based on mood swings—you have to prove that you're incapable of fixing the organization before that happens.

You can watch the games as mentioned, or you can simulate a day at a time or a week at a time. You will receive messages in your inbox while simulating: league news flows in, as well as trade offers, injury concerns, notifications about contract negotiations, etc. Sometimes it's almost too much information to take in—it can feel like you're reading about the top story from every beat writer in the country on some days—but the information is there for you if you want it. For example, you may see a rumor that a team is putting someone on the block, and maybe you want that position filled or strengthened on your own club. It's a good idea to keep an eye out for things like that, since they can benefit you, but if you would rather control your own destiny, you can always ignore those messages and let your inbox grow.

The one knock I have against OOTP, besides the somewhat boring play-by-play viewing experience (easily rectified with the simulations) are some of the production values. Real logos are not used for clubs, so there are some pretty generic-looking ones in place. Player faces on the player cards are the worst offender, though—I don't really care if you can't make Barry Bonds look like Barry Bonds, especially when, going further back, I'm not going to be able to tell you if Tris Speaker's chin actually looks like it does in his image in OOTP. What is bothersome, though, is when players are not even the right color—maybe it's because I named my league "Alternate Universe," but I don't remember a black Chuck Knoblauch or a skinny and white Cecil Fielder playing in 1994. The images are randomly generated, but that may be something to work on for OOTP 12.

Admittedly, that doesn't take away from the value of the simulation experience, it's just one of those little things that can get annoying and take away from the overall product. The core game here is very strong, and there is a reason that OOTP has managed to get this many iterations in over the years. If you're a fan of the series, snag the latest version, and if you're new to the world of baseball sims, you can't go wrong picking up OOTP to fill that void.

Grade: A- (Games scored with an "A" are considered elite, must-buys.)

 Out of the Park Baseball 11 is available on Windows PC and Mac, and retails for $39.99. This review is for the PC version, which was released on April 14. Developed and published by OOTP Developments.   

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