Preview - Hardball 4 (DOS, 1994)

Let's get one thing straight – despite the best efforts of the owners and players, I'm still a stone-cold baseball fanatic. I'm not making this statement to launch a diatribe about how greedy both sides in the major league fiasco are. I just want to establish my credentials before I start discussing both sides of the great baseball computer game debate.

There are two schools out there – the gamers who grew up actually playing at arcades and on their home systems, and the stats freaks who belong to four different fantasy leagues and haven't swung at a pitched ball, either on a field on a computer chip, since they were in high school. The folks at Accolade recognize this split, and have tried to satisfy both elements in their upcoming Hardball 4.

The foundation of this game is sturdy. You can play in an exhibition mode, selecting any two teams and simply playing a single game. If you decide you want to get involved in league play, you can go with a short season, a half-season, or the full 162-game marathon.

If you buy the CD-ROM version, you'll have real players to work with, since the game is licensed by the Major League Baseball Players Association. If you purchase the floppy version, you'll have imaginary players, but the real guys will be available through an add-on disk. Al Michaels, who does enough work at Accolade to rate his own office, provides the play-by-play voice for both versions.

The game looks good for a couple of different reasons. First off, the games will be played in the real major-league parks, which means a game at Boston will feature the Green Monster looming in Fenway Park. The animation runs smoothly and looks realistic, since its base consists of digitized video of a game between two minor league teams.

Once you get past all this and actually prepare to play, you face the burning question – are you a manager or a player? It's obviously impossible to avoid running your team, although with the strike, sitting and watching the computer play both sides might be as close as you're going to get to real baseball for awhile. Still, you have to decide whether you want to PLAY the game, or if you want to worry about strategy and let the computer handle the hitting, pitching, fielding and running.

Most baseball games target one market or the other, but Hardball 4 is hoping for broad appeal. The designers have put a lot of thought into making the game easy to learn how to play. One of the most frustrating things about playing computer baseball games is the learning period required to control the players yourself. Hardball 4 comes with options that allow an element of control over how difficult the game is to play.

If you don't want to bother with that, you can simply ignore such minor details and spent your time leading your team. This is much more to the taste of the fantasy leaguers, who are all secretly convinced that they could do as good a job of managing as most of the clowns who sit in dugouts these days. As a member of three different leagues myself, I know of what I speak.

Personally, I'm solidly in the camp of the managers. My attitude is that if the programmers or Hardball 4 have gone through all the trouble of designing a game that has Barry Bonds as a great hitter and Roger Clemens as a great pitcher, I'm not going to screw things up by getting in the way. However, it's nice to know that my kids, who want to really play, can also enjoy the game.

The statistical detail in Hardball 4 is thorough, to say the least. Once you get your own league going, you can call up the leaders in over 75 different categories. If you want to see how your player's computer performance compares with his real performance, his stats from the 1994 season are available.

If you get tired of playing for nine innings, you can have batting practice, pitching practice, and a home run derby. Instant replay is available, but you don't have to take the time out from your game. The computer automatically selects all of the best plays and puts them on a highlight reel for you to view at your leisure.

Despite the blind ignorance of the owners and players, baseball will be back. However, If you need a fix of the game between now and then, Hardball 4 isn't a bad choice to have on your hard drive.

Play the demo for this game directly in your browser