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Hands-on impressions: Little League World Series Baseball 2008

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In case you weren’t aware, baseball is my favorite sport -- it always has been. That lifelong love affair first came about as a result of my participation in Little League baseball, and the sport has stuck with me ever since. I played from when I was five until I was fifteen, and though I was no Derek Jeter, I had plenty of fun in those days. Today, Little League Baseball is an immensely popular global organization with over 2.3 million players on nearly 200,000 teams worldwide.

With the Wii being the platform of choice for family-friendly games, I was not surprised at all to hear that Activision was working on an officially licensed Little League videogame. Little League World Series Baseball 2008 is currently under development by Now Production (NowPro). I had a chance to play the game just before last week’s Guitar Hero event in San Francisco, and it looks to be shaping up quite nicely. Check out my full impressions after the jump.

 

Little League World Series Baseball 2008 screenshot 1

I’ll say it right from the start: Little League World Series Baseball 2008 is, by far, better than the baseball game in Wii Sports. Granted, it’s tough to compare the two, since Wii Baseball was designed as something of a tutorial to help people get acclimated to the Wii’s controls and capabilities. But what I love about LLWSB 2008 is its great sense of balance. If you want to play it casually with your grandparents, that’s certainly doable. But if you’re a seasoned pro who wants a more in-depth experience, that’s also there. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too -- you’re going to have fun whether you’re a newbie or a core gamer.

In LLWSB 2008, you’ll have the option of playing a standard exhibition game (up to two players), the single-player career mode (World Series), or multiplayer mini-games (“Skill Challenges”). The Activision PR guy who was demoing the game noted that they weren’t comfortable with the term “mini-game”, since the Skill Challenges aren’t merely tacked on as a “party” mode. I agree with him; more on that later. The game’s got a number of generic stadiums, but it also features Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Little League Volunteer Stadium (the two stadiums that host the real LLWS).

To start, I played a two-player exhibition game. You’ll have a whopping 26 teams to choose from: the teams from each of the sixteen real-life Little League regions (eight American, eight international), and ten generic teams that can be edited (name, colors, etc.). Each team has a “star player” -- you can customize him/her to your heart’s content, changing things like name, shirt style, build, skin color, and glasses. While playing, you’ll see real brands on the equipment: New Era caps, Russell uniforms, and Wilson helmets.

Little League World Series Baseball 2008 screenshot 2

The star players are an interesting twist to the standard gameplay. By playing well (getting hits on offense and outs on defense), you build up a three-level meter. This allows you to power up said star player so they can become super athletes. Activate the full level 3 power as a hitter, and you’ll be guaranteed to hit a home run; activate it as a defensive player, and you’ll see some highlight reel-worthy stuff; activate it as a pitcher, and you’ll throw an unhittable pitch.

The gameplay itself is as intuitive as Wii Sports, but LLWSB 2008 allows you to do much more (and the game is designed to comply with official Little League rules: no steals, six-inning games, etc.). In-game commentary is handled by Gary Thorne -- yep, that’s the same guy you hear during ESPN’s telecasts of the real-life Little League World Series every summer. Obviously, hitting and pitching are controlled by Wiimote motions. The game will recognize the angle at which you swing (upwards for a fly ball, downwards for a ground ball), and you can also perform bunts (and aim them).

To start your pitching windup, you flick the Wii Remote upwards, and then flick it down again to release the pitch (better timing will result in a better pitch). But this game is unique: you don’t choose pitches with buttons; you choose them by controlling the downward motion. So if you want to throw a curveball, flick your wrist upwards, and then twist it (either left or right) while you’re bringing it down to pull off the breaking pitch. This mechanic works quite well, and it makes you feel like you’re actually executing the pitch, which is great.

Little League World Series Baseball 2008 screenshot 3

Baserunning works well enough when it’s left to the A.I., but you can get involved (hitting A will advance your runner). As for running in general (on the bases or in the field), shaking the Wiimote will increase your speed (in the field, the A button is used to dive). While getting to a ball is mostly computer-controlled, you will have to actually pick a base (D-pad) and then make a throwing motion with the Wiimote to throw the ball there. I was able to get the hang of this mechanic quickly, and I came very close to turning a double play.

World Series mode, like the rest of the game, can be as simple or complex as you want. According to the Activision PR rep, it provides full stat tracking, and the tournament is set up just like the real deal. There are also six Skill Challenges, including a Home Run Derby (up to four players). Instead of homers being counted, true power is what matters: the distances of your long balls are tallied as the score. Bonuses are given for streaks, and also for hitting various objects beyond (and above) the wall, such as hot air balloons. Another mini-game that I really enjoyed was “tic-tac-toe”, where you try to hit the ball into certain parts of the field in a turf war-style contest.

Little League World Series Baseball 2008 screenshot 4

Finally, the Clubhouse is a cool extra. It’s a showcase for achievements; there are over 90 collectibles -- like trophies, plaques, and bobble head dolls -- that you can earn for your in-game exploits. As for the game’s visuals, it features  good-looking anime-influenced stylized graphics reminiscent of Konami’s MLB Power Pros. And of course, unlike Wii Sports’ players (who are conglomerations of simple polygonal shapes like cylinders and spheres), LLWSB 2008 features characters who resemble humans.

As a whole, LLWSB 2008 is looking very solid so far. It’s a much more well-rounded baseball experience than what’s available in Wii Sports, and because the gameplay mechanics work so well, it’s a ton of fun as well. Look for it to hit store shelves on August 5th, just over a week before the start of the real Little League World Series on August 13th. There’s also a DS port coming, but Activision hasn’t yet announced its release date.

[Editor's note: This article previously stated that MLB Power Pros was worked on by Now Production, which was innaccurate. It is true that Now Production has developed Little League World Series Baseball 2008 on Wii, with Activision as its publisher; however, Now Production did not work previously on MLB Power Pros. It was developed by another Japanese developer. Thanks, Kyoko!]

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Samit Sarkar
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