By Jon Wilt
Back in the bad old days, when the Orioles were mired in a decade-plus of abject horror, spring not only meant hope for better times but also the latest release of . OOTP provided an alternate reality to let me escape from the world where Larry Bigbie, Jay Gibbons, and Jose Mercedes were eliminated from playoff contention on May 5th. Thankfully, Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette have given us a year and change of actual competitive, enjoyable baseball. But the occasionally but almost inevitable five-game losing streak still brings flashbacks to the bumps and bruises of the aughts. OOTP is always there, ready to transport me to an alternate reality. Cue the sitcom blurry screen and twinkly harp music...
2013 was the 26th year since The Continental League was launched to compete with the old Major Leagues. For a while they existed separately, akin to the relationship the AL and NL had with Japan for decades, aware of one another but sharing in almost nothing. But then in 2006 there was a detente, a coming together, and the leagues began to see free agents move between leagues. Then trades between the leagues, and soon we had a huge pool of major league caliber teams. This drove a renaissance in baseball around the world, with teams in Japan and Mexico and Korea and Taiwan riding the wave of interest and moving into a higher class of revenues and eventually talent and competition.
Today we have a universe of baseball not unlike soccer, but tailored in its own ways to the uniqueness of America's pastime. Boys and young men around the world have responded to the demand for players by taking up the sport and honing their skills in droves. What was less than 30 MLB teams giving a small pool of players chances for fame and riches has expanded to dozens of leagues fighting for players and often willing to spend fortunes to lure players to their corner of this huge diamond.
Sure, a homegrown talent like Matt Wieters can regularly flirt with the triple crown and bat nearly .400. But the Orioles can also have a closer like Japan's Takayuki Shinohara pile up 35 saves after being traded by Seibu to Baltimore, or they can acquire ace reliever Lyman Arnold from the Continental League's Salt Lake Trappers. Billy Rowell came through the system, devoted himself to the game, and put up an .821 OPS as a shortstop in '12, but now he's a compliment to Freddie Freeman, recently acquired from the Braves. And after winning the AL East in '12 they're only a handful of games out of first in May of 2013, fighting with the Indianapolis Buffaloes for a playoff spot. Oh yea, did I mention the Yankees were miserable in New York with years of losing, and moved to Indianapolis after the final straw: the Continental League's Jacksonville franchise moved to Brooklyn, and rechristened itself the Eckfords, stealing away a last bit of hope and market from the moribund Bronx Bombers. Cue the fade back into reality...
This is the fun I have every year with Out of the Park Baseball creating my own, personalized virtual baseball universe. Version 14 isn't a revolutionary surge forward, but merely the latest in a line of evolutionary steps forward in an incredibly deep, customizable baseball simulator. Each year developer Markus Heinsohn tweaks and adds, responds to die hard users' input, and throws some bones to new users. And each year you get a game that's better than the last, and almost always a thoroughly enjoyable experience no matter which of the countless options you take advantage of.
This year Markus' best additions include:
- 2013 projections for hundreds, if not thousands, of real players based on Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system.
- Better fielding progressions, so players more realistically shift to easier positions as they age.
- A better real-time simulation system that mirrors MLB's or ESPN's Gamecast in many ways, while allowing you to watch linescores across your universe progress in real or compressed realtime.
- Better ways of handling player origins, including scouts and GM who find international players and prospects and players popping up from unknown independent leagues.
- The option for foreign academies to develop young international talent.
Customization has always been OOTP's strength and version 14 continues that tradition. Each year Markus seems to find more ways to make it easy to import real graphics and logos to your universe, with in-game links to external mods. There are setup wizards to help put together your vision from day 1, allowing easy clicks to select which leagues you want to include in your universe. Anything from the current majors, to Japan and Mexico, to full affiliated US minors, to any fictional league you can dream up. Rules and playing conditions can be tweaked to a micromanager’s content, including offensive levels, rotation sizes, reliever use, finances… there are literally dozens of setup tabs available and full of every option imaginable.
For a new user OOTP's depth may be daunting. In some ways it's like Microsoft Office, so full of features from trying to be everything to everyone that you may have whole areas you never explore. But unlike Office I never feel like the game is bloated with useless things that detract from the experience. I rarely play historical games, but the loads of features for those gamers don't interfere with my hybrid current/fictional game at all. Similarly, there are lots of features for people who participate in online games, but if you don't use them they stay discreetly hidden away in the background. If you just want to play baseball you can leave everything set on the startup defaults and you’ll get a realistic experience. Oh, but the temptation to tinker is strong. You’ll probably sneak in one day and bump your league’s triples modifier up to 1920s levels, or go back to a contact-oriented game, or set starting pitcher endurance to a 1950s level or, well, the choices are like the world’s largest Chinese restaurant menu.
If you've read my reviews in prior years I've always endorsed this game. It's provided me with untold hours of fun, and it's truly a game I get wrapped up in. OOTP 14 is no different, it's one more step in refining what I believe is the best PC baseball simulation on the market. Just reading this on Orioles Hangout means you're a pretty deep fan of baseball, and that's exactly the niche market for which OOTP is aiming.
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