- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Each week, the Browser features some pop-culture places on the World Wide Web offering the coolest in free interactive sounds and action.

Just in time for the start of the baseball season, a Hall of Famer lends his name and support to a massive multiplayer online game that gives cyber-surfers a chance to virtually team up with and challenge baseball enthusiasts from around the world in real time.

Cal Ripken’s Real Baseball (www.playrealbaseball.com) is a very watered down — but free — version of more familiar video-game fare seen in titles such as 2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2008 or Sony Computer Entertainment’s MLB 08: The Show.

Players sign up for an account and download a sometimes finicky, sometimes sluggish piece of software.

The game requires at least a 1.4 GHz PC with a Windows operating system (either 2000, XP or Vista), a GeForce 3 video card or better and an Internet connection of at least 256 kps.

The download and installation time is a bit painful. Even using a cable modem, it took almost an hour for the system to update all of its files and allow me to touch a ball.

One of my problems was an anti-hacking program called Game Guard (installed for a “positive and honest experience,” according to the developers). It was not very happy with its place in my computer. A couple of reboots later, all was well.

Once the software is ready, players can create and customize up to three characters, down to attributes such as position, facial features, uniform number and batting stance.

Before trying to find other online players ready for a day at the ballpark, a welcome Baseball Camp enables the player to hone skills through eight modules devoted to pitching, fielding and throwing.

The batter interface is least daunting. A target reticule can be shrunken or expanded, depending on the power, and a mouse click swings the bat. Pitching is equally painless. A simple click selects a pitch and a couple more clicks, timed to a meter, throw.

Most challenging is trying to catch and throw a ball as a fielder. Using a set of keyboard commands and mouse actions, the player, with a view behind the fielder, will need three hands to throw out a runner trying to leg out a ground ball.

The on-field action is complemented by forgettable sights (the crowds look pathetic) and sounds (there’s no announcer, only a surly umpire), but statistics hounds will like using the experience, parameter and skill points that are earned as the player succeeds on the field.

A decent range of modes, including practice, tournament, pickup games and leagues, gives players plenty of reason to go to the virtual Clubhouse and find friends to challenge online. The most fun option allows up to 18 online gamers to form two nine-player teams to play a full nine innings.

Because the game is free and runs relatively lag-free on a broadband connection, the experience is worthwhile, especially for beginners who don’t have high expectations.

The only things missing are the Major League players, teams and stadiums. (I can’t believe a virtual representation of Mr. Ripken isn’t available to take the field.)

Although Cal Ripken’s Real Baseball will never compete with the graphics powerhouses of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 online adventures, the price tag makes it an affordable pastime for the average fan of the game.

Have a cool site for the online multimedia masses? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at the Browser, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail to jszadkowski@ washington times.com).

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