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‘Inside Pitch 2003' is fun but irksome

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"Inside Pitch 2003," made by Microsoft for the Xbox, rated E for everyone, $49.99 MSRP.

There are a lot of baseball games on the video game market, and with a couple of decades of refinement, they all feel and play pretty similarly.

Now Microsoft has released its own "Inside Pitch" into the fray, and this game, only for the Xbox, comes with one key and unique feature: You can play it against other players virtually anywhere, via "Xbox Live."

This big-league advantage is tempered by an almost unthinkable disadvantage: There is no franchise mode. While the game allows for up to three ongoing seasons, a gamer does not have the option to create his own dynasty. This little omission — a genuine staple of sports games for years — mars what is otherwise a great game.

So the incomparable live feature and the unfathomable missing feature clash to make this the best and the most frustrating of baseball games at the same time. The controls are pretty standard for both offense and defense, with thumb pads directing throwing and batting while buttons select pitches and initiate batting. Pitchers have three or four pitches to choose from and then 20 sub-zones in and out of the strike zone. As pitchers tire they become slightly less accurate, and some are better than others, but there wasn't quite enough difference between stars and home-run fodder.

Players can choose any major-league team, and each team features a relatively accurate roster. Gamers can tinker with lineups, make in-game substitutions and even use players they have created and trained with rankings in speed, strength and skills at different positions.

Gamers choose their difficulty level, number of innings and can turn injuries and errors on and off in either a season mode or in a single game. Season mode follows the MLB schedule and simulates unplayed games or entire days, as gamers choose.

Pitching staffs rotate, but bullpens tire one day and are fresh the next. Position players are color-coded by speed, and batters are power-rated, but good contact, determined by the gamer swinging on time and in the correct zones, results in hits. Statistics are automatically kept in season mode both for played teams and computer-simulated ones while votes are computer-tallied for the All-Star game.

Pitching and hitting feel like baseball, which ultimately makes game-play fun. The live capability makes the game exceptionally fun, but the lack of a franchise mode is a glaring weakness that Microsoft will obviously address in next year's version — won't they?