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What is MLB Dugout Heroes?
MLB Dugout Heroes is a free to play baseball MMO by Gamescampus. Officially licenced by the MLB, the game puts you in control of your own team for a "season," playing games against the computer or against other players online.
MLB Dugout Heroes also features an item shop to help players master the game and make it to the top of the leagues before the end of the season.
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Learning to Play: Controls
Batting in MLB Dugout Heroes is simple: control your bat's position (marked by a green shape in the center of the screen) by using your mouse or keyboard. Aim it within the hit zone (a square marked on the corners in the center of the screen), and click or press "S" to take a swing. Like real baseball, it takes a little while to learn to predict the ball's trajectory and when to swing, but you'll soon get the feel for it.
Pitching, on the other hand, also looks from the batter's perspective. You must select one of the many styles of pitch available to you (starting with a fourseam, slider, curveball, and changeup), aim the pitch within or on the edge of the hit zone, and then click the mouse twice - once for power (hold to get max power), and once for accuracy. Pitching takes a little more art than batting, in that the idea is to get the batter to strike out - which means you need to throw pitches that aren't right in the sweet spot of the hit zone. This, too, takes finesse, and a little baseball knowledge to boot.
That's it! You're ready to go, according to the game, and can step into your first practice game against the computer. What the tutorials fail to mention, however, is how to manage running to bases, stealing bases, and throwing balls from outfield to try and get players out, all of which are managed with the WASD keys. Your first practice game, you may not even notice that you're in control of these things - and when you do, you might be scrambling to figure it out.
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At Bat: Gameplay
Once you've got all the basic controls down, you'll notice a few things about gameplay.
First: games are either three innings or five innings (five innings is an option for online competitive play.) The games lacking a full nine innings also means no seventh-inning stretch - literally. You have only a few seconds to make decisions when it comes to pitching, and none for batting. There is no "pause" feature, even in single player, so prepare to sit through a game, no matter what. Luckily, games are fast; you just have to be ready to commit.
Secondly, you have two things to manage at once, because whether you're batting, pitching, or running, you're controlling who's on base. As a batter, you also control whether your teammates attempt to steal bases, and you also control the running once the ball's been hit. As a pitcher, you have to catch attempts to steal, and then have to throw the ball to the correct bases, in time, to call players out. With as fast as the gameplay is, it can feel a little frantic.
Thankfully, outside of learning to manage bases, gameplay remains true to the tutorials, and the only real curveballs you'll be thrown are from other players.
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Playing a Game: Single Player and Multiplayer
Yes, although MLB Dugout Heroes is an MMO, there are two single player modes available. The first mode is a practice mode, which allows you to choose among several difficulties to test and practice your skills without the risk of embarrassment, but with no rewards. The other is a pennant race, a short series against the computer with a chance for rewards. But before you think you can enter the Pennant Race and skip playing others online, think again - pennant races have a large entry fee that you'll only be able to fund by playing with others.
Multiplayer competition is a lobby-based game session. Players choose to play 3 or 5 innings, and the winner comes away with "nuts" (the currency of MLB Dugout Heroes) as well as other rewards. There are no skill levels here as there are in other online sports games, so be prepared to face anything in terms of player skill. There's only a single server for the game, and there can be quiet times when only one or two games are running.
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Let's be upfront about one thing: if all you know about baseball is throwing a ball and hitting it with a bat, the team management screen is going to be Greek to you at first.
On the Team Management screen, players are sorted by pitchers and batters. Every team has a set of each of these players currently playing, as well as some sitting in reserve. Their stats are listed on the team management screen. For pitchers, this means their skill in each style of throw, as well as their pitching style. For batters, this includes all their batting stats, as well as their dominant hands and outfield statistics.
Each player also has a stamina bar, which is where team management becomes important: playing several games in a row will make a player tired. When a player is tired, you will want to switch them out with another player. Switching is simply done by clicking on the current player, and then clicking on a reserve player. The change is instant, with no confirmation screens.
The Team Management screen also hosts the stats of the season for your players, based on live online games against other players. Unfortunately, there's no tutorial for any of this, so while a baseball lover may fall into it easily, someone new to baseball games may feel completely overwhelmed.
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Graphics and Audio
The graphics of MLB Dugout Heroes don't go for full realism; instead providing a touch of realism with cartoonishness. This isn't detracting in any way; it helps better game performance, which can be at times choppy, and lets the players focus on the game.
While I found the music on the main menu quickly annoying, too cheerful and not at all baseball themed, this tones away for actual games. Particularly interesting isn't the accurate sound effects: it's that every game is broadcast by AI, just like it would be on radio or television. This lends to the realism of the game, making you actually feel "in the game" even if you hear the same comment twice in a single game.
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I was impressed by the detail given to MLB Dugout Heroes - more detail than I, a baseball amateur, could sink in during a single setting. In fact, the game isn't very friendly to baseball novices at all, unless they have someone coming to help them manage teams and sometimes sitting over their shoulder as a coach. My best games actually came from having that side-by-side coaching from a friend who used to play baseball.
But for the baseball fan, who knows his RBIs, or knows a two-seam from a four-seam, MLB Dugout Heroes offers a great, fun online baseball experience. There's even more to get into than I mentioned, including coaching styles, player inventory, and missions, giving the game a great deal of depth. If you're nuts for baseball, definitely give MLB Dugout Heroes a swing.