Review: Hey Costner, I've got your ?Field of Dreams? right here? well? pretty close to it.
I think the highest complement anyone can pay to a sports game is to say that it plays almost like the real thing. To truly feel like your are on the playing surface of a given sport, and to react and participate as you would if you were playing (or watching on TV) is truly the mark of a great sports game; such is the case for MVP Baseball 2005 for the Xbox. For once, EA's ?If It's in the game?? moniker rings true: ?It? truly is in the game.
Of course, EA accomplishing this feat comes on a bit of a sour note, as they will (almost certainly) no longer be publishing a licensed baseball product; the same goes for Take 2 Interactive in regards to football. It is truly unfortunate that both sides in this conflict have now monopolized these sports, especially because it is very arguable that each side has purchased the license to the sport that they are (currently) viewed as the runner up. Some Madden fans may debate me on this (and maybe a few ESPN baseball fans), but the critics and consumers echo the feeling quite strongly.
With this being said, EA should be commended for putting out such a strong effort for this year's MVP title, as it really pulls it off in the ?play? and ?feel? departments. This year's game truly feels like baseball in the interface, execution and look of the gameplay.
Obviously, the batting/pitching interfaces are always key to how a baseball game plays, and EA has seemingly found the right balance for each system. For once, the interfaces don't feel too easy either, as there is room for pitchers to miss pitches (in the zone or out of the zone, resulting in balls or long balls, respectively), and batters swing pretty much where they want, resulting in varied contact/foul/miss situations.
For pitching, you'll pick a pitch from the corresponding menu and then continue to hold down that button and watch as the meter fills with power (the meter is shaped like a semi circle) and then you will let go at the desired power; however, the meter will then snap back and you will have to press the button again once it is in the small accuracy ?zone? to attempt to put the pitch where you initially aimed the cursor. This works out quite well, as the handedness of the pitcher, situation of the game, stamina of the pitcher, and other factors all affect how fast the meter will move and how big/small the accuracy zone will be. While this doesn't make the pitching insanely difficult, it does create just enough variety and fluidness so that it will result in some wild pitches, passed balls, and somewhat realistic pitch counts. This system may not be absolutely perfect, but it works much better than some previous baseball efforts (ahem, All-Star Baseball) where it was way too easy to pitch strikes the whole game, and have precision control over exactly where you wanted it. This slight aura of unpredictability really works well for the ?mistake? pitches, as the ball might drift outside for a ball or it might float right over the plate and be knocked out of the park.
When taking a swing at the ball, you'll be able aim the ball based on where you aim the right thumbstick. This means that if you swing while holding up (or up and in or up and out), you'll take an uppercut swing and try and hit it out of the park; conversely, if you swing and aim down you'll try and put the ball on the ground. This system does work really well, as you actually feel as if you have a level of control over what you want to do with the ball. In most cases, the ball will go roughly where you tell it, providing the timing of your swing is correct for the pitch speed, and the pitch is in the strike zone. Speaking of the strike zone, there are two notable features about it this year. First, you have your hot/cold zones in the strike zone that change depending on handedness of the hitter; these actually always stay up on the screen and really do help you get a feel for how each of your hitters swing the bat. Also, if a pitcher makes a mistake, the ball indicator will reappear and show you exactly where the ball is going, and the hot/cold zone the ball falls into further enhances this. In other words, if you see a big red ball cursor show up in the strike zone, take an uppercut swing because that baby's gone. You can also adjust the way your hitter stands in the batter's box this year. While this doesn't provide too much depth, it still can be useful for ensuring that someone doesn't continuously pitch outside on you or vice versa. It should be noted that hitting homeruns can be quite challenging if you face a computer or human opponent that only throws outside or on the fringes of the zone. While this pitching style does often result in some long and memorably close games, it still gets a bit silly when it's hard to get anything but singles if your opponent pitches very competitively. Either way, it feels just right when you wait on a fastball and take it yard, but it can also be quite fun to be more of a patient hitter and ?wait out? the pitcher. Oh yeah, no more lefty batters being ?Nerfed? this year; they can all hit just as well as righties (as my boy Ichiro can attest, with his copious amounts of homeruns).
Another new feature this year is the hitter's eye, where you will get an indication of what pitch is coming as it comes out of the pitcher's hand. This really creates a good sense of realism when at the dish, as you'll watch for a flicker of color on the ball when it is released. Each color represents a different pitch so red will be a curve, green a changeup, etc. At first this feature seemed like a bit of a throw away to me, but after using it over time, it has really grown on me. It truly makes certain batting situations real, as you might have to guess location (like a real hitter), but the speed and movement of the ball can be detected, and then compensated for.
How about the other aspects of the game? Again, they all reach a level of quality and fluidity that makes the game continuously interesting to play. Fielding and throwing the ball can be quite fun, especially with the nuances that have been added into their execution. Throwing (from any position) requires you to watch a meter closely and not overthrow it into the ?red? zone. Sometimes you will be forced to try a crazy throw, but expect some varied results, just like in real life. You'll often find very realistic situations with this meter, as you might toss it casually with your shortstop to second for one out, but then you'll have to gun it to first (throw in the red) in order to get some speedy contact hitter for the double play; it really does feel just right with that possibility of throwing too hard or not hard enough. In the infield and outfield you can use the ?Big Play Control? in order to dive for the ball, jump up on the wall or slide in for a catch. Using the right stick for this function can seem a bit strange at first, but after a while it becomes second nature and you'll have your shortstop or center fielder flying everywhere to shag numerous sharply hit balls. This ?Big Play Control? also comes into play with baserunning and for tagging of runners. On the base path, you can press the right thumbstick in any of its eight directions and you will get a unique slide. You might do a leg first slide to knock the second baseman head over heels or you might try and do a hook slide at home to avoid a tag; it all looks and feels so real that you'll probably just slide towards every base you go to just to see it. Tagging is also handled with the right stick and you'll want to hold it down for throws to second or close plays at home as it can make your player dive towards the base for the tag if the throw is off target; again, this looks very cool in action.
Of course, as you can probably tell by what I've said already, much of MVP Baseball 2005's great gameplay comes from the fluidity of movement in the players and the realism of each situation. Well, the reason this all comes together so well is easily because of the strikingly accurate animations for almost any action in the game. It would have been one thing for this year's MVP title to sport good mechanics and balance, but once you add in the true motions and mannerisms of baseball, it reaches a whole new level. Frankly speaking, infield play has never looked this damn good ever before in any game. During double plays, the shortstop will perfectly drag his foot on the bag and then hurriedly rush a throw to first where it will be caught by your large outstretched first baseman. When you use the ?Big Play Control? to dive for the ball with your second baseman, he will knock it down in his glove and then (sometimes) spin around and throw from his knees with an amazingly smooth transition. One of the best examples of the great animation is in rundowns (or hot boxes) between two defenders and a trapped base stealer; just the way the ball is thrown, caught, dummy thrown, and tagged is all so impressive that you really have to see it in action. In the outfield, you won't see the frequency of crazy plays as within the dirt diamond, but when your outfielder grabs a sure homerun from going out, you'll be grinning at your apparent dominance. One of my pals online (who I'll initial as C.M.) snagged a dinger away from Adrian Beltre, so you can bet I was not amused; still, the animation of this was most impressive and almost worth sacrificing the long ball for (good thing Beltre still hits about 1 homerun per game?.muahahaha?.Beltreasauras!!! RAAAHHH!!!!). But yeah, you get the picture: the animations add to the gameplay and feel, immeasurably.
The great thing about MVP, though, is that not only is the gameplay great, but the value of the title is also high-end. Where to begin? You've got Dynasty, Owner, and Manager Modes; you've got a scenario editor, Homerun Showdown, and mini-games; and finally, you've got some extremely strong online support that is almost worth the price alone. On top of this, there are tons of options for your MVP Profile, as well as fairly extensive roster management features.
The bulk of your offline play will likely be in one of the two franchise modes. In Dynasty Mode, you will take a major league club through 120 seasons of ball, where you will have to play the games (if you so chose) and manage day-to-day operations of the club. Some of these responsibilities will include making lineups, setting pitching rotation, augmenting the team with trades, and making call-ups from one of your minor league affiliates. The mode is definitely very playable, and fans of this aspect to sports gaming will be pleased that it is so comprehensive. You even get goals and challenges that the club wants you to achieve, and completing these will gave you added bonuses to help make your job easier. With the Dynasty Mode being 120 years, you'll definitely have lots of incentive to watch your team grow and change over time and even simulating large parts of seasons can still provide a rewarding experience.
However, EA wasn't done there as they also included an Owner Mode, where you take on the job of steering your franchise through 30 seasons, all the while trying to fill your coffers with scratch. Not only do you take on managerial duties, but also you have to manage the nuts and bolts of the franchise. This means that you have to set the prices of tickets, promotions at the stadium, salt in the fries, and all that type of jazz. Obviously, you want to create an exciting product on the field, but then you also want to maximize profits in order to retire with a lot of stocked up cash. The fact that this mode was included is great, as it provides those who want an extra layer of detail to their ?franchise? mode with something to get into. In a lot of ways, this mode plays out more like Sim Theme Park from back on the PS1, where there was an entertainment element, but the actual micromanaging and growing of the business took center stage. Kudos to EA for delivering two modes that offers franchise lovers something to get interested in.
Still not done with single player modes yet though, as EA also included a Manager Mode, Scenario Editor, Homerun Showdown and mini-games. The Manger Mode is actually a nice change of pace from the franchise options and actually allows you to make decisions that a manager would, and then watch the game unfold (in text) based on these choices. This mode isn't for everyone, but is a unique addition to MVP's already bursting list of modes. The Scenario Editor opts to go for more of a user creation element, whereas other scenario modes have had preset situations. With MVP's scenario building options, you can setup any team, inning, score, and just about everything else to recreate some memorable moments. The Homerun Showdown puts you and one other player against each other in a game where you continuously face pitches, and how far you hit them will dictate the points you get; foul balls will lose you points. This mode is s definite tack-on job and isn't as fun as the real Homerun Derby, but hey, it's mildly entertaining. And finally, the mini-games are good practice for pitching and hitting as you'll have to hit targets for pitching in order to move around the Tetris-like puzzle, and you'll have to hit the ball where instructed in the hitting game to gain valuable points. Again, this mode is a bit of a throw in, but it does help you get the timing down for these key gameplay elements.
Admittedly, for me, one of the main draws to this game is online, and, thankfully, this game delivers quite well. Like all of EA's other online sports titles, you must log on through their servers and use their matchmaking tools (there is still optimatch and quickmatch), but the server setup does seem more stable then in FIFA 2005. Once you get into a game, the lag is not too bad, and most games will usually only have a mildly slower pace than the offline component; this is something that most sports games suffer from online, but it's easy to get used to. EA's MVP profiles are available for you to view and edit, and you'll be able to track your progress in wins and losses, statistics, and trophies. Custom tournaments are available online and this can lead to some fun, competitive gameplay for trophies and medals. Also returning is the EA Ticker at the bottom of the screen, which is definitely nice for catching up on baseball and basketball scores or just the happenings on your friends list. A minor gripe with the online is that you get too few pauses or ?stoppages? in a game (per inning) and you'll often warm a pitcher up during an inning, but not be able to bring him in later because you've used these timeouts up. A way of solving this would be to allow you to make defensive alignments by button presses, not by wasting timeouts. It should also be noted that EA updates the rosters online and this is quite nice to have integrated so seamlessly into the experience. Really, the online delivers equally as well as the offline and is definitely worth checking out, especially if you're not really into the offline franchise elements.
Visually, MVP 2005 is quite strong, but nothing too mind-blowing. The stadiums all look quite accurate and each has a day and night setting; stadiums with retractable roofs (like Safeco) also close up if the rain starts to pour down. The advertisements and signs all show up where you'd expect them, and the scale of most of the stadiums is spot on. The players themselves don't look amazing, but the faces are fairly accurate and the aforementioned animation greatness covers up some of the rough spots. From a distance, the players actually look quite good, but up close, some of the detail is lacking. The crowd is pretty flat and sort of has a 21/2 dimensional look going on, but they can really only do so much these days with 50,000 fans in a stadium. Again, from a distance, they do their job well. Other presentation aspects, like picture-in-picture swing analysis, dramatic replays, lead-off windows and camera close-ups all work quite well, and the statistical overlays are all interesting, However, while the presentation is solid, it is nowhere near the level of MLB 2K5's ESPN-licensed touches; props to EA for including 480p and 720p support, though.
In the audio department, the game is again solid, but nowhere near MLB 2K5's level. The commentary, while functional and interesting, is not nearly as engaging as MLB 2K5. Still, it doesn't get in the way and doesn't repeat so much that you actually want to turn it off so it's not all bad. The sound effects are uniformly good, with crowd yelling, heckling and cheering all being accurate. The crack of the bat on the ball is also good, but some other sound effects do seem a bit muted. This effect does work for the simulation feel of the game, but more impact in the sound might have been interesting. The in-game and menu music is another wacky EA compilation of alternative groups, such as the Dropkick Murphys, Trail of the Dead, and Hot, Hot Heat. A lack of custom soundtrack support is of note (but of no surprise from EA), but Dolby Surround support does tip the scales back the other way, albeit only a little.
When you take the small pitfalls this game may have in presentation and the few omissions it might have in certain areas and then stack it up against all of it's great strengths, you have a title that is easily recommendable to hardcore and casual fans alike. A lot of the foundation for this game was included in last year's release, but so many bugs and fixes have been implemented for problems, and so much new energy has been injected into the gameplay that you can't deny the game's quality.