Review: Let's tank the Yankees, tralalalala
While the power struggle between EA and Take Two got all the headlines this spring ? and with Take Two the eventual winner, blocking out EA's MVP Baseball franchise for a while ? Sony and 989 sports (who are of course exempt from the 2K Sports exclusive baseball license since it only applies to 3rd parties) have quietly been rebuilding and fine-tuning MLB 2006 into something special. Like many of its other franchises, 989 has slowly made the MLB games better and better with each passing year, working hard to regain the image they had in the PlayStation days but lost with the earliest entries into the PS2 sports library. And of all of them, MLB 2006 is the most impressive, thanks to polished gameplay, tons of features, and quality online options. It's come a long way from the mediocre debut on PS2 and in many ways surpasses both EA and 2K Sports, and quite possibly is the finest PS2 baseball game since the short heyday of 3DO's High Heat franchise (now in Microsoft's purgatory these days).
MLB 2006 is absolutely loaded with features ? in addition to basic exhibition games, you can do a bare-bones season, a Franchise mode that is almost too in-depth, and a Career mode where you create a player and take them through their entire career ? and if you have an EyeToy you can put your own face or some other face behind the player you create for a more authentic feel. In addition it features 989's always high-quality online setup. A cool feature is the use of 'throwback' uniforms, as almost every team has old-school unis to randomly wear (even the newer teams that haven't been around long, believe it or not) in games, and you get these throwbacks here and there during any of the season-based modes. Though the game doesn't support the HDD like Major League Baseball 2K5 does, there's still a lot going on with MLB 2006 and even if you don't want to spend a lot of time with a very complicated and intimidating Franchise mode, you can just play a regular season with just the basics ? something a lot of baseball games tend to forget in this day and age.
On the field, MLB 2006 shines by borrowing a few aspects from other baseball games and using their own tried-and-true concepts from past MLB games. Hitting the baseball is very High Heat-like in some ways, without batting cursors and other various annoyances. With each difficulty level comes some extra options for hitting, but for the most part it remains the same. Rookie hitting is easy; just swing the bat and use the d-pad or left analog stick to hit a fly ball, a grounder, or just pull the ball down the lines. You can guess a pitch as well, which reveals the exact location of where the pitch will end up, adds some more power to your swing, and knowledge of what pitch is being slow helps with timing as well. On Veteran and All-Star, the addition of location guessing changes the game up, since if you guess not only the pitch but the spot its going, you can do some serious damage. This is actually quite difficult so there's no real shame in spending time playing the game on Rookie, which occasionally presents a decent challenge, until you really get a grasp on the game.
Pitching is very similar to MVP Baseball, but with some extra tricks. Once you choose your pitch and line it up in the strike zone, a pitching meter like MVP shows up, with its two button-press system; one for speed, the other for accuracy. A quirk in the deal is the confidence meter built-in; if you're getting out after out, the accuracy becomes easier to hit and pitches find their location much easier. On the other hand, if you keep giving up hits and runs, the accuracy becomes harder to deal with and pitches will miss their desired spots which can cause even more damage (and you can actually throw wild pitches, something I haven't seen done well in years). This is where you can use the 'visit mound' option to calm down your pitcher. Pitching becomes tougher yet when you're in the stretch, as the meter moves faster and harder to pinpoint perfectly. The depth of the pitching is quite surprising, especially since strategy is so vital in MLB 2006. You absolutely cannot just keep tossing fastball after fastball, as you'll get pounded into submission very fast, even on Rookie. Instead the game forces you to show variety in pitches and locations. I was very surprised how much better your pitching game gets when you mix up pitches and locations. It's definitely the best system I've seen in a baseball game for quite some time. However, if you don't like it, you can use a classic pitching system that lets you pick a pitch, aim, and throw, with the force put down on the X button dictating the power of the pitch.
Running the bases is easy, though it could use a little work. It's easy enough to advance/return both individual runners and the entire group of players on base, but sometimes the AI logic that designates whether to go or stay automatically is a bit goofy. When a ball is hit to the right side of the field and there's a runner on 2nd, that runner should head for 3rd but instead they stand there in the lead-off position, waiting for you to make that decision; and frequently the time you take to press the button to forward the runner is enough to get that player caught on the throw from first for a double play. The same thing occasionally happens when there's a base hit, and the delay can mean the difference between making the turn at 3rd or just holding the runner there. Perhaps there should be a 'pre-load' running control that's not actually stealing bases, but a run on contact option before you actually put the ball in play. Unless there is and I missed it. Fielding is pretty basic with nice pre-loaded throws to get the ball out of the hands of a fielder immediately and a very nice fly-ball marker to better see what's going on ? when the action is fast, you have to have ways to quickly get situated for a play and MLB 2006 does this well.
All of this, and more, makes MLB 2006 one nice baseball sim. There's stuff you just don't see a lot in baseball games; broken bats, beanballs, intentional walks, wild pitches/passed balls, etc. It feels like a baseball game. There's good balance in hits, with plenty of chances for singles, doubles, even triples sometimes (since occasionally a fielder will actually juggle the ball for the extra time needed to leg out a 3-bagger), and there's never a constant run of homers either. Though sometimes games can have more hits than you might expect (having double digit hits with less than 5 runs is fairly common), MLB 2006 is a fine game of hardball that feels like a real game. In many ways, the balance of the game is far superior to its competitors, though they are a bit behind in terms of presentation, though toppling a company like EA Sports in the presentation department is a very, very tall order.
MLB 2006's graphics are a bit rough in places, but overall shine. Players have authentic stances, swinging motions, and pitching animations. The stadiums are very large and impressive, with all the quirks of many of the parks, like ivy at Wrigley and the pool at Bank One Ballpark, complete with goofy billboards for fake products. Most importantly the frame rate is smooth so there's no game-caused timing problems that hampered some older PS2 baseball games. To top it off, 989's presentation is good, though not great ? it at least feels like a real baseball telecast with replays, stat overlays, and whatnot. Nothing is quite as sharp as MVP Baseball 2005, but regardless MLB 2006 looks good (and in many ways it really shows just how impressive the PSP system is since they did a damn good job porting this game to that system). On the audio side of things, there's been a major change. In an unfortunate event, Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is no longer doing commentary as he has for a long while now for 989 baseball games. In his place is 989 voice veteran Matt Vasgersian, who does a good job with veteran color commentator Dave Campbell. They tend to repeat and lack excitement frequently, but it could be worse. The sounds of baseball are represented well, from the crack of the bat (both clean and broken) the cheering and jeering crowd, umpires making the calls, all the things you'd expect from a day at the ballpark.