After debuting last year with a solid first effort, EA Sports returns to the diamond this season with MVP Baseball 2004 on the Xbox. With the considerable improvements made to the game, will this be the year it overthrows Sega’s ESPN MLB Baseball from the sporting throne?
In terms of control, you’re not going to get much better from a baseball video game – or any other sports game for that matter. From the innovative pitching interface to the fielding mechanics, MVP Baseball sports some spot-on controls for handling your players on the diamond and at the plate. For pitching and fielding, a charge-up bar measures the power and accuracy of throwing pitches and field. Based on the ratings of the players, correctly timed pitches can be used to control the strike zone and, in turn, give your pitcher a better grasp of the game. For fielding, the same bar is used to control the power of throws. Don’t always try to max the bar out, though. Some players don’t have the juice to back it up and will almost always wind up causing errors. Also being added this year are Big Play controls, which will allow you to dive for bases, attempt to steal homeruns (virtual Bartmanns shouldn’t be a problem), and make huge plays in the outfield.
Where hitting is concerned, EA Sports has introduced their Total Swing System, which will allow the player improved control at the plate. Essentially, all this is controlling where you want to hit the ball by aiming the direction on the analog stick. Thanks to the improved physics, you’re not going to be blasting home runs everywhere – like in the Triple Play days. This brings added challenge to hitting, and it practically forces you to be more selective about the pitches you decide to take. And, if you do try to swing at everything? You can expect a quick strike out on higher difficulty levels.
While all these things are good for the game, it’s far from perfect. From the infamous ?lefty bug’ at the plate to an absurd amount of triples by opposing teams, there are little things that make the whole experience slightly bittersweet. Tweaking the sliders can help for those who want to tune the game more to their liking.
The gameplay aspects aren’t the only things to have been redone when EA created the MVP Baseball series. Cosmetically, this is one of the better-looking sports games of the year. The fields look extremely detailed; the logos and stadiums are portrayed correctly, and the players actually have much more detail compared to last year’s incarnation. The added cut scenes of players in the dugout and on the field help add to the overall presentation of the game. The only gripe I have is the distinct lack of true 3-D crowds inside the stadiums. The Xbox version surely could have handled a bit more than the first few rows. However, those players caring passionately about on-field performance probably won’t even notice.
There’s not too much to complain about when it comes to the audio for MVP Baseball. The heavy crack of the bats sounds authentic, the atmospheric crowd noises make you feel as though you’re right there in the bleachers, and the commentary is excellent for a baseball game. For players with more advanced setups, the Xbox version of the game supports full Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, which will dramatically increase the gameplay experience. Throw in the fact that MVP Baseball is also THX certified, and what you get is some very good listening. For the soundtrack, EA Sports has continued its established EA Sports Trax line, and MVP features some of the newer modern rock bands and their latest releases. For most people these songs are going to be a hit or miss thing, but an option exists to turn them off if they’re not to your taste. The absence of custom soundtracks is about the only thing that hurts the game.
One of the biggest contributing factors to a game’s replay value is the season/franchise mode, and it is here where EA has done something that will most likely be copied in just about every future sports video game: player chemistry and morale. In the game’s franchise, you not only have to take control of a major league’s AAA and AA ball clubs, but you have to keep everyone happy as well. Using a system of five indicative smiley faces, you’ll have an insight to how your players are feeling and what you must do to keep them happy or compensated. Another detail of impact is that you have basic contract conditions. For example, if you sign Roger Clemens to be your new ace pitcher, he’s going to expect to be your top starter at the major league level. Not doing this will cause him to sign with another club. Or you could sign him and make him a relief pitcher, but honestly who’s going to do that? Well, if you did, it would seriously tick The Rocket off and subsequently his morale would plummet. As a result of his unhappiness, he’s then going to share his anger with his fellow teammates, which, in turn, might cause team morale and overall performance to decline in simulated games. To make matters worse, The Rocket then speaks to the media and your email inbox fills up with probing questions and insinuations. If you think you can handle situations like these, give the Dynasty mode a shot. You won’t be disappointed.
These additions, along with the feature of jumping in and out of simulated games to try to change their outcome, give people a reason to stop playing or to try avoiding blowout games when possible. Throw in the Homerun Showdown, Legendary Players and Fields, and the EA Sports Bio that unlocks rewards for amassed playing time, and the replay value of MVP Baseball becomes impressive. Highly Recommended.