Lace up the cleats, adjust the ol’ jock strap and prepare the syringe; Major League Baseball gaming is in full swing! With the High Heat franchise in limbo and stiff competition from the much-improved MVP Baseball 2004, most of the baseball games are duking it out for the top spot-including Sega’s own ESPN series.
Before the switch to the ESPN moniker, Sega’s World Series games on the Dreamcast were content with playing on their own field. The death of the Dreamcast took developer Visual Concepts back to the drawing board. After several nips and tucks, the resulting World Series 2K3 was a dramatic comeback- finishing a strong second to EA Sports’ MVP 2003.
But being the runner-up was the same as losing, so back to the drawing board they went. The talent (and budget) infusion of the ‘Worldwide Leader of Sports’ showed a renewed effort to best perennial powerhouse EA Sports. While ESPN Major League Baseball 2K4 is one of the last players out of the dugout, it is one of the best-conditioned efforts. The ESPN franchise gives the game an unprecedented sense of authenticity and production. The amount of depth and customization leads to an absorbing experience that’ll last until the first autumn chill. But, in several key areas, ESPN 2K4 actually stepped backwards. Sub-par visuals and sound, along with gimmicky and uneven game play halt its breakneck sprint towards home.
In the graphics department, ESPN 2K4 suffers a great degree. Quite simply, the players look dated. The character builds are slightly blocky with little detail. The models are less than realistic, with many players having out-of-proportion bodies and head sizes. Player faces are mostly uninspired, with several nowhere near their big-league equivalents. There is also a slight blurring in facial detail, which induced Nintendo 64 flashbacks- as did the glazed looks in their eyes. Player animation is also lacking and redundant. Several animations- including various swings- appear slightly choppy and unfinished. Up close, players suffer from a slight jitter motion that is somewhat distracting. The frame-rate is solid and lags very little. In my copy, however, I noticed several instances of unexplained slowdown.
One shining area is the stadiums. Each ballpark is nicely detailed and recreates the real-life experience well, right down to the nooks and crannies. Several old-time parks, including the Polo Grounds and Shibe Park , are lovingly crafted and bursting with life. Crowds consist of pixilated two-dimensional cutouts, which sap the realism out of the stadiums. MVP 2004 tried to create the illusion of reality with a mixture of polygon and sprite-based crowds. I wish Sega would have done the same.
Audio-wise, ESPN 2K4 bobbles things a bit. Announcer Jon Miller is solid, with good commentary that doesn’t overstep the boundaries of bad taste (no ?gThat ball got nutted!?h here). His no-frills approach is preferred to his play-by-play partner Rex ?gThe Hudman?h Hudler. Mr. ?gThe Hudman?h contributes little; stating facts that were obvious ten seconds beforehand. His hang loose delivery made me wonder if he was trying out to be the fifth Ninja Turtle.
The commentary for both suffers from frequent delays. Several glitches affected the remarks, ranging from repeated phrases to voices cutting out all-together. Crowd noise is less than atmospheric, which is disappointing. The audiences rarely react to big plays, and only for a slight second when they do. When the home team hits a home run, and the crowd doesn’t even muster a golf-clap, it just seems wrong. Throughout the games, a weird low-key chant echoed consistently.
No one can argue against ESPN’s stunning presentation. From the opening montage to the ?gBaseball Tonight?h jingle, 2K4 imitates the source material well. The menus- especially on the front-end- look crisp and sport the familiar ESPN look. In-game menus and sounds capture the feel of an ESPN broadcast, right down to the sports ticker on the bottom of the screen. It would have been nice to see the faces behind the voices- or at least Peter Gammons, for chrissakes- but the little touches make up for it.
Play control for ESPN 2K4 requires a fair amount of practice. There are different schemes for: batting, pitching, base running and fielding- among others. The layout is intelligent, with the face buttons matching with the individual bases. Although the sheer variety of moves is daunting, they become second nature after a few games. Aside from a few quirks, the control is fluid in execution. Some fielding plays come off stiff, especially when jamming on the buttons to dump the ball. Dives and leaps have to be angled precisely to be effective. Even with the turbo boost disabled, fielders feel a little too quick on their feet.
Gameplay is where ESPN 2K4 loses ground to its main competitor. Sega attempted to create unique play modes and challenges, but many fall flat. The bread-and-butter modes of play are similarly bland or hampered by gimmicks. The astounding amount of customization and depth balances out the risks taken. Despite the flaws, the core game is still as solid and fun as its World Series predecessors.
At your disposal are several play modes to whittle away time. Quick Game and Exhibition require little effort to jump into a match. The Situation mode allows you to create underdog challenges to strive for victory. Playoffs mode allows you guide a team through to the World Series.
The more involving modes are the Season, Franchise and GM Career options. The Season mode is elaborate, giving you ample options to micromanage your team efficiently. Conducting trades, signing free agents and managing lineups are just a few of your responsibilities. Franchise mode builds upon this with the addition of budgeting and hiring coaches. The GM Career mode is a goal-oriented version of the Franchise option. Choosing from one of the 30 teams, your aim is build a successful team and ultimately please the owner of the club. The mood of the owner is swayed by: meeting or failing goals, team success and your skills. Not bringing your team to contention can bring problems of Steinbrenner-proportions.
The Duel mode is an interesting mix of homerun derby and pitching. The unique scoring system rewards good hitting and pitching, and punishes unskilled play. While it’s fun for a few friends, it makes me long for a true homerun derby mode. GameCast is a simulated, role-playing game of baseball. Primarily menu-based, you make decisions based upon the present situation. The overall experience fails to grip you as the options are limited. You can’t call steals, warm up pitchers in the bullpen or even plot hitting or running strategies.
The most daring- or should I say, frivolous- addition to 2K4 is First-Person Baseball. Taking on the viewpoint of the player, you stare down the opposition head-on. Unfortunately, this view is often bewildering from the batter and fielder’s perspective. While hitting, you have to guess the speed and movement of the incoming pitch. Playing the field takes on a whole new meaning when tracking down the ball- especially those that get by you. The quick camera cuts do little to help you find your way. The Action Cam perspective helps things a bit. By placing the camera behind the player (its jittery nature is reminiscent of MTV’s ?gFear?h), it removes some wondering as to your whereabouts. Still, I can’t imagine a good use for this mode, other than dinking around while drunk or high.
The pitcher and batter interfaces have changed slightly. Pitching involves selecting your pitch via a button press and aiming within the strike zone. An effort meter influences the amount of velocity and movement on the pitch. Regrettably, aiming the pitch with the left analog stick is a shaky affair, as a slight nudge causes the cursor to jump all over the place. And while placement of the pitch may seem in the strike zone, ill use of the effort meter is the difference between a ball and strike (or home run). The similar system in- you guessed it- MVP is leagues better. Conversely, batting is easier to handle. The True Aim system- aiming your swing at the ball cursor- takes most of the guesswork out of hitting. Purists can also use the batting cursor or wing it with no assistance.
If there were another name for this game, it would be ‘Customize Your Life Away’. The endless amounts of options to tweak and monitor are mind-boggling. Everything from the amount of innings, to assisted throwing and sports ticker can be edited. Options such as assisted base running and fielding help newbies learn the basics, which is nice. You can even edit existing rosters and juice-up every player into homer-cranking dynamos. But in order to play a pure game, you almost have to cycle through and change every option.
The quirks aren’t limited to the game modes. The confidence meter- influenced by success and failure on the field- is a novel idea that fails in execution. While it does affect performance, some players- read: computer players- can overcome a low meter and still dominate. And did I mention the glitches?
For all its faults, ESPN 2K4 is still a fun game to play. The diverse game modes will keep you engaged for months. Earning every trophy and accolade is worth investing the time and effort. GM Career mode alone is worth tackling to see how your management skills rank. And for playing with a friend, few baseball games are better waste a lazy weekend on. Throw a few buddies into the mix and the only complaints will be over the score.
For all of its changes and innovations, ESPN Major League Baseball 2K4 is still relegated to a second-place finish in the standings. Fundamentally, it is a solid game with many strengths. The presentation is nearly flawless, controls are laid-out well and smart and the modifications and depth are inviting for beginners and veterans alike. On the other hand, the middling graphics and sound, the eccentric modes and bumpy gameplay keep it from being waved around. If the comparisons to MVP Baseball 2004 are noticeable and unfavorable, it is because EA’s game has upped the ante this year. But Sega is commonly in the underdog position, and they are scrappers if nothing else. With the proper fixes, next year could be a whole new ball game.