There?fs nothing like the beginning of the baseball season: a lazy day sitting in the bleachers, the smell of hot dogs and beer lofting through the ballpark, juiced-up athletes coping with the weight of fan expectations, and new video games celebrating America?fs (former) pastime.
Each year, like clockwork, March brings the newest updates to baseball?fs gaming franchises. And each series has its own diehard fanatics defending their game to the death.
Times have changed though, as there are no dominant series?f, such as Baseball Stars or World Series Baseball (Genesis/Saturn) anymore. Upstarts like the ESPN/World Series 2K series, perennial player All Star Baseball and sleeper High Heat Baseball series narrowed the gap in quality. With most publishers offering similar features in their games (season modes, create-a-player, manager control), there are fewer distinguishable features to go by. How do you separate yourself from the pack?
If you are EA Sports, you give the player an unprecedented amount of control. MVP Baseball 2004 is a couch-manager?fs dream come true. Few baseball games allow you to customize the game play to please the ADD-riddled player and hardcore nut alike. Not to mention offering up solid visuals, great aural aesthetics, in-depth controls and limitless replayability all in one package. While MVP may not be the killer app EA Sports claims (it is not the Madden of baseball), its depth alone makes it a worthwhile purchase.
EA?fs bottomless coffers show in MVP?fs production. From the slick opening team intros (featuring all 32 squads) to the pre-game presentation and crisp menus, EA dresses up its big-league offering in high-budget glitz. Too bad the same care is absent regarding the in-game visuals. They are by no means bad, but players of MVP Baseball 2003 will be hard-pressed to notice the differences in this year?fs version. The player models are solid in appearance, with most bearing resemblance to their human counterparts. Facial features are improved over last year?fs offering, and look closer to human. The actual character body builds look realistic, but several players aren?ft represented in all their glory. Frank Thomas, for example, appears as a skinny depiction of the muscle-bound giant. Player animation apes its real-life brethren, thanks to extensive motion capturing. Actual movement is fluid, but suffers slightly due to on-the-fly calculations by the computer. High-flying acrobatics, dives, and leaps are all as graceful as a highlight reel, but suffer from a slight pause to load the animation. This leads to a somewhat stiff appearance at times.
Each stadium mimics its brick-and-mortar counterpart in general appearance. Little touches like individual scoreboard details are appreciated, but some on-field facets are sparse. New to this year?fs MVP are polygon-rendered crowds, giving each park a more realistic-looking fan section. Most of the crowds are still cardboard cut-outs and stick out from their 3D equivalents in most replays.
Speaking of replays, the in-game presentation of MVP 2004 is polished. Sweeping camera angles, stat-filled menus and even batter instant replays imitate an ESPN broadcast. The television-esque appearance is top-notch amongst its competitors. One knock on this, though, is the confirmed trajectory of a fair ball tailing foul at the last second.
One problem that plagues the game is frequent slowdown. Perhaps due to the amount of animation on-screen at once (players, crowds, stadium details), the game will occasionally hiccup in the middle of the action. Choppy swings, some awkward camera angle shifts and jerky movement of fielders result from the hit in frame-rate. For years, EA Sports?f baseball games suffered from this issue, and it?fs disappointing to see it continue to pop up.
MVP?fs aural presentation is impressive. The in-game acoustics mimic the ballpark atmosphere nicely. The sharp crack of a crushed baseball, the ?epop?f of a ball hitting glove and other subtleties ring true. Even the little differences between a slow breaking ball and hand-throbbing fastball hitting the catcher?fs glove can be spotted. The play-by-play is solid with some good insight to complement the action, if not often enough. The various quips are entertaining, although nothing classic like ?gThat ball got nutted!?h At times, the onscreen events and commentary fail to overlap, and do repeat often- sometimes in a row. Also, some crowd reactions fail to capture the events on the field, causing some confusion. This occurrence isn?ft as frequent as past games, and results in a more entertaining experience. The pre-game music features up-and-coming rock bands, a continuing EA Sports licensing trend. While the songs don?ft carry much depth, they serve to pump you up for the action.
The complex control scheme of MVP gives the player total control over the events onscreen. Largely carried over from MVP 2003, the developers added some new additions to an already extensive assortment. Long removed from the days of two buttons and a digital pad, there are enough buttons to have defined control over the variations of more than two-dozen actions. Learning the assorted commands will require extensive practice, and mastering your movement will take even longer. Much of the commands require the use of the left or right analog stick, and a combination of buttons corresponding to the current situation. Basic batter and pitcher controls are laid out onscreen and are quick to pick up. However, intermediate skills such as aggressive base running and offensive/defensive strategies require time behind the sticks. And those various nuances require precise button presses, as the controls sometimes fail to respond to taps. The computer likes to assume control at times?cmost often during base running and turning double-plays, leaving you helpless unless you plan ahead.
EA Sports?f infamous motto ?gIf it?fs in the game, it?fs in the game,?h couldn?ft be any truer in describing MVP 2004?fs game play. The sheer depth of the game is frightening. With the vast options and play modes, MVP is a good time-waster on lazy Saturday afternoons.
There are no less than eight different play modes in MVP 2004, catering to every type of gamer. You can play as any major league team, along with their double and triple-A farm affiliates. For the player with little patience or time, the Play Now mode gets you into the game with little fuss or muss. The Exhibition mode is similar, with a few extra customizable features. MVP Online is just that, online game play against cyberspace opponents. This feature does have a few glitches (errors in score and stamina), but they rarely occur. Home Run Showdown is a fractured take on the classic Home Run Derby, with players aiming for totals between 3,000 feet to 10,000 feet. Playing against a computer or human opponent, the battle occurs via split-screen; a novel approach that finally does away with taking turns. Pitcher Showdown has you attempting three, six or nine strikeouts and accumulating different point totals. Want to control every aspect of your team?fs play? Manager Mode gives wannabe bench-jockeys their chance to call the shots. The level of control is great, and equivalent to a dictatorship or George Steinbrenner?fs Yankees. Scenario Editor gives fans the chance to alter the current game to their liking; current inning and half, score, outs, and more. Everything you need to emerge the hero (or goat).
The highlight of MVP 2004 is, undoubtedly, the Dynasty Mode. Beginning with the draft of your first squad, you assume total control of your organization for 120 years (yes, 120 years). The destiny of your team lies in your hands, as are the factors separating victory and defeat. Winning (obviously), assembling the right mix of talent, maintaining team chemistry, and taking crucial games are only a few of the ingredients that determine your ranking. Trade players, pick up free agents, release deadbeats and juggle rosters to make up the best team possible.
As the years go on, maintaining a good roster of minor-league talent and developing stars ensures the future of the franchise. Trying to sustain victory over a century is tough, and often a source of frustration. After the current players retire, randomly generated players take their place. Because they are programmed with low-level abilities, it takes a lot of skill to even approach the level of the former talent. As a result, few players truly stand out in what becomes a glorified minor-league. Most modern baseball games do have dynasty modes, but the immense stature of MVP 2004?fs trumps them, for better or worse.
There are four levels of challenge in MVP 2004, ranging from newbies to baseball dynamos. The Rookie mode is the equivalent of the computer holding your hand, and the upper levels increasingly test your gaming mettle. The toughest level will wipe away any ego you might have. A large part of the difficulty comes from advancing in the Dynasty Mode, and its depth provides plenty of trials. Players of all skill levels will find some challenge with this game.
And replay value? There is an immeasurable amount of depth in MVP 2004. Whether it?fs playing a quick Exhibition game, guiding your team to destiny in the Dynasty Mode, or battling players across the country, MVP will keep you glued to the television until the next installment. An extra incentive for playing the game involves extensive unlockable features. By achieving various feats from a laundry list of goals, such as, reaching certain offensive and defensive targets, you earn MVP points. These can be used towards ?epurchasing?f: legendary players, classic stadiums, retro jerseys (not just for rappers!), and classic teams. Modern players and legends in the renowned stadiums of yesteryear is dreamlike to a baseball fanatic. This adds additional encouragement to play, although you probably won?ft need it.
While not the grand-slam package the marketing blitz suggests, MVP Baseball 2004 is great value in today?fs crowded baseball market. It?fs not the prettiest game, but darn it if it doesn?ft have a heck of a personality. The great sound, complex controls, and ultra-deep game play more than make up for the merely sufficient visuals. And the tremendous depth is the icing on the proverbial cake. The overall combination is a slick experience that replicates its real-life counterpart. While MVP Baseball 2004 is a few outs shy of victory, EA Sports is assembling the pieces to a potential dynasty. It?fs another reason to celebrate baseball season.