The little engine that could. Not something you can say about an EA game and especially not an EA Sports game; with examples like Madden and NBA Live you would think EA had it covered. But baseball is where EA has always suffered, always ranked below games like All-Star Baseball and World Series Baseball – but not anymore. EA Sports has conquered yet another major sport, America’s pastime has a new flagbearer: enter MVP Baseball 2004.
They’re right up there with the very best baseball game’s graphics. The player models are highly detailed; you can pretty much distinguish who’s who when it comes to team members. Not only that, but you have a fairly extensive library of models for your created players, although there perhaps could have been more variety in this department. All the MLB players are here (except Barry Bonds, big exception, but no problem – simply create him), as with almost every recent baseball game, as are the motion captured moves that are a must nowadays. The stadiums look amazing and closely resemble their real-life counterparts (as they should too). You also get other stadiums for your AA and AAA games (yes, you heard right: AA and AAA teams). Their venues are not spectacular but it’s nice to see different stadium designs, like in the old days when baseball games needed two or three stadiums designed for you to play in. The playing field looks realistic, and so do the other ground details and amenities: crowd, fireworks, dirt, the bat, and the baseball itself, of course. You name it – it’s there. In terms of graphics it’s what you’d expect from a high quality baseball games nowadays, and especially a sports game from EA. MVP Baseball 2004 delivers on all fronts in this department.
Sound doesn’t seem all that important in a baseball game, or any other sports game for that matter, but it is when you think of commentators, the crack of the bat, the crowd chants, and all the other good baseball sounds evident in any ballpark. MVP Baseball delivers big time; almost every sound you can hear in a ballpark is presented, even down to tiny specifics. Just listen up when A-Rod is at bat or Derek Jeter is in Yankee Stadium, and you will hear the crowd chanting their names or, perhaps, just one lone fan screaming above the noise. The fundamental baseball sounds are all there: from a bat smashing the ball clear out of the park, to a vicious pitch thumping heavily into the catcher’s glove. Everything is well realized and executed in a very realistic way. The commentators are good enough to throw in some exciting and colourful lines, but the problem with them comes down to variety. After playing a few games they can quickly become a little boring, but, all in all, when it comes to the sounds of the game EA’s slogan applies perfectly: “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game”.
To this point, the game more than lives up to the expectations for any baseball game that wants to stand shoulder to shoulder amid tight competition. Graphic and audio capabilities are a must if you hope to impress, but it’s gameplay where titles often drastically differentiate from one another. However, here is where MVP Baseball 2004 moves up through the gears and overtakes the opposition. There hasn’t been much importance focused on defense in baseball games of the past, instead placing almost all effort on pitching and batting. EA obviously saw a window of opportunity there, and now, as a result, players have full control of the defenders (should they choose). Diving catches, overhead throws, sliding catches, all those spectacular moves can now be easily performed. The right control stick (the yellow one) is used to execute catches – ?up’ being a jump and ?down’ being a slide, and all the other combinations are obvious (right or left – jump or slide), so you have to keep an eye on the ball and swiftly choose the best move to successfully catch the ball. Thankfully, there’s a line to show the ball’s trajectory; when it starts to get narrow is an indication that the ball is losing altitude, and that’s when you have to get ready for a catch. If, after you have performed any of these new defensive moves, you don’t secure an out, you then have to throw the ball – and here lies the true beauty of MVP Baseball 2004. You can preload your throws and there’s also a combination of power and accuracy to them. When you start preloading (using a button that’s specific for a particular on-field base: A=home, B=3rd, Y=2nd, X=1st and Z=cutoff man) a blue bar will appear that has a red area within it, that red section is the accuracy gauge. You must stop the meter inside that area in order to create a good throw, and the further you release the button into the red area the stronger the throw; you have to play a balance between power and accuracy. And, of course, each player has a different amount of red target area, Ichiro’s target area is big, so defensive abilities count in the gameplay now; when you hire a player you have to think of defense too. With preloading, double plays are easier to make and very spectacular when you pull them off succesffuly.
This preloading bar is used for pitching, but by using three button moves. You have to choose your pitch first (A, B, Y, X, R and L+base for pickoff), then choose where to put the ball (using the left control stick), then you have to keep the button pressed until it reaches the lower end of the bar (that will give you efficiency in the throw, the curveball will curve more, the slider will slide more, and so on), then let go and, when the meter reaches the red target area, you have to press the button again to perform an accurate throw. Then, if all is well, the ball reaches the place you picked beforehand; and you have your pitch. Obviously these meters vary from pitcher to pitcher. Does accuracy affect gameplay or just the position of the ball? Well it does affect gameplay because if you fail to push the button on the red target area then a marker will appear revealing (to the batter) the aerial position of where the ball will go – not good at all. Try to imagine a bad curveball, which you then reveal the position of to Albert Pujols (poster boy for the game), and you can kiss your pitch goodbye.
Now the batting, yet another aspect MVP Baseball approaches differently. Many recent baseball games have used the batting cursor for batting, where you have a ?hot zone’ and you try to allign the cursor with the ball. Or, you can even push a button to turn the cursor into a circle for more power (like in All-Star Baseball), or even tilt the cursor for flyballs or groundballs – whatever you need to do. But in this game, there are no cursors (what?), at first it’s a weird feeling, but it does get better with time, believe me. This is how it works: Tilting the control stick in different directions selects the type of hit you want: tilt the control stick upward and you’ll select a centerfield fly; tilt it down and you choose to cut the diamond in half; up/right for right-field fly, and so on. But the type of pitch and position of it will determine where the ball will go (like in real life). For example, if you hit a high fastball while tilting the control stick upward you will probably have yourself a homerun. Try hitting a low ball to the stands (and it won’t be that easy), you will probably hit a flyout or, if you hit it on time and with enough power, maybe a good hit. That makes this type of hitting mode more realistic and it forces you to react to the individual pitches coming at you.
Some of the in-game menus are great. By pushing down on the Z button and using any of the two control sticks, or the control pad, you can access different menus; you get the dugout menu (Z+control pad), where you can warm-up pitchers, view their status, or change players, and also checkout the other team’s bullpen. There’s the defensive alignment when you’re on defense (Z+left control stick). And there’s also a menu where you can see every at-bat you have in the game or, if you’re pitching, you can see the opposing batter’s at-bat – great for strategy. This allows you advanced knowledge during that particular game, what the tendencies of each batter are, and also yourself, too. And you have the classic pause menu, where you can do the same things, and change options, and all the usual suspects.
What would a baseball game be without different game modes: Single game, Dynasty, Homerun Derby, and now also Pitcher Showdown. The new Pitcher Showdown is actually quite fun to play; you have to amass three strikeouts (or whatever number of strikeouts you choose prior to playing) before the other pitcher against the same team. If the batter gets a hit you lose an out. The Homerun Derby is also good, but with a little twist; you get points not only for homeruns but also hits, too, and you lose points for outs – so it’s more of a batting derby. The greatest of the playing modes is Dynasty; you get to play with a team for many, many seasons (like every other baseball game out there), but now you get to play with the AA and AAA teams alongside your MLB team. It’s challenging and fun to take players from AAA, and work them from AA; there are a lot of playing possibilities. Create a player and put him on AA and then work him from there; it’s fun to practice here too. The amount of options in Dynasty is simply staggering. You get almost daily emails to your Inbox to keep track of player status, scouting reports, strategies for upcoming games, and achievements by your players. Some players can start complaining when their contract is not to their liking; usually it’s because of the money (it’s always the money, right?) or playing time, or you’re using A-Rod on your AAA team (he probably won’t be too happy there). You have to manage those moods well to coax the best results from your players, if they are not happy they will not play as well and this will affect the team’s overall mood too. The team’s mood is measured; when you incur a loss it goes down, and every game is measured by a Game Impact rating (from 1 to 10). If you lose to a rival or an important game, then the team’s mood will diminish considerably. You have, as a manager, season and long-term goals that give you points, and keep the owner happy. These goals can be things such as winning ?X’ number of home games in a season, or having the season’s leading strikeout player, or maintaining a certain batting average or ERA. These points are later used to unlock team retro jerseys, players, teams and old stadiums; and it’s a good incentive to achieve those goals. Obviously you can start the Dynasty mode via a fantasy draft, or the normal way, or an MLB draft – whichever way you want it. As you can see, there are enough playing modes to keep you happy for quite some time. And, if you’re a seasoned baseball fan, you will definitely enjoy the Dynasty mode experience even more.
There’s only one problem with the game, and it could be a big one: there is no way for two or more players to play in the same team – as you can do in All-Star Baseball. For example: when each player chooses their position?here, you play against only one other player, and each of you must have separate teams. The only multiplayer experience would be on the pitcher showdown or homerun derby. That’s the only thing missing from this, otherwise, amazing game.
There’s a new kid in town, and he’s here to stay. Every other baseball game now has to go up against a new major player, and MVP Baseball 2004 delivers where it counts. Another huge EA Sports title to add to their swelling ranks