Review by terrisus
If you're going to buy one Baseball game, make this the one
A bit of introductory information is necessary to get this review started, to set the view and approach for the tone and nature this review will be taking. First, I'm a huge Baseball fan. It, along with video games, are my two favorite hobbies. I would imagine it should go without saying that, in order to enjoy a Baseball video game, one probably should like Baseball in general. If you can't stand sports, or don't like Baseball, well, there really isn't any getting around the fact that, it's a Baseball game.
As far as Baseball video games go, I've generally not been one to buy "yearly release" games. Most of the Baseball games I own have been centered around one specific player (Ken Griffey Jr., Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, etc.) or just general Baseball games without any names attached at all (RBI Baseball, Baseball Simulator, etc.) This is the first game in the MVP Baseball series that I've ever played or owned. So, if you're hoping for a comparison to previous versions, and why it's worthwhile to buy over them (aside from the roster update, needless to say), unfortunately, I can't provide that.
It's worth noting, however, that this is the last game in the MVP Baseball franchise as it had currently been running. Take Two has acquired the right to be the only 3rd-party company allowed to make MLB-licensed games. This leaves EA on the outside looking in. Their 2006 Baseball game is instead "MVP 06 NCAA Baseball," focusing on college Baseball. Still Baseball, of course, but, still, a different path for the series. So, if you had been looking to check out the MVP Baseball series, without the hassle of yearly roster updates, this is as good a place as any to start from that point of view. Since, there won't be any more, at least, not for the next number of years.
That said, of course, it's not worth buying a game if it's not interesting. So, that's what the main body of this review will be addressing: Whether or not MVP Baseball is a worthwhile, fun and entertaining game for the Baseball and Video Game fans out there.
If you're approaching purchasing this game, hopefully you already have a good idea what the game of Baseball is, how it's played, and the matters of gameplay that are related to the game it's focused on. Three outs to an inning, nine innings to a game, pitcher stands on the mound, throws the ball to the batter, etc. Could spend quite a while going over the particular rules and play format of Baseball as a sport, but, again, hopefully that's not needed in this case.
On the Pitching side of things, each pitcher has their own selection of pitches, each assigned to one of the control buttons. There's a 3x3 grid over home plate, showing the different areas of the strike zone. Different squares will either be red, clear or blue. The Red areas are the hitter's strong zones, while the Blue ones are their weak zones. If, however, you simply keep pitching the ball into their weak zone, eventually they'll "figure it out" and make adjustments. Even if a batter's bad against a low inside fastball, if they know one's coming, they can certainly get ready for it. So, you'll have to mix up pitch locations as well as the selection. You move the ball cursor to the particular area of the strike zone that you want the pitch to go, and then press and hold down the button of the pitch you want to throw. When you do this, a circle will appear and a bar will begin filling up. In order to throw the pitch correctly, you'll want to let the button go close to the end of the meter. The closer to the end, the harder the pitch will be thrown. Then, the bar will move back down the circle, and you'll want to push the button again when it's within a highlighted area, which will control how accurate the pitch is to where you had wanted it to go. If you miss dramatically on either of these meters, the pitch might end up in a bad spot, flash a color to give away to the batter what pitch is coming, or other things not to your liking. If you line up the meters perfectly, the pitch will come in right where you had wanted it.
The hitting is fairly straightforward and basic enough. You're looking at the same grid as the pitcher when he's throwing, and can see the same things he gets to see. As the batter, you can choose to move toward or away from the plate, shifting the grid to cover either the inside or outside edge of the plate and shifting your strength and weakness areas. When you're swinging, you can hold a direction on the analog stick to control which way the bat will be moving, and how the ball will react off of it. So if, for instance, you want to hit the ball on the ground to the right side to advance the runner to third, or lift the ball in the air to get a runner home, you can indicate that with the stick. Of course, if the pitch you're trying to hit on the ground is a high inside fastball, you're not likely to have very good results with that. Or, of course, you can just press the button and give a normal swing at the ball. This area does feel a bit lacking in comparison to other games however, where one has control of a small bat or ball icon to control where exactly you want the "sweet spot" of the bat to go. Beyond telling the game whether you want an upward or downward swing, you don't really have too much control over the batting. It does make things a bit simpler, but, considering all the different areas the game has where it gives you complete control, this one area stood out as being lacking.
Baserunning is a bit less intuitive. In the corner of the screen is a diamond showing the bases, and if there's a runner on the basepath the window around the particular base zooms in to show an up-close view of the runner. So, in these windows, you can see where the runners are, how close they are to the base, all of that. With the R and L buttons, one can choose to either "advance all" or "retreat all" on the runner. Or, one can choose to select individual runners, and advance or retreat them individually. The problem comes, as in many other games, that sometimes one will mean to send a particular runner, and instead all of them will go, or the wrong one will go, and will be caught in the middle of the basepaths. It's definitely a very annoying situation to be caught in. Of course, again, this is common to many games, and it's probably better managed in this one in than others, but, it's still present.
Likewise, when fielding, one encounters some issues which have caused problems in other games. The main one is the ever-common issue where, since of course you can only control one fielder at a time, the game will start you off in control of a fielder not nearly as close to the ball as another one. Fortunately, one can easily switch between fielders with the touch of a button, which is definitely nice. Still, if the ball's hit toward the Center Field gap, and it starts you off in control of the Right Fielder, by the time you realize who it is they have you controlling and make the adjustment, the ball is at the wall. One can also dive or jump for a ball with the use of the C-stick, diving in the direction that it's pushed. Throwing to the bases is done by the four main buttons, with each throwing to a particular base (A to Home, Y to First, etc.) Pressing and holding the button will start a meter similar to the pitching meter, controlling how fast you'll throw the ball. During the time the meter is powering up, your fielder is holding the ball, and that's time lost that it could be traveling. Of course, for instance, if you field the ball at Shortstop and just need to get it to Second, you don't necessarily need to fire it as fast as you can, a simple flip will do the job. Likewise, if you're turning a double play, you don't want to hold it too long and have the baserunner knock you off your feet. If you're in the outfield, however, you don't want the ball to bounce a dozen times on the way to its destination, so, a full-power throw is a good idea. The R button can also be used to throw the ball in to a cutoff man, and from there throw it elsewhere.
Graphics in the game are extremely good. Gone are the days when the "crowd" was simply a mesh of flashing white, silver and black colors. Instead, you can see actual people jumping about, waving, and doing silly things when they know they're in front of the camera, just like at a real game. Attention to detail in stadiums is excellent, with each individual ballpark having all of the little crevices and intricacies that make them unique. Similarly, the grass doesn't just look like a piece of Astroturf everywhere, instead being extremely detailed and intricate. It's not like you're going to see blades moving around as the ball passes over them or anything like that, but, it's definitely very good. The player's uniforms, facial and bodily details, and other matters like that are all finely done. Players who have unique batting stances, habits at the plate, and other eccentricities are often included as well, so that you really feel it's the actual player up there, and not just a change in the name on the back of the uniform. There are a number of replays of things that are shown, check-swings and home runs and such. When one hits a home run, it will show the teammates in the dugout cheering, the batter dancing around the bases, fireworks going off (even in ballparks which don't do fireworks... Ah well), and other little touches like that. There's a great deal of attention to details and such like that in this game, which really do add to the gameplay experience.
The game's announcing, unfortunately, becomes like fingernails on a blackboard after an hour. There's only so many times you want to hear "That's a great piece of hitting big boy!" or "This right-handed batter hits very well against left-handed pitching" or "A fly ball to the outfield here could score the runner from 3rd" types of comments before you get sick of them. To say nothing of the voiced "Today's game is brought to you by EA Sports. EA Sports: It's in the Game!" ads. In the game's favor, this isn't significantly different than your average nationally-telecast Baseball game, where the real announcers sometimes sound like they're just reading lines off a programmed list or something. Fortunately, the game features the option to adjust the various sound parts (announcing, crowd noise, and such like that) individually, so that one can simply turn the Announcer volume down to 0 while leaving the other values up. It's a much better option than muting the television. The other sounds in the game, the crack of the bat, the murmur of the crowd, and all those details are very well-done, however, and it's nice to be able to appreciate them without the hassle of a couple of people blabbing in the background.
The game features a number of different options in order to attempt to produce a "realistic" feel to the game, such as blown calls on bases, different strikezones for different umpires, injuries and errors. Whether one chooses to turn any of these on, or to leave them all off, of course, is up to the individual. One can also send the manager out to argue calls (although, as in real Baseball, arguing that a ball should've been called a strike isn't likely to produce any result other than you getting thrown out of the game). Nonetheless, they are all interesting options to have in there.
The main draw of the game, however, is all the different gameplay modes it offers. If you want, of course, you can just play a normal Exhibition game however you want, without worrying about any of the details. Or, you can choose to start a Dynasty. This mode allows you to take control of a franchise, and bring it not just through a season, but up to 120 seasons. During this time you not only take control of the members your team already has, but groom players through the minors (in fact, you can even play the games in the minors if you want, not just the Major League games), integrate prospects, watch their development over time. Of course, you can choose to have the games Simulated if you don't want to fully play through all of them, or to take control of them in the position of the Manager, but, the option is yours. You have to keep control of the team's finances, choose which players to sign, ticket prices, stadium details, the coaching staff, all of the little bits and pieces that go into the day-to-day operation of a team. You can trade for players, arrange your rosters, and all of that. The rosters were set as of the beginning of January 2005, so, some things are a bit out of date at this point, but, if you really want a player on a team, you can just take care of the issue yourself, since the game has an option to toggle "fair trades" (that is, whether or not the game will accept the trade of a superstar for some random minor leaguer). As the game progresses, however, the trading really builds into a central part of the game as well, as you build up stats for a player with an eye toward trading them to fill another need in the future. This mode really lets you get a feel for your team, becoming tied to the inner workings, and directing their progress through the years. It's not just a single game, or a single season, and then dropping them, but the evolution of your team over the years.
In addition to the central Dynasty mode, there are a number of smaller modes to play around with as well. One can take control of a team from the Owner's perspective only, managing the financial parts and details of the team. You can take the team from the Manager's position, directing the players in the games. Or, you can use a Scenario Editor to create modes to play through (bottom of the 9th, down by 2, top of the order coming up, or different situations like that) to see how one can perform under pressure. There are also a number of "Mini-Game" modes, where one can practice hitting or pitching, under various sorts of games or contests. All of these things provide interesting and fun diversions when one wants a bit of a break from the course of playing through the regular season. One can also earn "points" by accomplishing various tasks in the seasons and games, which can be spent to unlock different things such as old ballparks, uniforms and players. The down side to all of these different modes and options and such, is the massive amount of memory card space that this game takes up. It uses over 500 blocks of space in order to save all the different modes. So, if you don't have a 1019 yet, you're going to need to get one in order to do much in this game (and if you do have one, you may need to free up a bit of space on it).
In the end, of course, what it comes down to is, how much you enjoy Baseball in general, and Baseball video games specifically. If you're not a fan of Baseball, or would rather be out on the field than at home with a controller, this game isn't for you. If you're looking for a game, however, which includes a multitude of options and modes, and a fairly solid core to the actual on-the-field gameplay, this is definitely an excellent choice. While the rosters are a year out of date now, you're not going to get another chance to see EA update them. If you'd been putting off checking out the MVP Baseball franchise until now, this is definitely the time to look into it. An excellent Baseball game overall, both in the scope and magnitude, and in the minor intricate details which really pull the whole thing together. It's not perfect, it does have a few issues, but, if you're looking for a game to spend a while with, this is definitely an excellent choice.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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