Last year I called Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3
the best console baseball game ever made. From graphics to sound to gameplay to franchise mode, it was one hell of a game. Coming into 2004, quite a few things have changed over at Sega. For one thing, Sega Sports has become ESPN Videogames and World Series Baseball
has been dubbed ESPN Major League Baseball
. When EA changed the name of its beleaguered Triple Play
series, it was to wipe the slate clean, to say that this was a whole new game. Ironic, then, that Sega's renamed baseball title, once again developed by Blue Shift, seems to be announcing that the critically acclaimed series has taken a step backwards. While the gameplay has improved and online was added, all other aspects have weakened and what was the best baseball game ever made isn't even the best baseball game in the 2004 market. What the hell happened?
The majority of ESPN Major League Baseball hasn't seen much improvement over last year. Having reviewed the previous two efforts, one thing I've felt the series needed was to pay more attention to presentation. Frankly, solid presentation seems to be lacking in every baseball game. You just don't get the kind of care given to the overall package as is done with basketball and football. Well, this year for ESPN MLB is no different than in the past. Though there are a couple of almost undetectable presentation additions, ESPN Baseball offers little extra bang for the buck.
The cut-scene animations are still limited to just a few choice selections (I swear I see the same "resting the bat on the head in anguish" animation every single time a batter has struck out), but the ball connects with the bat on replays more often than last year. The stadiums are interactive now and Karl Ravech of Baseball Tonight fame offers pre-game analysis during load screens. Beyond that, there's nothing you couldn't find last season. The greater ESPN presentation seen in the other Visual Concepts sports games amounts to a nicer ESPN logo flashing on replays, an empty studio background in the main menu, and stats and standings listed under an "ESPN.com" menu.
Where other ESPN Videogame titles offer unlockable items and owner boxes, ESPN Baseball offers, well, nothing. Heck, you even get a lot of reused classic unis from last year. The seasonal awards are presented in the same manner as before in Franchise mode. It's all very disappointing. Granted, the presentation isn't any worse than last year, but it's not any better either. One nice fix is that auto-replays now show the entire play instead of showing the tail end. Actually, I will admit that I love the variety in the stat breakdowns that pop up when hitters come to the plate. You don't just get batting average and stats for the day, but if you hit a double you may get a pop-up text stating that J Payton has hit 13 doubles this season. That's a nice improvement, but when that's the biggest thing you can tout, well, that's not such a great thing. Unfortunately, this is the story for much of ESPN Baseball.
The good news for fans of the series is that the gameplay has remained intact and, for the most part, has been improved, though only slightly. If you believe that games, especially sports games, are all about the gameplay, then you have nothing to fear. ESPN Major League Baseball continues the tradition of VC games, having the most sophisticated AI and some of the more accurate gameplay in the biz. So, if you've skipped to the final page to see the score breakdown already, why did gameplay score an 8.0 this year when last year's scored a 9.0? Though, this year's iteration plays a little better, the gameplay improvements aren't nearly as significant as they should be, year-to-year, and some of the gameplay additions detract from the quality seen last year. Though they can be toggled off, Confidence and Pitching Effort, both introduced this year, don't have a proper place in the game. They are, essentially, shallow gimmicks, not fully realized and their inclusion is questionable.
The most notable change this year can be toggled off if you dislike it. Every player that steps on the field now has a confidence rating that adjusts throughout the game depending on their play. The more confident a player, the better they do, but should a player doubt himself, he'll under-perform. Strike out the first batter of a game and you'll see your pitchers confidence level displayed on screen with a small boost. Get rocked by a few hits and his confidence will drop. The same goes for batters. Have Johnny Damon steal second and you may get a little juice, but if Damon hits into an inning-ending double play, his confidence will be slightly shaken. Confidence is a good idea, but it's a bit unreliable. Sometimes you'll get a hit and have no boost, sometimes you will. Why? It's not really clear. Sometimes the swings can be pretty dramatic too. It's cool, at first, to see how different successes and failures in a ballgame can affect players, but the problem is that it's not very true to baseball. Yes, players can lose confidence, but in ESPN Baseball, it's only that one game that's in question. The confidence doesn't carry across the games of a season, so all of these major swings in confidence come within the confines of nine innings. And, as far as I can tell, it doesn't seem to matter who the player is. Any baseball fan knows that different players react differently to failure. Miguel Tejada, for example, will try and swing for the fences to atone for a previous at bat and will, in fact, try too hard to make up for a strikeout or double play ball. But A Rod doesn't seem to get down just because he's gone 0 for 4. In fact, some players like Mister Rod seem to focus more when they've done poorly before. How often have you seen a Chris Gwynn come up in the bottom of the ninth with a big 0-fer collar only to hit the game-winning single? That's what's great about baseball, no one is ever truly down and out.
What Blue Shift needed to do was take the concept further (because it is quite shortsighted) and add player archetypes. Say you have five different types of players, such as the Hero, the Goat, or the Veteran. Each reacts to success and failure in a different way, creating a much more dynamic confidence system. Instead, the confidence meter homogenizes baseball players, which is what baseball games have always done in the past. In this new age of ballgames, it's the titles that can break out of that mold and make players feel more like individuals than a batting average that deserve the high praise. Confidence isn't a horrible innovation, it just doesn't add as much as it should and gets old after a few dozen games.
The other "big" gameplay change is the addition of an Effort meter when pitching. This is, apparently, a reaction to EA's pitching meter. But pitching effort is not new to this series. Last year Blue Shift put in pressure-sensitive pitching, so that the harder and longer you held the pitch button, the more effort you put into the ball. The end result was the same -- the more effort you used, the more likely you were to overthrow the pitch and the more stamina you drained. The effect may be a bit more dramatic this time around, but the main change is that there's now a meter that fills. This isn't a skilled component to stop the meter, it's just a way to visually measure the effort on a throw. The addition of a meter forces comparisons to EA's pitching meter, which I prefer. Since the functionality is pretty much the same as last year, though, there's not really much added, though it will make more gamers aware that they are determining a pitcher's effort on each sling to home plate.
Most of pitching remains pretty much identical to last year otherwise, except there are now several more pitches on the plate rather than the base nine of the previous two years. Because there are more pitches, Blue Shift did away with the old interface, where you'd push in a direction on the Left Thumbstick to choose your pitch. Now it's a matter of selecting a pitch on one of the face buttons or triggers. Not a big deal, but I kind of liked the way selection was done before, simply because it was a bit different from other games.
Confidence plays a big factor in pitching and since your pitcher will be involved in the game more than anyone else, you'll see their confidence fluctuate greatly. Fortunately, you can use mound visits to improve a pitcher's confidence. I've never once seen a pitcher lose confidence on a mound visit, and the boost is always pretty minimal. Still, it adds an extra value to mound visits and there's no guarantee the visit will boost confidence, though it general will in any pressure situation.
I must admit that I've had a bit more of a problem pitching this year than last year, as the pitching effort sometimes too greatly affects location or ball movement, making it a bit more difficult to hit the spots. I'm not really sure if it's intentional or not, but I'm a seasoned veteran of the series and it took me a few games to get accustomed to the sensitivity of this year's pitching system. Batting
Batting has seen some tuning this year and the addition of a True Aim Batting. Where games like High Heat and more recently MVP have had gamers push the Left Thumbstick for the type of swing they want (push up for a fly, down for a grounder), Sega's True Aim Batting has the gamer pushing towards the location of the ball and isn't in direct correlation to what they want to do with the ball. In other words, if the ball is low and outside and it's a leftie batter, you push down and left. That doesn't mean you are trying to hit a grounder, it's just where you swing the bat. This is, essentially, a good way to get rid of the cursor batting (which remains a toggle option), but still force the gamer to swing where the pitch is. I like it, though I can see advantages in both the ESPN and MVP systems. The only problem with this system is that after about a dozen games, it becomes relatively easy to hit the ball and home run totals can get a bit hefty.
The power button, a hotly debated addition to last year's title, remains, but can be toggled off to allow for "classic" batting. I like the batting, especially with some slight game slider adjustments to make the game a bit more difficult. The only thing that's annoying is that batters overreact to pitches that are nowhere close to them. Though batters have the same animation to hop away from a ball down at their feet, this year the ball will barely be off the plate inside and the batter will react, even though the ball isn't close to hitting them.
Overall, batting hasn't changed in any significant ways and the animations are pretty much the same from last season, making ESPN Baseball feel like less of a progression and a bit more like a glorified roster update.
As is the theme of this review, fielding is another area that saw some minor, but not major improvements. I liked the fielding last year and don't really have any complaints this year, except that occasionally the pre-loaded throws don't actually preload. Otherwise, things are solid and a bit better this time out. Using the triggers you can once again dive or leap for the ball, depending on its location, but a new "speed burst" option has been added. Any fielder can either have a burst of speed, which will help you get to the wall to attempt a cool wall catch, something you just won't see much of in any other baseball game this year, or you can save that burst to use when you throw the ball. Hold the Left Trigger on a throw and you'll try to gun it, which can sometimes lead to Irchiro-like bullets to third and other times lead to Knaublach-esque throws into the dugout.
The new options seem like a little thing, but over the course of a season, that burst of speed or a hard throw can mean the difference of a couple of games and a playoff spot (as my Padres sorely discovered). Of all the additions to ESPN Baseball this one's the most natural fit.
There are also, finally, some better throw trajectories in the infield and a greater variety of errant throws so that it seems more like a natural game. And you still have the best-looking double plays around. Hell, they look better than the real thing. Some other nice new touches include outfielders flicking the ball into the stands after making the third out and a handful of awesome new animations. One other thing I dig is the ability to switch on a "fielder correction" option. If you are moving a fielder in the wrong direction, the AI will redirect you properly. While this is a bit of a cheat, it eliminates any bad jumps due to camera switches or an errant arrow. Pros won't bother with this, but it's a good idea for newbies.
As much as I dig the new infielder moves, like low tagging on force plays after an offline throw, Blue Shift's game still suffers from one big problem -- every fielder seems the same. Sure, Jason Giambi will make more errors than J.T. Snow and Ichiro can get a ball to the infielder faster than Manny Ramirez, but there's no point during any game where I've been left thinking "thank God I have Vizquel at second." Pretty much anyone can make any play if you have quick enough fingers, which again makes the players more homogenized than they should be. Overall, the fielding is improved, I just wish more had been done. Modes of Play
This year brings about a couple of new gameplay modes, but unfortunately, the two most notable are also notably bad. Duel Mode is an arcade mode that lasts just one inning. First player one tries to get outs against player two, who bats. If the batter gets hits, he earns more points. After the half-inning, the two flips sides. Doesn't sound so bad, but it's spoiled by some obnoxious commentary by Rex Hudler. Whoever wrote these lines should be voted off the island, because nothing Hud says is funny or enjoyable during the duel. The pitcher can also taunt the batter with the press of a button, but this does nothing for the actual gameplay or offer any extra enjoyment. This is, perhaps, an attempt to answer the arcade-style of Midway's Slugfest but Blue Shift has completely misfired on this easy-to-dismiss game mode.
The other big offering, First-Person Mode is a true mess. Unlike ESPN Football where the first-person perspective is somewhat realistic -- you see through a helmet, see your hands and feet, and have a brief moment of slow-mo as you switch to another player so you can orient yourself -- the first-person mode for Baseball offers a floating camera sensation. When batting, you only occasionally see the swing of the bat, but never your hands or feet. In fact, you're positioned so that you can't even see the plate and it's absolutely impossible to judge the strike zone. It's even hard to tell if a ball is inside or outside, making batting a matter of blind luck and quite frustrating. That's not as big a problem as the fielding, which tosses you about from one fielder to the next the moment a ball is thrown, as if instantly teleporting you to another spot, only the transition completely flips all sense of positioning. Simply put, it sucks. The nice option is that you can switch to first-person in any game through the option menu, but you will never want to. Yeah, it's that bad, from top to bottom.
Franchise Mode remains almost identical to last year. Very, very, very little has changed other than the ability to trade four players instead of three. Whoop-de-doo. The good news is, last year's Franchise Mode was very good, so at least Sega has something to fall back on. The innovative use of stamina (players get tired if you don't rest them occasionally) remains, but it would have been nice to see the Confidence Meter tied in somewhere.
If you want to try out something new, you can go for GM Mode, which is almost identical to Franchise Mode with one conceit -- you are a GM working for an owner with a specific personality. As GM, you can still play every game and make all the trades and roster moves you do in Franchise Mode. So what's new? You have goals set by the owner who could be a "dictator" or "fan-oriented" among other personality types. These directives offer a challenge as GM and will ask that you trade or cut an aging, expensive player or that you sign a big name pitcher. Most goals come at the start of the season, but one or two pop up throughout, and are more specific like, "sweep your rivals" or some such. As GM you can be fired or you can quit and try to get a job with another team, which can keep things interesting. Can you be a dynasty builder from one franchise to the next?
It's a nice idea, but, like many of ESPN Baseball's "innovations," it's not fully realized. There are some fundamental issues I came across after just a couple of seasons. I chose the Padres, who have a "dictator" owner. The first year we did well for a rebuilding franchise and went 80-82 and I met three of my four goals for the year. My GM rating was a B- and I earned a small budget increase. Skip ahead past the pre-season (which has the same draft system as last year, same coaching system, and no Spring Training) and at the start of season two, my owner tells me to cut Phil Nevin, who had a career year in 2004 and to reduce my payroll to 255 Budget Points, which would slice my budget almost in half. So, after one improved season, I have to have a fire sale? I say, "F' you Jobu" and continue about my merry way, but two months later, the owner slashes my budget on his own, meaning I am now 200+ points in the red and unable to negotiate contracts or sign free agents for the season and am basically screwed for the next two seasons. Who thought this was a good idea? Not fun, not smart. Good idea, bad execution.
However, I played with a different team with a different type of owner and didn't have any problems. I like GM Mode, even though it's actually an update on Franchise Mode and made separate, apparently, just to add an extra game mode to the tally. There's a lot of other things that could have been added onto Franchise Mode, but this is really the only thing of note. Oh, and one other odd thing. In GM Mode, no one ever (and I mean ever) offered me a single trade. Not in five seasons. Not one. Online
I personally don't get a lot out of online baseball. That said, I think Blue Shift has done an excellent job with online this year for Xbox Live. The creation options are pretty robust for an online sports title. Create a game and you can set the following options: Difficulty, Ranked, Game Length (for non-ranked games), Stadium, Time of Day, My Team, Batting Aim (True Aim, Cursor, Time), Batting Swing (one- or two-button), Power Pitching, Private Game.
The problem with judging online games is that games played off an Xbox debug are held on a different server than the public server used once a game has shipped, which usually means that reviewers get optimal conditions. Well, in such conditions, ESPN Major League Baseball runs just fine, though the animations seem to be even more framey in some instances. Overall, the lag wasn't a problem and the slowdown was relatively rare to the point of almost being non-existent.
Because it's coming late to the game, ESPN MLB already has some late trades in the main game, such as A Rod on the Yankees as a third baseman and Pudge on the Tigers. But for all those other late signings and trades, gamers will have (according to Visual Concepts) a fresh downloadable roster the day they game ships. Unfortunately, downloaded rosters cannot be used online, so you must use the default rosters. Good thing that the biggest moves of the pre-season are already in the game.
If your main goal is getting online with baseball, this is the way to go. If you want a game that's advanced beyond last year's model, well, you've read the review to this point, and you know where things stand on that front.
While the gameplay has remained intact from last year, the graphics have taken a small step backwards. There are some new animations, including one incredible-looking sliding stop by the shortstop, but there aren't nearly enough to keep this game looking fresh. You'll see a lot more animations at first base this year, with the first baseman picking balls out of the dirt and being pulled off base in a variety of manners. The outfield seems to have earned no new animations, or so few that it's hard to tell what wasn't in last year's game.
The big improvement? Apparently the addition of dust clouds when a baserunner slides. Homers also look better this year, with the ball connecting with the bat more often this year. And that's about where the newness ends. Animations overall seem to have less frames and batters can look pretty stiff returning to the dougut. The ball still pops into the glove, just like last year, so no improvement there whatsoever. Faces have also declined. A few look phenomenal, like Jeff Bagwell, but most are blurry and look like 2D scans stretch onto a 3D model, unnatural. Sammy Sosa is perhaps the best example of the bad. It looks as if someone put Silly Putty on a newpaper photo of Sosa and then stretched it onto a face. Yech.
The nice stadiums, self-shadowing, and impressive 3D crowds (which turn 2D up close) might fool the eye into believing the game is still a knockout, but compared side-by-side with last year's game, it's startling how a game could look worse than before while using the same engine. Granted, ESPN Major League Baseball is still a nice-looking game, it just isn't as pretty as it once was. Even the swing animations seem limited. How is that possible? Bad design plan, lack of budget, a lackluster effort -- take your pick, I couldn't tell you for sure, but it's probably a bit of each.
For the past two years, Blue Shift and Visual Concepts has ruled with superior baseball sound. That rule ends this season thanks to a degradation in the sound department. On the positive, Jon Miller replaces Ted Robinson with play-by-play and turns in one of the better voice performances in a baseball game. Jon sounds natural and really talks just as he does in a regular broadcast. Hudler returns to provide color, but Blue Shift appears to have reigned his eccentricity in a little bit and dulled some of the color that made Hudler such a unique presence last year (except for Duel Mode where he's obnoxious). His talent is wasted this time out. There's never a sense that these two are in the same booth, let alone watching the same game, and there are quite a few sound miscues where Miller ends up describing the wrong play.
The humorous heckles I've loved the past two years are back once again, with a few fresh jabs, but the rest of the crowd seems to have left the building. Even the Tomahawk Chop is muted. Cranking the crowd volume to 10 in the options does nothing at all. Though still in 5.1, the crowd drops out right after a homer is hit, never sustaining the cheer and in general it seems like every game is being played in front of an LA crowd who show up in the third inning and leave in the sixth. Some good stuff, but not spectacular, as it's been in previous years.
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