To say that the gaming press was brutal last year when it described 989 Sports' first PlayStation 2 baseball title MLB 2004
would be a gross understatement; as its reception was actually far worse than that. Plagued rather terribly with an abundance of gameplay bugs, poorly tuned A.I. routines, and the worst visuals of any game in the category, MLB 2004
was so ill received by professional sports enthusiasts that it was ultimately portrayed as "disastrous, inferior, and annoying" by several of our industry colleagues. To be frank, the series appeared to be in some serious jeopardy.
Not too long after MLB 2004 hit retail shelves, however, Sony Computer Entertainment decided to answer the call and pump some life back into its struggling second party developer. Not only was the studio's budget increased, the development cycle extended, and the programming team almost tripled, the focus of 989's key franchises were expanded upon as well. From that moment forward, the days of shipping an inferior product was finally supposed to be over and the renewal of Sony's PSOne glory days would become a top priority.
989 made the first strike in its comeback two seasons ago when it unveiled NFL GameDay 2004. And though the game was still no match for IGN's eventual sports title of the year Madden NFL 2004, it still traveled down the road of improvement. Truthfully, we couldn't wait to see how this new philosophy would play out in the team's future projects like ShootOut, World Tour Soccer, and MLB. But sadly, ShootOut didn't quite follow in GameDay's footsteps and the final version of World Tour Soccer hasn't yet graced our desks. Thankfully for us, however, MLB 2005 actually has lived up to its promise and narrowed the gap between it and the competition. And despite the fact that the game is still another year removed from true baseball brilliance, MLB 2005 is extensive, realistic, and fun regardless.
Fans of 3DO's defunct High Heat Baseball series are probably going to identify with MLB 2005 more than any other sect -- as MLB is one of the most blatant clones of that franchise that we've ever seen. Redesigned to emulate High Heat's batting system in particular, the three-level hitting model offers users plenty of options for all skill levels. More specifically, novice players only need to worry about timing their swings while intermediate gamers can take advantage of the new "zone control" system by aiming their bats in one of four possible directions. The most advanced system, known as "total control," not only allows users to guess pitches for deadlier risks and bigger rewards, it also provides them with nine different batting locations for complete accuracy.
Much like High Heat, MLB 2005 has a problem with being too easy for players to make contact with the ball -- as zone locations in and out of the strike zone are too forgiving even when played on the hardest difficulty setting. There's little doubt that this fact will end up making offensive-minded players happier than pitching and defense-oriented folk, but we wish that the increase of user batting skills would decrease the likelihood of mulligan pitch locations. Luckily the hot and cold streak system makes things a little more difficult on a day to day basis. Instead of just adhering to a basic default hot/cold zone like most games have in the past, MLB alters the zone to grow and shrink based on their performance literally at every at bat. So if you enter the game with a blank square low and in and somehow hit a couple of shots in that location, it will slowly become one of your new hot zones. Of course, players will always have natural hot zones like real players do, but they're only used as guides as to where to go from there. Cool stuff.
But we still have a couple of quibbles with how MLB handles hitting. It's incredibly difficult to draw walks with any consistency -- as the combination of constant strikes (the CPU seems to hate to throw balls) and lack of a check swing makes the free advance quite a difficult challenge unless it's intentional. Also bothersome is the frequency of homerun hitting. Because you can't maneuver the position of your batter in relation to the plate it's difficult to adjust to outside and inside pitches as quickly as you could with a manageable sweet spot. The frequent tendency of CPU opponents to paint corners doesn't help very much either. Don't get us wrong, MLB's batting engine is fun to use and easy to get into, but it doesn't feel as dynamic or customizable as ESPN's or All-Star Baseball.
MVP Baseball's current reign as the pitching champion is still safe as MLB's model isn't nearly as interactive as EA's. To its credit, though, 989's pitching interface is actually quite good with an aiming system that reacts very realistically to all of your selected pitches. Aiming the slowly-disappearing sinker cursor to the lower corner, for example, isn't going to graze the corner the same way a fastball would; it's going to drop and drop hard. Players will definitely have to pitch consistently and intelligently to master the art of striking out A.I. opponents; as they're masters at keeping strikes in the field of play.
Rather than use a meter like MVP Baseball, MLB takes advantage of the PlayStation 2's pressure sensitive buttons and hurls the ball depending on how hard players tap or press the appropriate key. When combined with the intuitive and unobtrusive targeting system mentioned earlier, it's easily our second favorite pitching model this year. But without any kind of visual cue to tell us how hard a pitch has been thrown while it's still in motion (there's little onscreen difference between a 60MPH two-seamer and one that moves at 85), it'll take quite a long time before the game feels as pleasant as it should.
But one aspect of pitching that we pray 989 works on next year is how the game handles pitcher information. As it stands now, players can view stamina, pitches thrown, and other useful details by pressing the select button at any time but it would have been a lot more useful if some of that info was shown without having to go to another screen -- particularly pitcher stamina, player name, and ERA. It's a minor point yes, but one that would definitely speed the game along and allow you to analyze match-ups much more expeditiously. Come to think of it they need that info when players are batting too, because not knowing who is up at the plate and what they're numbers are without going to a menu can become a little tedious.
Running and Fielding
Stealing bases this year is a whole lot easier than it was before. In part because of its Hardball-like base running windows and also because of the more specific control schematic. This improved sprinting model completely eliminated the confusing, sluggish, and unresponsive example from last year. Although we do have to admit that the base running windows would have benefited even more greatly should they have had some kind of speed rating or informational screen that lets players know what kind of base stealer they have on the corners.
Once players are in the field they'll utilize the same philosophy that powers the pitching engine. Using pressure sensitive throwing controls gamers can hit whichever base they target as long as they tap the button hard enough. The trade-off is over or under-throwing, and for the most part it feels pretty good. And in a twist that's long overdue, 989 has finally incorporated cut off men, relays, and run downs in totally viable manner -- features that were either non-existent or vastly under developed last time.
Strangely enough, we did notice that there's an unusually high number of second base and shortstop-related errors. And while we can understand that errors do occur with frequency in the real major leagues, MLB 2005 gave us one in literally every game we played. Whether it was bad luck, poor playing, or a pre-installed rule, we can't tell you; but it was bizarre nonetheless. At least the ball physics are impressive, though, and provide some of the most realistic bounces, flies, and grounders we've seen.
By far MLB 2005's most impressive feature, the all-encompassing Franchise mode is definitely where it's at. Similar to Madden in a number of ways, the franchise mode allows its players to command nearly every single aspect of their baseball team. Advertising deals, training facilities, transportation costs, field upkeep, fan-related promotions, and concession stand placement are just a few of the several responsibilities that would-be Steinbrenners can expect (and that doesn't even begin to include roster and lineup decisions). Players who are taken in by the gameplay will likely spend eons with this option
To describe the intricacies of MLB's other features would literally take us more than a page to list in their entirety. The same career mode that was the only shining light in last year's version is back and more robust here as well, while the included home run derby is a nice way to blow off some steam. For stat hounds hoping to follow every last bit of information pertaining to their character, there are more than a 100 different individual and team numbers that curious gamers can follow -- with load times and an online mode that more than dwarfs the king of the baseball division, MVP 2004. And that's not just because the servers are working in a more stable manner either -- the interface, stat tracking, and tournament abilities are far superior too.
One feature that proved a lot of fun for us here in the office, though, was the included Eye Toy support for player creation. More flexible and detailed than Tony Hawk's, this creation tool actually allowed us to put ourselves into the game; something most of wished we could do since sports-related videogames came onto the scene decades ago. Unfortunately the rest of your player creation commands are rather limited and you can't add accessories, hair, or facial additions to an Eye Toy-created personality at any time. With a little more tweaking and some more additions next year, it could easily become the best player creation utility in the business.
Despite all these plusses, however, MLB 2005 misses the boat in several small areas that adds up to a much bigger negative. The menu interface, for example, is as clunky as they come; with player trades, roster changes, and stat tracking all nightmares to navigate. For some reason or another 989 games for this generation always seem to run into this problem too -- making us wonder why the team just doesn't pop in their old PC copies of Hardball 6 and discover the perfect example of how to organize and navigate your menus. Oh and does anyone else know why the developers have disallowed players from having more than 10 pitchers? It just doesn't make sense.
The team at 989 obviously listened to its critics last year when it came to visuals and have gone a long way towards improving them. Though it's true that the crowds are still unified automatons and the textures are pretty weak, there are still plenty of new enhancements over the previous version. At the forefront of these changes is the silky-smooth animation and blazingly fast 60 FPS framerate; the lack of which was quite a big deal last year. Luckily 989 has enlisted the motion capture services of guys like Tony Gwynn, Roger Clemens, and Shawn Green to add a much stronger dose of realism with more than twice as many animations in comparison to MLB 2004. The list of personalized batting stances, pitching motions, fielding movements, and more subtle personality traits alone are more than respectable.
Yet despite that fact, it should be noted that just because the animations have been improved it doesn't mean that they are automatically the best in the genre. MVP and ESPN both are a lot more fluid and complicated in their movements than MLB is, and even with the most simplistic of actions turn out to be much further along than 989's effort. Though MLB 2005 may boast the most personalized stances and animation of any other baseball title this year, it does not posses the most overall number of animations -- nor the most realistic.
Another disappointing aspect is the ballparks. The deficit here isn't necessarily created by a lack of detail in architecture or a resemblance to the real-life stadiums (they're actually pretty close), but rather the somewhat plain-looking textures and simplistic light and shadow effects that highlight them. Despite a few key exceptions, the crowd is nothing more than a barely-moving animated bitmap with little to distinguish it from its surroundings. Not to mention the simplistic grass and dirt textures that still come across as early generation. That said there is still quite a few visual bonuses that add a couple of points in MLB's favor with animated scoreboards, facial recreations, and ballpark-specific homerun celebrations add a lot to the game's personality.
Musical choices for MLB 2005 are definitely on the more interesting side and boast a heavy alternative and hip-hop influence. The Black Eyed Peas, Lo Pro, Bootsy & Friends, Alien Ant Farm, Nickelback, and Jane's Addiction are just a few of the several different bands on the soundtrack list with several more rounding out the final selection. It's kind of a strange backdrop really for what's traditionally a low-key purist's game. Personally, though, it didn't take us very long at all to get used to this fascinating choice of background music and it fits in rather nicely if given the chance.
If we were to suppose that videogame broadcast teams are judged solely on their knowledge and talent for public speaking then MLB 2005 would easily win any head-to-head competition. Simply put, Vin Scully and Dave Campbell are two of the best commentators in the business and new guy Matt Vasgersian isn't too bad either. Additionally, the entire announce team offers up a great deal of variety in what they say and how they report on the season and individual games with an eerie realism. The problem is their interaction with each other -- as it just doesn't sound as organic as it should. As knowledgeable and extensive as the squad's comments may be, they rarely give off the impression that they're actually speaking with one another and are almost robotic in how they interact. As proof of how good the Scully and Campbell are as broadcasters, however, the commentary is still quite enjoyable.
And so are the sound effects for that matter. Whether it's the roar of the crowd, the differing cracks of the bat, or the whiff of a pitch, everything sounds absolutely terrific. Gamers who have a high-end receiver or sound system will truly benefit from the included Dolby Pro Logic II encoding and the crystal clear USB headset support make online games that much more tolerable.
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