You may think I'm nuts, but MLB 2006
is my favorite baseball game this year. I like it more than MVP
, I like it more than 2K5
, and more importantly, I like it a hell of a lot more than I originally expected to. In short, it's the game that could finally turn 989's tattered reputation for uncompetitive sports titles all the way around, which is something the last few installments of GameDay
always hinted at but never fully delivered. Make no mistake about it, though, MLB 2006
really does deliver -- and does so with a precision and consistency not unlike Brad Radke's 90mph fastball.
Granted, last year's installment made a number of needed improvements that helped lay the groundwork for this year's big riposte -- brand new interfaces, redesigned pitching controls, a zone batting feature, and pressure sensitive context actions -- But while these extra goodies helped move MLB 2005 into the same league as its competition, it didn't do enough to surpass them. MLB 2006, on the other hand, does.
The reason that MLB 2006 is so successful is because it fills the simulation void that was left barren by the departure of 3DO's terrific High Heat series. 989 has really done an incredible job of capturing the sport of baseball this year, from its nuances and stats to its strategy and execution. High Heat's expansive list of gameplay sliders, for instance, are available in MLB as well -- with everything from pitch speed and arm accuracy to error and injury frequency being completely customizable. Sure it doesn't have as many categories as MVP or Major League Baseball in this regard (that's something to work on for next year), but making adjustments in these areas still seems to have a profound affect on the gameplay, and that's really what matters.
Even without the adjustments, though, MLB 2006's default settings are still a lot more realistic than the competition's. Homeruns and doubles don't come anywhere near as frequently when compared to EA's game, for example, and the Lance Parrish-inspired passed ball phenomenon of 2K5 isn't an issue either. What's more, the brand new ball physics look and feel great. Nailing a roper to left field or blasting a foul into the second-tier bleachers happen exactly as you'd expect them to -- and the speed and weight associated with each kind of hit appears to have been recreated almost perfectly. All in all, everything feels just right, and in a baseball game where subtleties are so incredibly important, this kind of focus goes a long way.
Another important addition to this season's game is the implementation of what's known as "Branch Point Technology." With it, MLB enables players to perform fielding and base running preloads without the nasty animation hitches that bogged down the speed and reaction times of last year. This means that your momentum is no longer halted mid-animation, which makes it a whole lot harder to hit happenstance double and triple-baggers. Additionally, a helpful new Playmaker fielding marker actually makes your player's statistics worth something -- since fly balls and sky-highs are no longer automatic outs. Now, each fielder's defensive statistics determine how big the landing icon is and how early you can determine its final destination. It's a great little addition and it keeps you on your toes.
The pitching and batting interfaces have received a couple of upgrades as well. Though not as drastic as the changes made in MLB 2005, these slight enhancements build on an already-strong revamp that first began last year. Drag bunts and check swings, for instance, have finally been reintroduced for the 2006 version and am I ever glad that they're here -- as they make a huge difference in super tight ballgames. Also worth mentioning is the MVP-like "Release Point Pitching System" that expands on last year's total control model. With it, the game encourages players to use a golf swing meter that utilizes individual zones for power, accuracy, and release points based on the pitcher's form. If your accuracy if off too much, the ball ends up going in the direction you messed up in; but if your accuracy is dead-on, however, your pitch will go exactly where you told it to go.
Your pitcher's confidence plays into this system as well, and your throwing meter will change and deform to reflect his demeanor and attitude. If your guy has managed to strike out a couple of hitters with good consistency, for example, your sweet sports will grow bigger as the game goes on. But if you screw up and suck too much, the zone will get continually smaller over time. It's a fantastic little system and you can actually see it work just as it does in real life. Luckily, this confidence system is balanced pretty effectively by an improved "pitch guessing" system that rewards batters for successfully anticipating pitches. If you guess 4-seam fastball and that's what your opponent throws, a helpful little graphic appears to tell you where the ball is going to end up. Guess wrong, and your chances of hitting it go way down.
What really sets MLB 2006 apart from both Visual Concepts and Electronic Arts, though, is its excellent career mode. Building on the idea that you only need to manage just one player, the career mode effectively simulates what it's like to come up through the ranks as a major league ballplayer. To be more specific, you'll get your first shot at the pros by participating in spring training to earn your spot in the Major, AAA, or AA ball clubs. Most of these teams are the real deal too, complete with a selection of minor league parks and official team colors. And depending on how effectively you can accomplish your spring training goals, you'll get offered a contract somewhere in a professional baseball league -- though if you don't like the offer or aren't good enough to be asked in the first place, you can become a free agent and shop yourself around to the highest bidder. But that's only scratching the surface; because once your guy gets picked up that's where the fun really begins.
As a rule, players can constantly improve their abilities. To exploit this, users can earn specialized training hours to work on specific skills (while a handy depth chart helps illustrate what attributes your team's looking for). Moreover, your player's performance affects just how much playing time he'll continue to get -- so if you're swinging a hot bat or putting up zeroes like there's no tomorrow, you can expect the manager to react accordingly. One of the coolest aspects of this system, though, is that you can also help shape your own destiny by actively affecting your team and manager's morale.
Examples of how to do this include barging into your trainer's office and demanding more playing time or requesting a trade to somewhere else. You can even grant the media an exclusive interview to spill the dirt on your teammates or pool the team together and give a heartfelt speech to help them rally. All of these actions change how your viewed and play too, and it can become just as much of a strategy as planning a sacrifice bunt.
You don't have to play an entire game with your created player either. An innovative (and extremely useful) Fast Forward feature allows you to zip ahead to specific portions of the game so that you don't even have to play them. Don't want to play defense? Just fast forward to the top of the next inning! Would you rather just participate in your player's at bats and nothing else? You can do that too! The flexibility here is great, and it should become a standard feature in every baseball game this moment on.
Regardless of how much of an active role you take in your player's career, though, the game keeps track of everything. There are almost 80 different statistics in all (which should make Hardball fans feel somewhat nostalgic), while performances in spring training, the minors, and majors are all broken down into separate categories for your easy navigation. You can even make or break a ton of existing records or get inducted into the baseball hall of fame! Needless to say, the career mode is a lot of fun and worth playing several times through.
If you're a fan of the more traditional season and franchise modes, however, MLB 2006 has improved those too. The same player morale system that worked during the career mode comes into play here as well, but it forces would-be Lasordas to discover the right balance of salary, playing time, lineup positioning, and various other aspects for an entire team. It's highly strategic, and has the same level of functionality an individual career has. What I'm really fond of, though, is that the clunky interface from last year has been nixed in favor of a newer navigation-friendly setup. And considering that I've been on 989's case for years regarding the menu and hub systems for all of its game, I'm glad to report that I've finally played one of its games where it wasn't an issue.
Unfortunately the franchise and season modes are also where MLB 2006 runs into its biggest and most problematic hitch -- the bugs. Yes friends, just like Visual Concepts' Major League Baseball 2K5 and to a lesser extent, EA's MVP 2005, MLB 2006 runs into a couple of bugs that make certain aspects of the game almost unplayable. Luckily these are pretty much relegated to just the informational aspects of the franchise mode, where the game will freeze and become stuck on one screen for no apparent reason at all. It happened to me several times on several systems with the final retail copy of the game too, meaning that this wasn't just a random occurrence. It's really too bad too, because it happens often enough to become a real problem -- making one of the coolest aspects of the game unnecessarily frustrating.
There are some enjoyment-hindering bugs outside of the franchise mode as well. Random graphical hiccups occur randomly with EyeToy-created players, for instance, while occasional lockups similar to those found in career happen during batter walk-ups and intros every dozen games or so. Mind you, they're not even close to being as problematic as the text-heavy errors mentioned previously, but they're definitely there. And when combined with the franchise issues, it really takes away from what's otherwise an excellent baseball game.
I also have to admit that I'm not a big fan of the audio -- and it's not just because Vin Scully is gone either, but rather, because there doesn't seem to be enough variety to describe what's going on. Play-by-Play guy Matt Vasgersian does the majority of the commentary with Dave Campbell providing the color backup, but Dave doesn't talk enough and Vasgersian repeats the same lines several times per game. Don't get me wrong, it's tolerable for sure; it just isn't the quality I expected after a solid audio job in last year's version. Oh well, at least the hard rock soundtrack and Dolby Pro Logic II encoding means that everything else sounds great, and on a capable surround sound system you'll swear you're hearing a real baseball game.
Speaking of real baseball games, MLB 2006 looks great. Worlds better than last year's version, each and every object in the game is in full 3D -- from the crowds and outfield objects, to the subtle clothing accessories on the players. The game's animations are equally impressive too, with individual walk-up rituals and batting stances for just about every name player in the league (except Barry Bonds, who isn't in this game either... poor Barry). I'm especially fond of the fact that the game runs in super hi-res and supports widescreen modes as well. But I am bit baffled as to whether or not it supports 480p, as I've heard claims that it's in there, but have seen no documentation or menu options to support it. Even so, the game looks great no matter what kind of television it's running on, and that says a lot.
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