Remember the simple days when EA's Triple Play
was so bad it was never even a consideration as a purchase? Call it the Jeremy Giambi of video games -- recognizable name, not the one you wanna give a $100 million contract to. That changed last year when EA wiped the slate clean and introduced their new franchise MVP Baseball
. What we saw in 2003 was a ball game with some innovative ideas, but in need of a lot of fine tuning. Fielding mechanics were bad at times, the AI had problems, and there wasn't much depth to the Dynasty Mode. MVP Baseball 2003
was a good game, no doubt, but EA Canada had its work cut out if they were to topple Sega from the baseball throne.
Guess what? A year's passed and it's clear MVP Baseball 2004 is the game EA originally envisioned as the crowning jewel of baseball titles. There is no aspect of the game that hasn't been improved. Yes, kids, even if he's not on the cover, this game is swinging like the good Giambi brother. But is this great title right for you? After all, baseball video games are like a steroid cocktail, perfect for some and just not the thing for others. If you're a doubter, allow me the chance to convince you that MVP 2004 is one hell of a game.
- Every member of the MLBPA -- sorry, no Bonds!
- Real deal AAA and AA teams for every Major League club
- A slew of new fielding animations that bring the game to life like never before
- Total Control gameplay with the Right Thumbstick lets you control slides on the basepaths and dives in the outfield
- 52 Hall of Famers including the Babe, Ty Cobb, and legendary manager Sparky Anderson
- Team chemistry and player happiness provide for a deep 120-year Dynasty Mode
- 720p and 480p Support
- Dolby Pro Logic II
Before getting into my love-fest for MVP's
updated gameplay, let me assure you that all of this comes from a die-hard World Series Baseball
fan. That's right, the previous two baseball seasons, I've found Sega's WSB
to be far and away my favorite baseball title. Yes, I played some MVP 2003
last year and I liked it, thought it was a good base to work from, but found some of the fielding problems too much to make it worth my while. All that said, I must admit that MVP 2004
offers a fantastic baseball experience, more than I expected. There are still problems in the game (and I will deal with those as well), but EA Canada has created a product that, while not the perfect simulation of a baseball game, offers a better overall authentic feel than any game I've played.
This great baseball experience all starts with the fielding. While there have been games in the past that have done a good job of representing pitching and hitting, none of them ever got fielding quite right. Sure, when you went to the plate, you could easily distinguish the difference between playing as former Seattle shortstop great Alex Rodriguez and former Seattle third-baseman disaster Russ Davis. A-Rod has plenty of pop, can hit bad pitches, and is a fun at-bat, while Russ is your average palooka with a wood stick. But on the field, the only difference might be that A-Rod can get to a ball a little quicker and that Russ "An Adventure with Every Throw" Davis has a higher probability to throw an error when you tap the button to throw to first. In the past, for any baseball game, there was rarely ever a feeling that defense mattered. Defensive substitutions never made a bit of sense in baseball video games. MVP Baseball 2004 changes that.
Like last year, when you go to make a throw you hold down the corresponding button and a meter appears. The longer you hold, the stronger the throw. However, if you go into the red, you have a greater chance of making a bad throw. What brings individual performance into the equation is that the red "error" zone's size depends on the fielder's abilities. A-Rod's got a lot more leeway to put his arm behind a throw than Russ Davis. The dynamic doesn't stop there, though. The meter also changes based on a player's movements and positioning. Catch a grounder, plant your feet and then throw and you can put a lot more zing before hitting the red, but if you are running to the left, snag the ball barehanded and chuck it across your body to first, half the meter may be red, meaning any hard throw will likely go offline.
Just because the throw meter goes into the red doesn't mean it will be an error, it just increases the probability that the throw will awry. Thanks to a slew of new animations, you'll see balls bounce in the dirt and first baseman pulled off first and forced to dive to the bag to beat the runner. Once I even chucked the ball five feet over Scott Hatteberg's head and into the stands (no cut-scene occurred to confirm, but I'm positive I nailed Keith Oberman's mother). No longer is it safe to leave a fumbling third baseman in a late game if you have a suitable defensive replacement. I've lost games on poor throws and bobbled balls. More importantly, building your ballclub is now more realistic, because hitting, speed, and fielding matter. Omar Vizquel is no longer a video game pariah. An average hitter that's solid on defense up the middle is an asset. Fielding the outfield can be tough to handle in your first few games. When balls get past you and are misplayed, they often result in triples (or worse), but the reasoning is that you didn't play the ball right. The ball tails off the bat as realistically as I've ever seen and it kicks off the wall differently depending on the park, so when the ball gets past you in Boston, you better know how it plays in the triangle or it's gonna be trouble.
The majority of fielding problems from last year have been fixed. Fielding is definitely manageable and is mostly in your control. You can switch fielders by hitting the Left Trigger, though occasionally you aren't allowed to switch to the most logical fielder. This doesn't happen often, but there are times your first baseman is ranging out and instead of being able to switch to your second baseman, you have to switch to the right fielder. And some infielders move very slowly when tracking a blooper. Sometimes it almost looks like a trot. This is a limitation on that particularl fielder's range and speed, but the animation makes it look likes he's loafing. It is realistic in the sense that Mo Vaughn can't even chase down an ice cream truck with a $100 bill in his hand, but the loafing animation might make you scream at your TV.
There are some other minor fielding irks. You can preload throws, but occasionally infielders stand motionless as if in a catatonia. This seems to happen mostly with double plays, especially with the second baseman. Usually DPs work fine, but there are those sore moments where it fails for no apparent reason. And, in the outfield, if you don't throw to the cut-off man, sometimes your throw will die reaching the infield and no one will seem to want to go get the ball, allowing for some rather lame triples and inside the park homers. Of course, that's all forgotten the moment a fielder grabs a ball and bobbles as he takes steps to throw. The range of different fielding animations is so impressive, after over 70 games played, I'm still seeing new stuff come up from time to time.
And to think, all of that isn't even the really cool new stuff for fielding. EA Canada added two smart additions worth noting. First is the pop fly halo. On a fly ball a halo appears, about twice the width of a player, showing where the ball will land. Once you get your player in position, they lock into the halo. Move them forward, left or right and they will stay focused on the fly ball and take a step or two one way or the other. In this fashion, you can get under a fly ball, take a step or two back, and then move forward as you catch to use your momentum for a throw to home.
The most notable addition, however, is the Right Thumbstick control. When controlling any fielder, you can tap the Thumbstick left or right for a dive, down for a sliding catch (always bad if you miss and the ball bounces past you), and press up to leap for a ball or perform a wall jump. The control is easy to get used to and worthwhile and once again, smart defense makes a difference. If you dive for a ball with no one behind you and you miss, well, that's a bad thing for you. Even though players catch what they dive for more often than not in this game, it's still more of a risk with lesser fielders.
Pitching functions much like last year and at first glance may appear unchanged. However, the batting AI has been greatly improved so that eager batters will swing at balls out of the strike zone, especially on good breaking pitches, and will even take some pitches on a 3-0 count. The pitch meter remains and works just as before where you hold down the button during your windup to power the effectiveness of the pitch, release for the delivery and hit the button again to mark accuracy. This year fatigue seems to be more of a factor, so that you are forced to sacrifice some effectiveness as a pitcher gets tired in order to keep your accuracy, but that creates a very accurate arc for pitchers. No one seems to get tired too early or last for too long. The big addition this year is mound visits. Not only can you send the manager to the mound for a conference, it actually has an affect on the game. Of course, a mound visit gives your bullpen more time to warm up, but it also can benefit or harm your current pitcher on the rubber. Depending on the pitcher and the situation, going to the mound results in a loss of stamina, a boost of stamina (think of it as settling down a pitcher), or offers no change either way. This isn't a random thing, though. If it's the fourth inning of a 0-0 game and Pedro gives up two singles and you wander out to the mound, he'll become very upset and lose a chunk of stamina. Not wise. However, come to Pedro in the eighth with the game on the line and he may get a small boost. Of course, as we know from recent history, that doesn't mean Pedro will close the deal.
That stamina boost can be a big help when a pitcher is getting tired. It's much easier to pitch with 65% stamina than 55% stamina, so managing your pitcher properly is vital, just like in real baseball. Player management is a big part of the improvements across all of MVP, not just in pitching and defense. The pitching and fielding aspects make for a very immersive experience. Is it the perfect piece of baseball realism? No, and it doesn't matter when a developer makes it feel like baseball.
Like pitching, on the surface batting seems only marginally changed. Based on timing and the push of the Left Thumbstick, it's the ball physics and pitching AI improvements that make batting more realistic than in 2003. Big flies are possible on low or high pitches, even pitches out of the strike zone. You'll see balls get pulled deep into the stands and line drive homers to the opposite field. What type of hit you get is dependent on a number of factors including the batter's ability, pitch location and type, what type of swing you go for (push down and away to try for an opposite field grounder or push up and towards the batter to try and pull one), and timing. The numerous variables lead to just about every hit possible in baseball -- Nubbers, the Baltimore Chop, scorching liners, bloopers, broken bat singles, ropes, big fly homers and even surefire triples that die in Mike Cameron's glove.
Putting the ball in play is a good idea, because there's a special humiliation for missing a pitch in 2004. Get a wiff and a Picture-in-Picture window pops up showing a better angle of your slow-mo air strike. Playing alone, the PIP can be helpful to show where your timing is off, but playing with a buddy earns an extra level of ridicule as you are shown repeatedly swinging too early on his changeup or going fishing for an eye-high slider.
Hitting is frustrating at first and may try the patience of more casual fans. It takes about ten games or so to truly understand the mechanics and get a hang of maximizing your swing. It's a decent batting system and I'm glad there's no "power swing" button as I've never been a fan of those. The only real gripe I have is that you can pretty much hit any pitch in the strike zone. That's not to say that you will (timing can be tough) or that those hits won't be made for outs, but it's a little too easy to get a piece of the ball.
Last year, EA had the smart idea of putting a PIP window showing the baserunners so defense and offense alike could see where every runner was with the ball in the outfield. That PIP is back and controlling players is easy enough thanks to the clearly-labeled windows, but, as with everything else, EA has raised the bar for 2004. My favorite addition this year across the entire game is the ability to control a baserunner's slide.
Using the Right Thumbstick, you have six options. You can push up for a head first slide and go up-right or up-left to slide to a specific side of the bag. This is perfect for close plays at a base, because you improve your chances of being safe with a smart slide. By pushing down you do a feet first slide and down-left or down-right lets you hookslide. Nothing, however, compares to coming to the plate. Push up if the catcher is trying to block the plate and you'll attempt to jar the ball loose. The collisions are enough to make Ray Fosse wince.
Sure, you could always break up a double play with a slide in baseball games before, but being responsible for the act makes it much more satisfying. Sliding is so much fun that, I have to admit, I slide all the time. I slide into first, slide into second even when unnecessary. Of course, every slide brings the possibility of an injury, but call me a maverick. AI
All these great additions would be dashed if the AI sucked. It's AI that seems to always plague baseball games in some way and, unfortunately, MVP 2004 is no exception. Overall the AI is improved over last year, particularly in terms of pitching and batting. Even the baserunning is smarter. Runners will take off on your mistakes and slower runners will think twice about taking an extra base when Ichiro is fielding the ball. There are some very good situational choices as the AI always knows the right time to walk a batter or try a sac bunt, but some of the managerial choices are consistently poor.
It's the bottom of the fourth inning, I'm down two runs and the pitcher's only thrown 40 pitches, yet, almost every time, the CPU warms the bullpen. Granted, they never replace the pitcher quickly, but why are they warming pitchers in that situation? It makes no sense and it seems to always happen in low-scoring games and in the fourth inning. The other, bigger annoyance, is that closers are almost always mismanaged by the CPU. It will be the ninth inning and the CPU is up one run. It's a no-brainer that the closer should pitch the ninth, but often a middle reliever starts the ninth and the closer comes in for the final out, if he comes in at all. That's just stupid. For a game that does so much right, there are several repetitively bad AI decisions that disrupt the good vibes. Were they busy testing substances instead of this game? That's a pretty obvious flaw, but it appears not to have been caught. The flawless baseball game has yet to be made, and this, along with some other minor AI hitches hold back what is otherwise a brilliant on-field experience.
Okay, so there's already a big list of good things that clearly make MVP Baseball 2004 one of the better baseball games in recent memory, but there are a few other hodgepodge pieces to add to the delight. MVP 2004 comes loaded with a slew of game sliders that allow you to adjust just about every single gameplay aspect. A few minor tweaks can add a bit more difficulty to baserunning or pitching. That kind of control is always welcome. And if you disagree with a player's ratings, you can now edit their name, attributes, and appearance. Though Barry Bonds can't be in any baseball game this year, you can edit his replacement in name, skill, and look to be as close to Barry as possible.
For convenience, EA has also created a complete in-game menu that lets you do all of your roster moves without going to a pause menu. Sub pitchers, change your defensive alignment, or check out the opponent's dugout without having to leave the field. Speaking of leaving the field, you can get yourself ejected this year. When beaned, you have the option to walk it off or charge the mound. Choose to rush the mound and you'll be ejected and, in Dynasty Mode, may even be suspended.
EA also bolstered their offerings outside of Dynasty Mode by adding a couple of new gameplay options. Homerun Showdown returns in the same form as last year (two batters try and reach a set distance total), but adds a Pitching Showdown (which tests who can get a set number of strikeouts first), Situational Mode (set up any game situation you want), and Manager Mode (a lame mode that is like old school tabletop baseball games, but less enjoyable).
MVP Baseball 2004 isn't going to set the bar for on-field presentation. While the game is a lot of fun to play, the home run celebrations are non-existent (sorry, no Sammy hop) and there are no really cool cut-scenes or good crowd interaction. The pizzazz other EA Sports games enjoy isn't here. That said, MVP offers some really great replays and yes the ball always connects with the bat on a hit. Heck, you can even see the rotation on the ball coming down the pipe. Plus there are some interactive moments in specific stadiums. The train runs in Houston, the Big Apple rises in Shea, and San Francisco has its quaint home run waterworks -- all nice touches.
Add to that a bevy of delicious (and sometimes hideous) alternate uniforms (every team has at least five unis total) and consider that there are 60 licensed minor league teams, licensed coaches, and 52 Hall of Famers, and you have a pretty robust list of goods. Personally I would trade some of that for deeper stat-tracking (no year-by-year stats, no MLB records to break) and the ability for retired players to be elected into the Hall. Where MVP makes an effort, it does very well, but there are a few areas that are ignored completely and for next year, that must be remedied.
Sports games can no longer exist without the support of a good franchise mode and EA has stepped things up once again. Last year saw a limited franchise mode that had the smart idea of a momentum meter, where certain games have more importance over others and that the better a team did in those games, the more momentum they gained and the more likely they were to win simmed games. But that's really about all there was. It was a skeleton, one piece of a larger structure and for MVP 2004 EA has realized that vision with a complex and completely engrossing Dynasty Mode. There isn't just one big thing added this year, but several. The most important is that each team has full AAA and AA teams. Now, in the past games have had AAA teams where you could send some shlub down to the minors and leave them there to slow roast until you needed to call them up again. You couldn't actually do anything with the minor league teams. Not so in MVP Baseball 2004. These are full-fledged teams with the licensed uniforms and logos (though only members of the Players Association appear in the game, all others are created players). On any given day you can play an MLB game, a AAA game and a AA game. That's right, you can play as the Pawtucket Red Sox or the Durham Bulls. More importantly, your team and player performance in the minors matters.
An innovative Player Emotion system has been created and each player in your system, from AA on up to the Bigs has one of five ratings, from the brightest smiley face to the deepest frown. Player emotion alters each team's chemistry and chemistry affects performance. All players are not only signed for a point value, but also are signed with a role in mind. You may sign Tim Hudson for 2000 points as the A's Ace and you could sign Chris Smallenberg to for 166 points as a AAA Situational player.
Players have three concerns -- money, playing time, and performance. If they outperform their pay (as often happens in baseball) they may get sour and want to renegotiate their contract, if you don't play them as much as promised (if you sign Hudson as your Ace, he better be your #1 starter) they may gripe about playing time, and if they play poorly they may get frustrated at their bad stats. Dealing with these issues, for all 75 players in your organization, makes for a refreshing type of franchise mode. It forces you to think about the future of your franchise five and even ten years down the line. You won't succeed if you don't keep an eye on who's developing in your minor leagues and who will soon need to be traded in the majors for whatever reason. It turns you into both a GM and a manager. Getting AA, AAA, and your Major League club into positive chemistry is no easy task, but it is a lot of fun. I've never enjoyed the non-playing aspects of a franchise mode more than this. It keeps things fresh across the decades and heck, you can sim most of your games and concentrate on being a GM and still get a satisfying experience. EA deserves some major kudos for not only coming up with this idea, but for making the implementation work so well with the inclusion of minor league teams.
All of these players and their egos are easy to handle thanks to some very efficient menus. Stolen straight from Sega Sports, MVP 2004 has an e-mail system to keep you constantly apprised of the comings and goings of your team and the league. Each day you get scouting reports, players coming directly to complain to you, and even outside sources offering rumors about player grumblings. Read an email stating that Phil Nevin isn't happy about his performance? You can instantly access the trade block, batting order, or even send him down to the minors without having to exit to various other menus. All of that is fine and very dandy, but the e-mail system does have a few problems. As a season progresses you'll receive e-mails that say something like, "The Cubs are interested in trading Sosa." That's great. Next day, you get the same email. And the next. And the next. This happens every season with multiple trade block names and it's quite annoying, but the e-mails are easy enough to delete.
MVP 2004's Dynasty Mode is as deep as that hole I once dug to China. It has so much going for it, you can even import unlocked Hall of Fame players so that you can have the likes of Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson (an odd pair) playing in the prime of their careers. Trades tend to come at a proper clip, with trade offers heightening in the two weeks before the trade deadline. I just wish there were team and MLB records that could be broken, but at least there are seasonal awards including the Cy Young, MVP, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove, and Rookie of the Year.
On my wish list for next year is an ownership mode similar to Madden, a player fatigue system like Sega's baseballer, where players need some rest throughout a season or wear down, and a system of hirable coaches. As it stands now, when you read a scouting report it is infallible. There is no "scout rating", so one report is true for all teams. That hampers the ability to swipe good prospects from other AI teams, because they all know the prospect is quality. Give me a Scout with a B- rating who doesn't judge pitching that well and a Hitting Coach who's great at teaching fundamentals and I'll never leave my room. As it stands, this is one fine franchise mode that will likely be even better next year. Player Emotions and minor league teams? Yeah, that's a thing of genius. Graphics
Imagine a girl with a rockin' body that jiggles in all the right ways, but has a face only a blind man could love. That's MVP Baseball 2004 in a nutshell. The animations are unreal, so good that it makes every other baseball game look like cheap Flash cartoons. How great is the variety? Through 70 games, I still stumble on new animations. Everything looks natural and fits what's happening on the field. There are multiple types of dive animations, one lays a player flat out, another has him putting an arm down, almost to brace himself. You'll see third basemen bobble the ball out of the glove, outfielders under a fly ball having to suddenly reach back because they made a misjudgment, shortstops underhand a ball to second, and second basemen get mowed over by a baserunner and drop the ball. There are outstanding pitcher reactions, wall jumps, strike out poses, slides, desperate glove swipes at the bag, and powerful collisions at the plate. It is awesome.
That's the wonderful jiggle. The bad news is that there are some pretty weak textures in parts of this game. On big flies you get a better view of the sky which looks blotchier than Tammy Fae without her makeup. The crowds are decent, they stand and cheer from time to time, but usually they look like the same cardboard cut-outs we baseball nuts have endured for years. A few players have near-perfect face representation, but most don't look much at all like their real-life counter-parts. For whatever reason, all the managers are spot-on perfect, but no one could figure a way to make Ichiro look like Ichiro?
Still, the good far outweighs the bad. There are a lot of accurate stances, especially among the legends and there's also a good variety in body types. Tell me that isn't the Babe at the plate. Look at Sheffield's manic bat toggle when he's at bat. That's baseball love, baby. All of that is very well done and the replays are very nice. I'll be honest, this is a game that's got enough jiggle that I'll certainly make out with it in the dark, very aware that every once in a while the light will flicker on and I'll get a glimpse of the creature nibbling my ear. Did I mention how jigglicious the animations are?
Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow return to once again provide the play-by-play for MVP. This is a good (if not great) duo who have a large variety of stuff to say. What's nice is that, while they repeat the same anecdotes every few games, they actually have multiple recordings of most of those moments. So, while you may hear about how Nomar got his name, it comes across differently on two occasions. Sure, it's not hundreds of thousands of unique phrases, but it keeps things interesting and, let's face it, in real life color commentators retell the same tidbits again and again. Kuip and Krukow are never boring, just nice and steady.
Where the sound really shines is with the crowd. While EA doesn't try and have the level of taunts found in Sega's ballgame, the crowd itself is very well done. Rather than go for an "all cheer, all boo, or silence" approach found in a lot of games, EA Canada recorded different sound levels for everything so that the crowd offers a smattering of claps for a meaningless base hit and becomes jubilant during a rally. There are quite a number of accurate chants too. When I first heard the crowd cheering, "Let's go A's!" I thought, "Man, that's a cheer that's only used every once in a while, EA blew it." But two games later I heard the much more common, "Let's go Oak-land!" with accompanying rhythmic claps. Nice touch. You get the East Coast flavor of "Over-rated!" in all stadiums from what I can tell, but it certainly seems more common in Boston, where the Bleacher Bums show their true grace.
The crack of the bat and the thump of ball into glove sound as good as can be and MVP offers DPL II support (sorry, no true 5.1). Though I wish the commentators didn't keep repeating information about how great players were in 2003 ten years into Dynasty Mode, the multi-tiered and intelligent crowd chants wash all of that away.
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