ESPN Major League Baseball Review
By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor
Platform: Playstation 2
ESPN Video Games announced last summer it was buying out Sega Sports, and so, World Series Baseball became ESPN Major League Baseball. In terms of the actual game, however, little changed because World Series actually had the ESPN presentation last year. That attribute and many others return for this year's game, which looks to again headline the Playstation 2's strongest sports genre: baseball. World Series baseball actually began on the Sega Genesis, was ported to the Sega Saturn and then to the Sega Dreamcast. Jason Giambi is featured on this game's cover, making it two New York Yankees on a video game cover this year (Derek Jeter on All-Star Baseball is the other). ESPN is generally applauded to sticking to authenticity in its entire package, from the player models, stadiums and core gameplay. It's seen as the antithesis to EA Sports' MVP Baseball or Acclaim's MLB SlugFest. But will it be seen as the best?
Presentation/Graphics : 91
While the player models have a flat-tone to them, the pitching and batting animations are dead on. Unlike MVP Baseball, which uses a very bright colored pallet, ESPN uses a very dull one. Most of the players look like ground beef after you leave it on a kitchen counter for a few hours - a grayish-brown. But, once you get the players in action, they look awesome. Byung Hyun-Kim's submarine throwing motion is down pat, while Jeter's high-handed stance is also perfect. Unlike in MVP where fielders get bogged down in lengthy, choppy animations, fielding in ESPN is seamless. Bare handing a slow roller down the third-base line never looked so good. Despite that, I still give the nod to MVP due to outstanding player faces, and long fielding animations aside, a stronger overall visual presentation.
Presentation/Audio : 80
John Miller and Rex Huddler have a great conversational style. Miller's deep and familiar voice, usually heard on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball with Joe Morgan, does a good job. If a play happens too quickly, Miller's play-by-play can be severely late. Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech reports from the ESPN Studios and previews each game.
Finally! There is a baseball game with the baseball ambiance. There's always a small buzz from the crowd, and at appropriate times, oohs and aahs. The crowd also throws in some funny zings, like shouts for Johnny Damon to cut his hair, or telling Moises Alou his dad was a better player. One fan yells, "Hank Blalock ... you're a lock to strike out!" There's even the standard stadium organist. Although it sounds like only one guy doing it, Turner Stadium even has their famous war chant after good plays.
Interface/Options : 95
The much hyped addition of First Person Baseball and Power Pitching were minor advances at best. Yet, a bevy of game options remain. The GM Career is incredibly deep, while a surprisingly addicting Duel mode rounds out the regular slate of options that include A.I. sliders, the largest number of alternate uniforms and online play. The Duel mode pits one pitcher and one hitter against another team. This is part batting practice and pitching practice. I loved the real-game simulation in a game environment. Batting practice is fun in the other games, but there is usually no incentive to do well (unless you're doing Home Run Derby ... but then you're getting slow pitches). The new Gamecast mode is like the manage only mode, but you can simulate pitch by pitch or jump in yourself if you get frustrated.
The game has four challenging difficulty levels. Even on the hardest difficulty level, the game does not cheat as in other sports games. Players aren't faster, doubles morphed into triples, and of the such. To win, however, requires a cerebral approach. To not power swing after a frustrating at-bat; to bunt instead of hit away; and to use something rarely not required with sports video games: patience. The game does not reward impulses, as can be the case with MVP Baseball or All Star Baseball.
First Person Baseball is awkward. The pitches come at an angle, instead of straight on. I understand the camera view is supposed to simulate the player's eye level, but with this angle you can't see a ball move horizontally or vertically. All you can do, really, is time up your swing. Power pitching is great, as you can pretty much conserve your energy for key situations or late innings. But, it's not anything revolutionary.
Gameplay : 94
This is a thinking man's baseball game. You'll see double switches, suicide squeezes, snap throws and timely pitching mound visits. Both batting and pitching are cursor-less, which is a change from previous games (although you can switch back). I can't stand playing pin-the-cursor on the ball.
Unlike any other game on the market, ESPN offers two types of swings with separate buttons. The X button is a contact swing, while a circle is a power swing. Varied swings are used in All Star Baseball, but it's basically taking the larger batting cursor and sizing it down, maximizing the power but lessening the contact prowess. ESPN MLB does the best job also of bat-on-ball physics. The game has more dribblers or weird in-between groundball hoppers than the competition. Hitting seems realistic, because you watch the ball's flight toward the plate - and not a pitching cursor. What does that mean? As a result, you get a better feel of the pitcher's pace and movement. The homerun camera view is instantly noticeable, as the view switches to almost a ground view near home plate. It's a nice view, whether you're giving one up or slugging one out, because you get to see the ball's majestic flight and the pitcher usually falling to the ground in disbelief.
Pitching is frustrating, especially at the harder difficulty levels. You move an invisible cursor around the strike zone. The controller will vibrate if you are aiming outside the strike zone. Finding the right spot, out of a hitter's hot zone, is stressful and unpredictable. The on-edginess mimics real life unpredictability. Cursor pitching allows too precise of a pitch. Still, the game's best pitchers retain a large command and control. What shakes a pitcher is the confidence meter. Give up a hit or a run, your confidence will rocket down. Get successive outs or strike out a batter and it shoots back up. A low confidence, however, is difficult to counter, as your invisible strike zone shrinks. Also, you'll miss your spot. A low-and-away curve will hang and land down the middle. That's why timely pitcher's mound visits and smart pitching play such a big role.
Some intriguing camera angles add to the drama of the game, especially when fielding. You get the necessary zoomed view to see the ball and track it down. Also, ESPN allows you to turbo run when sprinting after the ball. Turbo buttons didn't work in previous MVP Baseball (or Triple Play) games because they often required you to tap the button rapidly. In ESPN, you hold down L1. This simulates a quick sprint to the ball, and rids the game of that "oh crap! I can't run any faster than this slow trot" syndrome seen in other baseball games.
Overall, the game challenges you to be patient. Baseball will never have the instant gratification of basketball or tennis, so providing this "ah, ah, not-so-fast" discipline is great.
Replay Value : 90
The gameplay rewards you for mastering the intricacies. That I enjoy. Every game now has a multiple season mode, so replay value is becoming more of a gameplay gauge. This is a game that unwraps pleasant surprises just about every game with little baseball quirk plays, whether it's a backhand throw to start a double play or a curtain call. While the stats aren't as deep as All Star Baseball's, the game does provide a good number to scan.
Overall : 93
It's not very flashy, but this is a meat-and-potatoes type of baseball game. No frills. No bells. No whistles. But, also, no major gameplay flaws. Sure, you can gripe about a few things, like the lack of the base running windows seen in other games, or a one-button beanball pitch, but they're really small gripes. As the parity of sports games increases (almost all games have the same game modes and similar solid graphics), the difference comes in the A.I., and this is the one area where ESPN truly shines. This is my pick for the strongest PS2 baseball game on the market for this 2004 season.