The MLB series and 989 Sports have somehow neglected releasing a Playstation 2 title for the console's entirety, and that is hard to believe. MLB has always been a strong force on the PSOne, but when former cohorts High Heat and Triple Play moved onto bigger and better things, 989 Sports chose to dwindle in the old neighborhood. In what is now the third generation of PS2 baseball games, MLB finally joins the competition.
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Presentation/Graphics : 78
The graphics in the 989 Sports games have been steadily improving over the last year; and MLB takes another step forward. The players are modeled so smoothly they almost have a cartoon character look. The models look and move like those in 989's college basketball game, March Madness. The faces are mapped for most of the players, although most of the game is spent looking at their back while they are batting from afar while they are fielding. The individuality is lost in the body shape selection, which can be described as cookie-cutter at best. A create-a-player mode proved that player height is indeed factored in, but body size and shape is non-existent. In real life, most players look like WWF wrestlers, but in MLB they almost all look scrawny. Once I saw the perpetually overweight Mo Vaughn's flat stomach, I knew my hypothesis was not mistaken. I know it would take a while to individually model each player, but at the very least there should be more muscle tone on the arms and guts on bigger players.
With video games pushing more and more toward reality, the monotony of player shape is one thing that gives a video game a video game look. High Heat in comparison has at least eight or nine body shapes and World Series Baseball has clear distinctions between players. The uniforms, stadiums and environment are all average in detail and quality. The home and away uniforms look nice, but there are no alternate uniforms like in WSB. The stadiums have a simple and effective, yet cartoon look and lack the detail of the competition. For example, the layout of the stadiums in MLB lacks texture on the dirt and grass and finer curves and angles of the outfield walls and stadium structure.
Presentation/Audio : 78
The play-by-play of Vin Scully and Dave Campbell isn't bad. Their voices are recognizable and I like that they provide tidbits on certain players. Scully does a good job of play-by-play and Campbell tells some funny stories and is adequate at analyzing a situation. Their banter is borderline boring, but from listening to baseball games in general and comparing to other games, the subdued style is universal. I know a sport like basketball or football lends itself to more enthusiastic audio, but even on home runs, Scully nor Campbell became too enthusiastic.
The game has a lot of music between innings and it gives the game a TV-style presentation and feel. It also has music to introduce batters. The sound of the bat hitting the ball almost always sounds good, which can be enjoyable, but is not very realistic. The crowd seemed reactive to good plays, but didn't do much booing. The sound is above average for a sports and a baseball game. The menu music is like a rock jazz combination.
Interface/Options : 70
MLB has all the standard options here: the multiple season mode, A.I. sliders, three difficulty settings and a home run derby, but does little more than fulfill the current bar. The Spring Training mode where you create a player and try to first make the team, then become an all-star, and finally a 989 Sports Hall of Famer is unique to the baseball genre. However, the feature is not unique to 989 Sports, which incorporates a similar mode in almost all of its games.
There are three types of multiple season mode - the franchise, career, and manager. The franchise mode purposely starts you off with a bunch of mediocre players; the career mode is the normal multi-season; and the manager mode is like a coach's only mode where you are unable to play the game, but where you have limited control over the game (like selecting what pitches a pitcher throws, when a base runner steals second). While each has its advantage, any micromanagement seems to be in vein as there is no true minor league system. MLB has a farm system where only three players can be in the minors. The lack of a farm system limits your team to cutting or trading players as the only viable option to obtain new players. The entire financial system is based on trade value points. The system is flawed because there is no true back-up option for not re-signing your top players, except to replace them with lesser talent. In High Heat, you can let a high-priced veteran test the market with the knowledge that you have a stud player that you have groomed in Class AAA.
The CPU actually offers you some trades, and not obnoxiously unrealistic ones. Throughout one season I received a dozen or so trade offers.
The interface is fast and easy to navigate. The sim engine is pretty fast, but tends to repeat itself. The end-of-the-year awards repeated themselves more or less for three straight years until players like Randy Johnson began to retire.
Gameplay : 76
The entire gameplay engine, as a whole, is frustrating. The batting icon is not a good idea because the icon hinders the view of the pitch. While some gamers will stand by the icon, stating that it adds a certain difficulty or control to the game, I think it takes away from the hitting process. If you talk to any baseball player on any level, when they are hitting good or bad, they say it is all about timing. When a batting icon is in place, hitting is more of a fast twitch - the movement of a circular area over a smaller circular area, a point A to point B type of thing - rather than an art.
But wait a second, doesn't MLB 2004 have a time-based hitting style?
Yes it does, but the collision detection is severely off. Many times you'll hit a ball that your bat appears to not even touch. I believe this happens because the icon takes up so much space that it clutters the view. I think the game designers got a little lazy assuming most gamers would use the icon. You have the option of turning a power swing on or off. When the power swing is on, the icon only gets smaller than the contact swing.
The animations in general are very well done. They flow well into the game, but only a limited number is available. If you press L2 you can either do a backhand or a barehand field. The throwing animations range from a fadeaway throw to a jump throw. The first baseman sometimes has to jump and catch an errant throw (very cool stuff). The game's animation set is much tighter than High Heats, but isn't as good as World Series Baseball. The throws are amazingly accurate and superhuman almost. I have been gunned down multiple times from deep in the outfield by outfielders with canon arms...on the fly. The ball bounces off grass like it's astro turf.
The number of pitches (four) pales in comparison to WSB and HH. The dumbed down pitching and batting makes for a basic gameplay feel. It makes it easy to pick up on the game, but leaves much for the advanced gamer.
Base running is an adventure as the computer decides not to automatically retreat runners in some situations, but there are individual windows for them, which is a definite plus. The AI seems to be OK, but questionable intentional walks plague every fourth or fifth game. Although a large number of statistics are tracked - there actually is a breakdown of the field into three sections and the percentages where the ball is hit - the game does not have great overall depth. I have yet to see a double switch, a drag bunt, or even a shift of the defense in the infield or outfield.
Replay Value : 64
No minor leagues. No gameplay depth. No online capability. Not having all three of those attributes kill the possible longevity. Although the game is fun for the first couple of days, the game's simplicity (but not in the stat tracking) will bore a gamer over the weeks and months. I would suggest a definite rental, but not a purchase.
Overall : 77
Although MLB 2004 won't receive any awards for being innovative, it is a solid first effort for 989 Sports. I am anxious to see next year's version. 989 Sports in general is becoming more respectable - I don't know if they got new designers or more budget or what, but the quality of product is looking up. The Spring Training mode may attract some Create-A-Player lovers, but otherwise I would suggest High Heat or WSB first (with that said, I haven't played All Star Baseball or MVP Baseball or MLB Slugfest).