EA Sports has come a long way from its arcade gaming roots. Madden Football, the F1 series, among others made noticeable improvements in the right direction in terms of realism. The Triple Play series seemed to be stuck in EA Sports' less-than-stellar publishing past. The series' basic premise was that baseball only as a sport wasn't "fun" enough. Cool elements needed to be added to an otherwise, such as the ability to morph players into extremely tall humans, explosive animations and sound effects, and the ability to hit massive homeruns at will.
How wrong they were.
Most serious baseball fans had nothing good to say about Triple Play and it quickly became the laughingstock among hardcore PC baseball fans. EA Sports finally took notice and pulled the plug on the series and vowed a new game that would attempt to address the concerns and criticisms of baseball gaming fans. Sega, Acclaim, and 3DO were making better products across all platforms - MVP Baseball 2003 is EA Sports' response to these pressures. While there are a number of noticeable improvements, MVP Baseball 2003 is best described as a foundation upon which EA Sports can build a good baseball product. It is better than anything EA Sports has created for baseball fans in recent memory, but there are still lingering traces of Triple Play-ness in MVP Baseball 2003.
Presentation/Graphics : 90
If there is one area where EA Sports really knows its business, it is in the graphics department. MVP Baseball 2003 is easily one of the best looking baseball products ever produced. The stadiums are expansive and the field play is fun to watch. The developers spent a great deal of effort finally crafting the player animations, particularly the batter and pitcher animations. Batters take very realistic swings at balls depending on the type of swing the batter is told to take. Ball animations are surprising good for an EA Sports titles. Gone are the days of the square baseball that were present in older Triple Play games. Fielder animations are nice and crisp. In most graphics aspects, the game performed flawlessly. Picture-in-picture base running is a feature that should be adopted by all baseball games.
The only really noticeable flaws in the MVP Baseball 203 graphics engine can be found in the outfield and in foul ball territory. When the graphics cuts to players moving to the outfield at the start of a game, the outfield looks expansive and in its proper dimensions. However, once the game starts, the ratio of the size of the outfield versus the size of the players is pretty skewed. Outfielders cover way too much distance and this same effect is much more noticeable in foul territory. Players look like giants in comparison to what they should look like if the proper ratio was used. Another very minor complaint is that while the crowd in the stadium does move, it is very repetitive movement. Throw in the 2-D nature of the crowd and it detracts just a bit from the experience, but not by a whole lot.
Presentation/Audio : 95
Superb! The overall graphics and audio package creates one of the most impressive baseball environments that have ever existed in a computer game. There is an "heir ness" to the ballparks that really hasn't been captured this nicely since the Front Page Sports Baseball series. It really feels as if a game is being played in a major league stadium. The umpires sound like umpires. The swing of the bat sounds like a bat is being swung. There is a lot of amazing attention to detail within the audio presentation. Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow provide nice commentary that doesn't get in the way of the game. The delivery is flawless and has none of the hiccups that continue to plague games like High Heat Baseball. It eventually does get repetitive, but I never turned off the commentary; a first in my baseball gaming experience.
Interface/Options : 75
On paper, MVP Baseball 2003 offers quite a nice set of options. The game has a new pitcher/batter interface, franchise mode, home run derby, and a number of additional baseball related multimedia features that can be watched at your leisure. Gone is a lot of the silliness in Triple Play and the feature set is in line with MVP Baseball's competition. But EA Sports could not resist adding something wacky and "cool" to the mix, and there is something called "momentum" modeled in the franchise mode. The interface bright spot, and one that might save an otherwise lackluster game as far as the interface goes, is the pitcher/batter interface.
Pitching the ball involves using a PC golf swing-like meter that is used to regulate both the velocity and control of the pitch. Placing the pitch cursor in the most efficient area delivers a throw that is fast and controlled. Going outside of this area will deliver speed that sacrifices control. Placing pitches is a fairly easy process and many High Heat veterans may find the interface too simple to use. I enjoyed MVP Baseball's pitching interface because it was easy to use, but more difficult to master. This may make the game more fun for folks that don't like the High Heat-style of pitching interface. The batting interface uses a direction-based method of swinging. The player swings based on the type of swing you want and the direction that you want the ball to be hit. Batter hot and cold zones determine the success of your batter commands.
One interface area that most players either love or hate is the fielding portion of the game. Gone is the good old "dive" button. Fielders are maneuvered toward where the ball is and player attributes determine how a fielder will react to the ball. If the fielder is a great fielder, he will make incredible diving stops or catches. If he isn't, then a perfectly playable ball will go into the outfield. Baseball computer fans that are accustomed to making up for fielder limitations with the dive button won't enjoy this fielding method, although I was perfectly content with the results. Auto fielding is available, but there is no manage-only mode.
Other than that, the interface is pretty horrible - although not as bad as the current version of High Heat for the PC. This is a console port. The only concession made to PC gamers is that a mouse cursor is included. Trying to find players, editing players, and viewing stats is an extremely painful process compared to games made to take advantage of PC interface options. What's interesting is that the field portion of the game doesn't seem as bad as a console port as the rest of the game. Maneuvering through the on field menus is relatively painless. But trying to manage a team under franchise mode is nothing but pain as far as the interface goes.
Gameplay - 70
So close, but yet so far.
If your idea of a fun baseball game is limited to the field portion of the game, then MVP Baseball 2003 will be worth taking a look at. If your idea of a fun baseball game is limited to games that provide a graphics engine around a solid set of features, then don't bother with this game. It will be clear after five minutes of playing the game where MVP Baseball 2003 placed most of its development effort. A very decent field game is surrounded by a franchise mode that makes you wonder why it was included at all in the first place.
The best part of MVP Baseball 2003 is the combination of the game atmosphere and the pitcher/batter interface. This kept me coming back for more despite some other gameplay limitations. You really have to work pitches in order to strike out computer batters. Striking out batters involves understanding how to use his hot and cold zones against him. If the pitcher makes a mistake, then the fat pitch is hit as a fat pitch should be hit - out of the park. There are multiple difficulty levels that further spice things. Whenever I felt the urge to play a quick baseball game, MVP Baseball 2003 did a nice job satisfying this short-term need to smack a baseball and throw a knee buckling slider for a called third strike.
There are a lot of problems with the field game that most PC baseball purists will find quite distasteful. Throwing out base stealers is extremely easy no matter what a catcher's player ratings are. The flip side of this is that stealing bases is almost impossible regardless of the runner's speed. Walks may be a part of baseball in real life, but they are not a big part of MVP Baseball 2003. The computer very rarely pitches so badly that a walk occurs, but it all evens out because the pitchers that are under human control have the same problem. There were way too many hits to right field that resulted in players being thrown out at first base. This could be the result of the incredible shrinking outfield, but I don't think I played more than a game or two where this did not happen. Base running AI sometimes leads a lot to be desired, but in general the ball physics were pretty good. Make the wrong swing on a pitch and the ball traveled in the direction you'd expect it to travel in real life.
The franchise portion of the game is simply awful. If you actually make it past the extremely difficult interface, what is waiting in the franchise mode is not worth the effort. I guess if players really want to play out a franchise then it is nice to have. But a franchise mode with such limited stats, hard-to-maneuver interface, broken pitcher use AI, and other issues makes it not really worth the effort.
Every single baseball game either on console or PC released this year that claims to have a franchise mode has a much better franchise mode than MVP Baseball 2003. It is in the franchise mode that EA Sports decided to add a twist that is called game "momentum" that is modeled as important games that could impact your team's fortunes during the season. The other twist is that you are hired to manage a team with certain goals that must be accomplished during your tenure. It isn't really clear through the manual about the impact of the momentum feature on overall game results, but it clearly is artificial and cannot be turned off. But all is not completely lost because I did like the managerial goals. While I think everything else should be scrapped, this is something that should be included in a new and improved franchise mode.
Replay Value : 85
MVP Baseball 2003 can be played through the Internet either directly IP to IP or through EA Sports Online (EASO). The Internet play is very nicely done IP to IP and continues to be a strength of EA Sports games across the board. Why anyone but the newest of newbies would pay for EASO is beyond my comprehension. I've written this countless times before, but services like Microsoft's Gaming Zone have much better interfaces, more features, and are completely free for most games. If you are running a league, take the money you'd spend on EASO and pay for some server space. Create a league website using one of the many easy and intuitive web site design programs out there and you are in business.
The real good news is that the MVP Baseball 2003 fan base is hard at work trying to fix the game. Editors are being released and fans that are trying to overcome some of the games more serious field limitations are producing tweaked files. Editors are making it easier to run franchises through a better interface. The baseball gaming community seems to be out in full force trying to make the game more enjoyable and that is a good sign for MVP Baseball's future.
Overall : 83
EA Sports is heading in the right direction. They've scrapped the Triple Play series, rolled up their sleeves, and are getting down to the hard work of creating a baseball product that can compete against the best baseball games available across the board. This first effort seemed heavily tilted toward the field portion of the game and that work produced a pretty nice, although flawed, field game. The new pitcher/batter interface is very good and quite innovative. MVP Baseball 2003 captures the baseball audio and visual environment like no other product before it. But is this enough to satisfy baseball computer fans?
I find myself drawn back to MVP Baseball 2003 whenever I want a quick baseball fix. There's not a whole lot to hold my interest beyond this fix. I am a career baseball gaming fan - I was once a fan of the High Heat series -- so my tastes are not tilted toward those that place a heavy emphasis on the field portion of the game above all else.
My overall reaction to MVP Baseball 2003 is with lukewarm enthusiasm. EA Sports is headed in the right direction, but there is still a lot of work to be done. There is some good potential in this game, but it will be up to EA Sports if this potential will ever be realized in future MVP Baseball versions.