MVP Baseball 2004 Review (PS2)
By Tim Martin -- Reviews Editor
Just two years ago, EA Sports' baseball series - known then as Triple Play Baseball - batted ninth in the lineup of video game baseball, slugging behind even 989 Sports' baseball series, MLB 2003. The game looked stunning but rocket sound effects accompanied relay throws and dropping bomb noises came packaged with fly balls. For the casual sports gamer yearning for a quick baseball fix, Triple Play hit the spot. But true baseball diehards and critics ripped the game, which attempted to skirt the boundary lines created by games trying to be realistic - Acclaim Sports' "All-Star Baseball" or 3DO's temporarily defunct "High Heat Baseball" - and those trying to be arcadish and unrealistic: Midway's MLB Slugfest. The Triple Play series failed at both, and in doing so, exiled itself from a genre other than that "sweet-looking baseball game." If Triple Play were an actor, we'd have called it an Ashton Kutcher. If Triple Play were a tennis player, we'd have called it Anna Kournikova.
But EA Sports noticed its shallowness and not so subtly changed direction with the dwindling baseball series, as the game's facelift also came with a name change to MVP Baseball. And, symbolically, the change couldn't have been a better indicator of the game's quality: the game evolved from the rare three-out play to the excellence equal to an MVP player. EA Sports, which had cornered the market on sports gaming after near-monopoly dominating sales from the Sega Gensis, Super Nintendo and Playstation consoles, has recently taken a liking to rehabbing some of its sluggish and under performing series: NBA Live, FIFA (though some would argue if this game actually got any better), and Triple Play/MVP Baseball. The 2003 version of MVP was solid enough of an effort to push its way into the upper tier of the crowded Playstation 2 baseball game mix (last year seven games were offered). The game did have its flaws, but with another year, MVP may really live up to its name.
Presentation/Graphics : 97
No surprise here. The player models, stadium and crowds look amazing. I can describe the details, but screenshots will be a better indicator. The game looks better than Madden football, the game usually accepted as the best-looking sports game. No more. The player animations are similarly smooth from running the bases to swinging the bat. Some hitters have their exact swing in the game: Ichiro runs after his slap swing; Derek Jeter wiggles the bat high above his head; and Sammy Sosa grips the bat barrel behind his back shoulder, his arms stiff while waiting for the pitch. Pitchers' throwing animations also seem to be portrayed well.
Presentation/Audio : 75
The typical sounds are there, like the token in-stadium organ, but the game does nothing that makes you chuckle and think "did I just hear that?" I remember the heckling fans in High Heat, who after a homerun in a blowout would laugh drunkenly from the stands. That same game would also commonly have vendors from the stands yell if anyone had peanuts. Unlike other EA Sports games, MVP Baseball does not incorporate player speech. I'd love to hear some trash talk on the base paths or during an encounter at first base. Baseball players are known for being chatters during the game. The play-by-play duo has its high moments, like when it mentions that Ichiro is generally a slow hitter in the second part of the seasons or that John Olerud has worn a batting helmet in the field since college. Other than stock biographical information, the duo spits out the predictable jargon. The soundtrack, while not as stacked as other EA games, still has a number of catchy rock tunes. The track has a blend of rock and hip hop.
Interface/Options : 90
The interface in MVP is fantastic because it's easy to navigate and great to look at, both in-game and in the menu screens. Baseball games are hard to have a clean interface with because of the sheer number of statistics. EA is able to pull it off with good use of colors, and large player mugshots. League-wide news is delivered in an e-mail format that is also used with ESPN College Basketball. The in-game interface is also great, if not intuitive as you can access a great number of jobs and information with the click of a button. Warming up pitchers? L2. Switching defensive formations in the infield and outfield? R2. To look at the pitches you've thrown to a batter in all their at-bats? Press L3.
The game modes are nothing special, but there is a scenario mode and a neat pitcher's showdown where you have to strike out three batters without giving up a homerun. As of April 9, EA Sports had not posted a new rosters update online.
Gameplay : 87
While the game plays smoothly, computer A.I. and oddball events clutter an otherwise strong effort. First off, the batter/pitcher interface is arguably the most intuitive one on the market. While I generally do not like pitching interfaces that incorporate the "place the ball where you want to throw it" theory, it works in MVP. Pitches are thrown using a three-click meter, similar to the ones used in the PC golf game. The first click activates the pitching meter that you must stop at the end of the crescent-shaped gauge to maximize power. The meter will then fall back down where you must click for a third time in a green area to ensure the throw's accuracy. What makes this interface so wonderful is that the green area shrinks dependent on the pitcher's energy (the more tired he is, the smaller the green area) and on the skill of the pitch (Tim Wakefield will have a larger green area for a knuckleball than a splitfinger fastball). This truly puts late-inning pitching success in the hands of the gamer, as a highly skilled player will shrug off the smaller accuracy and power zones. This differs from High Heat Baseball's interface - which I considered to be the best until this year - in that you had little control when a pitcher got tired. No matter how badly you wanted a pitcher to hit his spots, he would routinely miss. At least in MVP, you have a shot. With the three-click system, the ball placement pitching interface is bearable because there is a considerable amount of potential error: if you miss the green area, the ball's final location shows up in the strike zone box.
On the batting end of the interface, hitters have a nine-square zone where they can have shaded cells of red (hot), blue (cold), or clear (average) that indicate the batters' strengths or weaknesses. Unlike ESPN Major League Baseball (formerly known as World Series Baseball) the hot-and-cold zones are right on the strike zone. This helps out tremendously when you're ahead in the count and can be very selective in what type of pitch you want. I do have some gripes with the batting interface as its inverted somewhat to a human player's natural tendencies. You direct your swing using the right analog swing (you swing by pressing X), and while pressing right or left will result in a corresponding way, pressing up will be an uppercut swing and down will be a groundball stroke. Makes sense? Yes and no. When fastballs zoom low and away the natural tendency is to press where the pitch is -- down and away. I dislike having one uniform "flyball" or "groundball" stroke, as you don't feel like you are controlling your swing, but rather timing it only to when the ball crosses. It feels more like mindless batting cage hitting as opposed to authentic hitting. Bunting is also handled completely by the computer, as you press down the right analog stick and then wait for the computer to decide where the bunt should be placed. Again, this takes some of the control out of your hands.
Last year's game was plagued in the field because there was no designated button for diving or lunging for balls. Instead, the computer would often determine if and when a jump would occur. This problem, thankfully, was fixed but the system still has its problems. The jumps and dives are now controlled by the right analog stick, used with the same methods of the Freestyle moves seen in other EA Sports games. But there are still problems. Moving your finger to the right analog stick in a split second is very difficult and cuts down on the bang-bang plays. The animation for the dives also takes a reasonable amount of time. This hurts especially in the outfield when a ball drops underneath your sprawling outfielder's stomach because they chose to dive fully extended instead of a shorter, quicker dive.
Finally, the game has a lot of foul ball outs. In one game, 12 of my 27 outs came from foul ball pop-ups to the first or third basemen. This does not reflect reality, and it surely is frustrating when your late-inning rally is killed by numerous foul ball catches.
Replay Value : 88
The game has online capability, roster updates and a great dynasty mode. Each major league team has triple and double A minor league teams that can be micromanaged just like the big league team. The interface is very good, and the dynasty mode has a contract mode where you must fulfill team-specific goals (if you're the Expos, winning .500 of your games is OK; whereas, the Yankees must win a World Series two of three years). The gameplay is addicting enough to warrant a full 162-game season.
Overall : 88
In terms of this year's baseball crop, I have only played MVP and MLB 2005 so far. It will be interesting to see how MVP stacks up against the rest of the competition. If I had to compare MVP to last year's crop of baseball games, I would rank it No. 1-A with World Series Baseball, and slightly ahead of High Heat Baseball. The combination of graphics and intuitive gameplay make this game a success. The bad karma from the Triple Play series has safely been vanquished, and with some more fine tuning in the field, MVP could be a knockout like Madden is to NFL games and NCAA is to college football.