MVP Baseball 2004
It’s hard to believe that just two short years ago, EA’s baseball series was downright pathetic, with weak arcade-style batting, flawed pitching, lifeless visuals and numerous other issues. Things certainly have changed dramatically since then. Now, with MVP Baseball 2004, EA has a polished product with fantastic gameplay, tons of features and a Dynasty mode that is the best ever in a hardball game. I can just see the guys over at Sega Sports breaking out in nervous sweats, thinking, “How could EA have dethroned our great World Series Baseball after putting out such trash as Triple Play 2002 only a few short years ago?” Well, in all fairness Sega’s ESPN Baseball has yet to be released, so it’s too early to judge it “dethroned,” but one thing is for certain: MVP Baseball 2004 is a damn good baseball game that any fan of the sport absolutely needs to own.
Last year, EA managed to legitimize the MVP name by providing realistic, simulation-based gameplay, but this year’s version goes a step further by cleaning up many of the nagging problems and refining nearly every aspect of the game. Like last year, batting is handled using an extremely intuitive mixture of timing and analog stick movement. Basically, depending on where you are pressing the analog stick and the location of the pitch during your swing, it is possible to perform any kind of hit you can imagine. Push up on the stick and smack a ball up in the strike and you’ll have a great chance of hitting a homer or deep fly ball. Push down and you’ll attempt to put the ball on the ground. It sounds simple, but when you are facing a pitcher who is throwing 100 mph fastballs followed by wicked sliders low and away, you’ll see just how challenging (in a fun way) the batting can be.
While in the batter’s box you can manage leading off and base stealing, both of which are made easy by an intuitive control setup and a nifty picture-in-picture system that shows all of the current baserunners in real time. Although a controller face button is used for swinging the bat, as opposed to an analog trigger for the Xbox or Cube, checking your swing is still entirely possible. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t get called for strike if the check swing is appealed to the third or first base ump. If there is anything bad to say about the batting in MVP 2004, it’s that it is impossible to hit balls that are very far outside the strike zone. In real life players sometimes dig out balls that are mere inches from the dirt, but hitting a pitch like that in the game is nigh impossible. Despite this small issue, I heartily applaud EA for creating a batting system this is a hundred times better than the often-used cursor or straight timing methods.
Of course, after you do you make contact with the ball, you’ll want a reliable baserunning system with easy-to-use controls and smart AI. Thankfully, EA has provided both. Besides intelligent baserunning AI that virtually never makes mistakes, the best new addition to this year’s game is the ability to control your slide. Using the right analog stick you can opt to go head or feet first and even choose to try and hook the bag in an effort to avoid a tag. Manually sliding to one side of the bag and breaking up a double play is good fun, but nothing beats pushing up on the stick and laying out the catcher in an attempt to jar the ball loose. Obviously, your player could end up out for a week with a concussion, but, hey, sometimes you just have to take one for the team, right?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, pitching in MVP 2004 is also handled marvelously. A meter similar to the ones used for swinging in golf games is used to determine the effectiveness and precision of your pitch. When your pitcher is just starting the game, the green area of the pitch meter that determines precision is fairly large, so you’ll have an easier time stopping the meter there and, thus, throwing the ball where you want it go. But, as the game wears on, that green area gets smaller and smaller, and it becomes quite difficult keeping your pitches on target. If you do fail to stop the meter inside the green area, very bad things can happen, like the pitch location showing up in the strike zone (just about guaranteeing the batter will get good wood on the ball) or the ball sailing completely past the catcher. The whole pitching system feels very authentic, because it is such a challenge to keep your starter in the game as his fatigue level rises.
At any time in the game you can send out the manager to chat with the pitcher, and this can have an impact on the pitcher’s performance. If you send the manager to the mound late in the game to check on your starter after giving up a pair of homers, he may respond in a positive way and regain some lost energy. But, check on him in the second inning after a pair strikeouts and he may respond negatively and actually lose energy. This system, combined with the excellent mechanics for warming up relievers and closers, adds that much more realism and strategy to a game already brimming with both.
Fielding has also been beefed up this year. The most notable addition being the ability to dive, jump, slide and climb the wall for balls using the right analog stick. Out of all the new features in the game, these fielding maneuvers have the highest learning curve, but once you do get the hang of them they will save your butt on many an occasion. Throwing the ball is still very realistic, because of the meter EA implemented that shows your chances of making an error. As you hold down the button to pre-load a toss, a small green and red meter is filled up. If you stop the meter in the red, there is an increased chance of making a wild throw. This is realistic because the size of the red is wholly dependant on how you fielded the ball and the defensive skill of the guy attempting the play. Players like A-Rod and Brett Boone can run up, bare hand the ball and fire it full blast over to first without too much risk, but lesser defenders can be a big liability. This throwing system helps accentuate the difference between an average defender and a Gold Glover like no other baseball game before.
Naturally, no EA Sports game would be complete without a ton of adjustable sliders and MVP 2004 is no different. Slider categories range from pitch speed and batting power to fatigue rate and runner aggressiveness and allow for complete customization over nearly everything gameplay related. Other great features include a Scenario Editor that allows you to recreate those great baseball moments of the past and two Showdown game modes that pit batters or pitchers against each other to see who has the best skills.
Of all MVP’s game modes, Dynasty is probably the one you’ll be spending the most time with. This is because a ridiculous amount of depth has been added this year. Now playing through a season with your favorite baseball club is a truly epic experience, which will keep you working just as hard off the field to keep things going smoothly. For starters, you are now given complete control of your MLB team’s AAA and AA minor league clubs. This means you won’t just be sending down and calling up players, but actually playing games in the minor leagues in an effort come out on top. Of course, not everyone will find playing as and managing rosters for the Montgomery Biscuits or the Sacramento River Cats appealing, so EA wisely included the option to sim through all of the minor league games. In fact, you are even given the convenient option to stop any game at any time and sim the duration. This makes playing through an entire 162 MLB season much more doable than ever before.
Another nifty new addition to the Dynasty mode is the ability to track each player’s happiness on your ball club. A simple smiley (or frowning) face is used as a visual representation of a particular player’s happiness with his current salary, play time, on-field performance and overall team performance. Keeping everyone on your team happy (and thus more productive on the field) is extremely challenging, but in a stimulating and fun way. All in all, the beefed up Dynasty mode offers a more realistic take on a typical Major League Baseball season than any previous baseball game has ever offered. The only thing missing are the MLB big boys juicing it up in the locker room after receiving the latest BALCO shipment.
Visually, MVP 2004 looks great, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. The player animations are the game’s biggest asset, as they are incredibly lifelike and fluid, whether it’s for a sliding break up of a double play or a leaping snag off the center field wall. The players also look a bit more realistic this year, with Ichiro looking like his skinny self and Mo Vaughn’s thunder thighs looking adequately beefy. Photos have been used to provide some very convincing faces for the players and you will easily recognize most, but there are a quite a few backup guys who have been given the same generic mug. Also, longer hair is simply portrayed with an unconvincing texture instead of actual locks flowing outside a player’s hat or helmet. EA did mange to do a bang up job of making the players interact realistically with the ball this year. Even under close examination during replays, you’ll see that balls actually land directly in fielders’ gloves and bats believably make contact with pitches. It’s amazing how drastically these seemingly minor touches enhance the overall realism of the game.
The stadiums themselves all look authentic, though actual texture quality is a bit lacking in the GameCube and PS2 versions. Thankfully, 3D polygonal people have been inserted into the crowd rows closest to the field (they even wear clothing with the home team’s logo and colors), but they are still rudimentary in design, and the rest of the stands are still populated by the same tired, gyrating cardboard cutouts. The framerate is always silky smooth in the Xbox version, but it can take slight dives during quick pans of the field on the Cube and PS2. Still, no matter what system you own, MVP Baseball 2004 has polished visual presentation that does a smashing job of representing America’s favorite pastime.
EA really hit one out of the park when it comes to nailing accurate-sounding ballpark ambiance. Hotdog venders can be heard peddling their wares, the PA guy has a ton of different comments that you always hear at baseball games and player/situation specific outbursts will sporadically cascade down from the crowd. There are even accurate stadium specific sounds like the trains that periodically pass by SAFECO field. The crowd has even been made much more dynamic this year, as their cheering is amplified and prolonged during key situations, such as when the home team is making a promising rally late in the ballgame. The announcing, handled by Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, is some of the best I’ve heard in a baseball title and is very rarely repetitive, even when playing multiple games in a row. MVP’s soundtrack features such little known artists as Steriogram, Trustcompany and stellastarr* and is mostly good quality, minus a few annoying tracks. Sadly, EA chose to shaft Xbox owners once again by failing to support the custom soundtrack feature.
If you are dying to play online, you’ll have to go with the PS2 version of the game, because EA has still failed to jump on the Xbox Live bandwagon. Really though, there is enough depth offered by the Dynasty mode to make MVP a great purchase no matter what system you own. And that’s pretty much what it comes down to: this is flat out one of the best baseball games on the market today, and any self respecting fan of the sport should consider it a must-have. Is it better than Sega’s World Series Baseball? Well, since Sega’s hardball game is still a few weeks away, this question can’t truthfully be answered. But, I will say that MVP Baseball 2004 is a better overall game than World Series Baseball 2K3. Here’s to hoping that this increased competition between EA and Sega will lead to even better baseball games for us consumers in the years to come.