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MVP Baseball 2004 Review for Xbox
Posted on Tuesday, March 30, 2004 @ 03:27:57 am E.S.T

Baseball. It’s the American tradition. Every home run that gets crushed into the stands, every inside pitch that leads to a strikeout --- there are few other experiences that can match the excitement and the sheer amazement of a good exciting baseball game. Over the last few years, console adaptations of the sport have come close to matching the experience of a real baseball game, the most noticeable being the High Heat and All-Star Baseball series. While these series were on the rise, there was EA’s Triple Play; a brand that was declining in quality and innovation and, in turn, becoming more and more of a failure as each year rolled around.

Last year, however, EA decided to leave Triple Play in the past and release a new, fresh product by the name of MVP Baseball 2003. Although the game did have a couple of flaws, namely fielding and pitching, it was an overall success; EA was back with a vengence, and they once again dominated the baseball sub-genre.. A year later, MVP Baseball 2004 has hit the market, and with less competition (due to the demise of 3DO, the producers of the amazing High Heat series) and some improvements over last year’s edition, it seemed as if the "sophomore jinx" that’s cursed many baseball players and games alike in the past, skipped over EA. Now that the results are in, however, we now know that although the 2004 digital baseball season has barely started, EA's MVP Baseball 2004 has already claimed MVP.

One of the complaints in last year’s edition was the lack of a decent system. What was once a very unrefined, choppy fielding system last year has been improved this year to become a smooth, sleek formula of excellence. There have been tons of new animations added to this year’s edition, from sliding catches to wall jumps, even including over-the-shoulder grabs reminiscent of Willie Mays. All of these moves are controlled by EA’s new best friend, the right analog stick. Suppose you want to slide in to grab a pop fly in the outfield. Just tilt the stick down, and you’ll see your right fielder glide with ease and let the ball fall into his glove for an out. Move the stick to the left or right, and you’ll make a diving catch that would make any Gold Glover jealous. Tilt it upwards at the fences, and you can steal away an over-the-fences home run like Torri Hunter of the Minnesota Twins. With movements like this, defensive play in a game has been taken to a whole new level.

Not only do you have to premeditate how you’re going to approach the ball, but if you’re going to throw it in to the infield to try and get an out or turn a double play, you’ll have to work the throwing meter perfectly. When you attempt to chuck the ball to, say, the second baseman, you have to hold down the button of the base you’re attempting to get the ball to, and release at the correct time to get an accurate lob to the fielder. You can also cut off the play by pressing the cut off button (which flashes on the screen every time you throw the ball from the outfield in). Every fielder has a different throwing meter, with the best players having a smaller margin of error on their meter. Trying to make a Hail Mary-like throw to home plate with a player like, say, Roger Cedeno (read: not the greatest arm in the world), will almost always end in failure if you don’t cut off the throw. EA has, by far, made the most intense and intuitive fielding system found in any baseball game in the history of gaming.

Another gameplay aspect that wasn’t all that perfect last year was pitching. AI batters and ball physics weren’t too hot last year, but that’s all changed in MVP 2004. Instead of just searching for something in the strike zone as in last year’s edition, CPU-controlled batters will actually attempt to chase pitches outside of the zone, reaching for balls that would be nearly unhittable. This provides a really nice touch to the game, as you’re not going to have to throw dangerously right over the plate every time just to get a strikeout. A quick explanation for those that didn’t get playtime in with last year’s edition of the game: your pitcher has a golf-like pitch meter that controls both the accuracy and the power. Each batter also has specific hot and cold zones for both left and right-handed pitchers which are shown on the screen on a grid over the strike zone. Therefore, exploiting their weaknesses in and out of the hot square will be the only way to become a successful pitcher and rack up wins.

Base running has always been something that’s been overlooked in baseball games; most developers take this important aspect of baseball about as seriously as Mo Vaughn does. Luckily for gamers looking for the best depiction of baseball available on a console, EA takes base running to a new level, similar to what Rickey Henderson did in the beginning of his career. Featuring the picture-in-picture window that was introduced last year, you can see exactly how much of a lead off of the base each player on base has. Also, you can utilize that trusty right analog stick to choose how you want to approach the bag. When you come into a base, you can pull down on the aforementioned right analog stick to do a feet-first slide, while pushing the stick up will have you dive in face-first. And even when approaching home plate, you can pull a Pete Rose and run over the catcher to score that essential run. Tilting to the left or right will also hook your slide, which may help you dodge the tag that the baseman’s attempting to slap you with. Simply, base running has never been this intuitive in any game before.

Batting is something that didn’t need an improvement after last year’s edition, but since EA has a new-found love with the right analog stick, there have been some modifications to the batting scheme that have proven successful. You will have to manage timing on your swing along with location of your swing (controlled by the – you guessed it – right analog stick). One slight downfall to the depth that can be found in the batting interface, though, is the fact that learning how to control your hits with perfect execution does take some time. The best idea would be to get some “spring training” in before you step up to bat in different modes.

With all of these gameplay improvements, one would think that there would be no better way to improve upon last year’s edition of MVP. However, EA once again has pulled no punches, developing what may be the best franchise mode in any sports game created -- Dynasty mode. One should be warned, nonetheless, that Dynasty mode is not for the weak of heart or time. As you start off with your club, you receive e-mails (the e-mail system being lifted directly from Sega Sports’ World Series Baseball) informing you of your job, what you must do, and what teams to look out for. You go into each series against a different team, receiving an e-mail notifying you about the team’s strengths and/or weaknesses, and how you can take advantage of the knowledge you’ve been given. Playing each game, though, isn’t the least of your concerns.

In this year’s edition of MVP is the unique addition of the real-life AA and AAA minor league clubs in Dynasty mode. If you haven’t managed to decipher what the meaning behind that is, here’s the scoop – you must manage call-ups and send-downs within all 3 teams you are manager of. And as if it couldn’t get deeper than that, it’s not just the teams your managing. The players on the teams also have individual “happiness ratings”, ranging from extremely satisfied (represented by a green smiley face on their profile), to dissatisfied (a red sad face). While the thought of having to organize the attitudes of over 60 players may sound intimidating at first, it’s very simple just to dive in and keep their attitudes up. As long as they’re getting paid fairly, and they’re playing well enough (which is fairly simple to keep up), you'll be having fun for a long time.

Along with the standard Exhibition mode, other game types within MVP 2004 are the Home Run and Pitcher Showdowns, which were introduced in last year’s version of MVP. These feature one-on-one match-ups of either batter vs batter or pitcher vs pitcher as they attempt to outmatch their opponent in either distance of hits or strikeouts. While the gimmick may sound corny at first, the fun in these modes is actually fairly fun and a nice change of pace from a normal nine-inning game.

Online play, while only found on the Playstation 2 version of the game, does provide a new way to reach out and play a game with someone that isn’t computer AI. As in all online games, this provides a new amount of difficulty, as the person you’re playing may be a digital Sultan of Swat, or just another joker in the pack. The Logitech headset is supported in this year’s edition, making voice support possible for broadband players. All in all, online play is a nice additional feature to an already excellent title.

Graphically, MVP 2004 excels in everything it attempts to do. While in development, there were many concerns as to the realism of character models, and how they were going to look by the time the game would hit the shelves. Good news for those who are demanding in the graphics department – the players in this game couldn’t look any better. Also, as mentioned before, the plethora of new animations helps not only make the game look better, but also provides more realistic gameplay. The stadium models, on the contrary, are a different story. Although each arena is technically true to their real life counterparts (with the exception of a few names, since licensing wasn’t able to be reached on certain companies with naming rights on the stadiums), the fans are once again (like in any other game) 2D cardboard cutouts with the exception of the first one or two rows.

All in all, MVP Baseball 2004 has raised the bar in baseball games on the market. With EA’s newborn love for the right analog stick, playing any other game after this simply won’t feel the same. Many kudos to them for creating a new, innovative system in what may be considered a soon-to-be stale sub-genre. From innovative rock-solid gameplay to the formation of a new Dynasty mode, EA definitely hits a grand slam, knocking all other competition out of the park.

Review By: Matt Hack - 721 Reads

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