Well, spring is upon us. Granted, with the winter storms going on all around the North America, it seems like spring is a long ways away. But the truest sign that we are almost there is that all our favorite Major League Baseball players are reporting to warmer cities to begin spring training. With the lack of hockey, I am thrilled that the season is under a month away (I have tried to be a basketball and NASCAR fan, but that just isn?t happening and I?m running out of VHS tapes of old St. Louis Blues games). While steroid controversies and Jose Canseco?s book have been a nice distraction from a rather dull period between the end of football and the start of baseball, these things have only made my craving for baseball even more feverish and hardcore. Thankfully, I can always depend on the world of video games to fill the void, and while there is still a month to go until opening day, EA and 2K Sports have released their latest offering in the world of Baseball games. Now I?m not about to get in the middle of a EA versus Take-Two Interactive war, so please don?t send mounds of hate email as the focus of this review is EA?s final Major League Baseball offering. The question remains will EA put out a title that will make us wish Take-Two did not have that MLB exclusive third party deal, or will they have simply shifted their focus to the NFL? So let?s put the hate inside and investigate the first big MLB game of 2005, MVP Baseball 2005.
Before we go any further, let us reflect that 2005 will mark the final Baseball battle between Take-Two Interactive and Electronic Arts. So what are these two companies to do for their final go around with Major League Baseball? For starters, the cover players should tell the story of hatred between these two titans. MVP Baseball 2005 (EA) sports Boston Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez and Major League Baseball 2K5 (Take-Two) dawns the likes of Derek Jeter, New York Yankees? short stop. If that doesn?t insight some arguments, I don?t know what does (here comes two in a row for Boston, sorry Casper). Next, you have the low price battle with MVP ringing in at $29.99 ($20 cheaper then previous years) and 2K5 coming from behind with the $19.99 price take we?ve come to expect from Take-Two sports games. Finally, not to be outdone, EA decided to release a week early to try to beat Take-Two to the shelves, but Take-Two did not fall for this strategy and released also a week early. With all that said, now it is up to gamers which way they will go. On with the review of MVP Baseball 2005.
Gameplay wise, while not much has changed since MVP Baseball 2004, EA did make some necessary changes and additions to make the franchise more entertaining for both hardcore and casual fans. Perhaps the biggest addition to the series is the new owner mode. Much of the same elements from Madden?s owner mode have been ported over, from setting concession prices, deciding what to give away for fan appreciation days and the hiring and firing of staff. In addition to that, there is the all new build your own ballpark option that starts out basic and as money is earned, improvements and changes can be made. Also added are some fun spins on mini games like batting practice, which plays similar to a skeeball type game where it is not just about distance, but also hitting targets like cars parked beyond the fence and tractors going over the grass in the out field. More fun then that is the pitching game that plays similar to Columns, having players pitching at particular sets of color blocks in order to earn more points (you can play this game with a time limit or without one).
Other changes have been made to the main gameplay as well. First thing players will realize is that the controls feel tighter and more responsive then in the 2004 edition. Fielding and throwing to the bases have been tightened and have faster response time, which makes for more exciting plays. You can also now review pitches and swings and see where exactly a blown play went wrong. Don?t like the call, then simply hit Y during the replay to have your manager come out on the field and argue with the umpire (this is pretty much for your own amusement and results in very few successful decision changes and you run the risk of being thrown out of the game). While these add something to the game, the one addition that boarders somewhere between cheating and kind of silly is the new Hitter?s Eye feature that flashes a color for just a moment that gives players an indication as to what pitch is coming seems sort of cheap for skilled players. Players in the league don?t get such an advantage, and there is no reason why players should have this advantage unless they want to play an extremely easy baseball game. It just seems like there was desperation to add another feature, and this was put together at the last minute of production.
Of all these new features, perhaps the most important of them all is the addition of Live content to the MVP Baseball series. Finally, downloadable rosters for the Xbox version (already one available to update transactions like the Sammy Sosa trade) of the EA great. In addition to downloadable content, players can also play quick single game sessions or start an entire season and join an online league. On top of the new available online play, EA has also added its messenger service, allowing you to instantly invite fellow Xbox players to play an exhibition match or to setup time to play the next game on the schedule. Plus, for hardcore baseball fans who want to keep up with the real game while playing over Live, EA has set players up with the EA Sports Ticker to give you the score of current games actually going on in the MLB as well as the scores of other games going on in your online league. It?s not just in the game anymore for baseball fans.
While all these add-ons and changes are well and good, not much of the core game has changed from the 2004 edition. There are two ways one can view these lack of changes. The first is that EA has invested most of its time on Madden 2006, plus with the low price tag, why should they put that much effort into a new title? Besides, if there is one game company that can be carried on their name alone, certainly it is EA. This of course begs the question of will this be the same path Madden travels down now that it has no competition and player have no other NFL alternative? Of course there is the other view that must be taken into account, and happens to be this reviewer?s opinion as well. Why make changes on a successful formula and run the risk of losing the core fan base. With the additions made and the inclusion of Live gameplay, what more can Xbox gamers ask for? Plus, with only a $29.99 price tag, what more can gamers ask for? Don?t try to fix what isn?t broken.
Concerning controls, MVP has tightened up some of the loose problems of last year?s installment and adds little touches to make the game more challenging. Fielding has become easier by adding a faster response time from catching the ball to throwing it to the desired base, but remember that if you throw too hard you could overthrow your mark and cause an error, and if you under throw the ball, it will eventually hit the ground and roll to the target. The days of simply hitting a button to throw to base are long gone. Pitching has been changed a bit in order to make the perfect pitch just a bit harder to get. Like last year?s game, you hit the button once to gage power, and then you must time hitting it again to when it gets into the green zone. Meanwhile, hitting has been changed to give more control to players as to where the ball is hit. You can now control direction and height in which the ball is hit. You can now aim to hug the foul line with a mid-level fly ball or hit a hard grounder just out of reach of the pitcher and the short stop. Use the batting mini game in order to practice controlling your batting ability.
Graphically speaking, while little has changed since the 2004 incarnation, things look amazing. The player detail, including body shape and facial features, are some of the best that can be found. While there are a few that look nothing like they should, most can be identified by looking simply at the face. Stadiums have some amazing detail, from some key advertisers to those small details (no, Chicago Cubs fans are not being hammered by falling pieces of the roof) like creases in the matted walls of Busch Stadium to the boats sailing around the San Francisco Bay trying to get one of Barry Bonds? homerun balls (got juice?), just don?t expect to see anyone cracking their paddles over other sailors? heads trying to get to that record breaker. Now, one of the things that has always bothered me about sports titles, especially EA?s sports titles, has been the fans in the stands. I?m not even going to get into the fact that there is usually between five and ten character molds just repeated over and over again, but something really needs to be done about that. There are usually two rows of ?active? looking fans (I say that in quotes because they have two or three basic movements that they just repeat with each passing second) and the rest look like they?re laying down in the stands and not moving at all. With the insane amount of detail that gets put into all these sports games, can we devote just bit more energy into the crowds please? When you hear them (we?ll get into that in a minute) it sounds like a thousands of hardcore home team fans that are ready to rip the heads off of anyone wearing the opposing team?s colors, but the illusion is ruined when you see the lifeless mass that seems to be sitting where all the noise is coming from. It?s like the time I went to see World Championship Wrestling when they came to town many years ago and Goldberg?s music started to play. We were sitting right next to the speakers when we discovered that the reason the ?Goldberg? chant always sounded so loud was because in addition to the live audience, there was chanting coming out of the speakers as well. I can?t tell you how funny my crew and I thought that was (of course having several beers each makes just about anything really funny). Anyway, back to the MVP Baseball 2005 review. Let?s move on to something a bit more positive.
Sounds like another staple in the EA library. If EA does anything near perfect, it is sound effects, voice acting and music. EA went out to the ball parks and recorded the sounds of the game, so when you here the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, or the impact when that glove comes down on a sliding player, you can be assured that it?s all authentic. Plus, you can be sure that the crowds have the intelligence to cheer when a great play happens, and boo when their home team hero gets robbed of a homerun thanks to some amazing fielding (or a bad foul call by the umpire). I always get a chill in my spine when I hear the crowd rally behind the team during the last half of the inning with the game on the line. It?s truly beautiful. You will also hear the random sounds of the stadium as the game moves on. These range from random drunken screams that you can?t understand (ah, wonderful beer) to announcements over the P.A. system about things like up-and-coming promotions and other things you?d expect to hear at the ballpark. The commentary team is made up of Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, who keep the game serious and professional, quoting real time stats to bring true realism to the game. As far as music goes, EA provides an interesting mix of hard rock, hip-hop and even some indie and punk tracks. Not a fan of some songs, you can always go in and edit the play list. The only thing I wish they could have done was use the walk up music for each team?s batters. I know it is a bit unrealistic that EA could acquire the rights to all those different songs, but that would be the icing on the cake if they did. That aside, MVP Baseball 2005 is perfect in the sound department. Bravo for making the walls shake from the surround sound of the crowds going nuts as their team brings home another victory.
So what?s not so good about MVP Baseball 2005? The main disappointment that most gamers will see is that almost nothing has changed since last year?s game. While new mini games, Live content and control tightening are enough for some, others want to see major differences with each year?s release. I?m of the opinion that MVP Baseball 2004 was one of the best baseball games ever made, so why make that many changes and run the risk of ruining a proven franchise? One of the biggest problems is that game studios think they need to reinvent the wheel with each sequel or new season release, and this can lead to major design problems and flaws that could have been prevented if they had just left well enough alone. EA has been guilty of this in the past, and does not want the same thing to happen, especially during a time when Take-Two is nipping at EA?s heels. Another wild pitch in MVP is the Hitter?s Eye feature, which comes off as kind of giving players a cheap advantage of knowing what is coming. Most of the time players have no clue what is coming, so why should us gamers have any kind of advantage. This is something that belongs as an Action Replay cheat. Third, hitting is still way too easy until you get to All Star mode. If you want to see a high scoring game, turn the difficulty on to rookie, put the Yankees up against the Washington Capitals and watch the ball fly out of the park. Great for beginners, but for everyone else, it is an easy win?too easy. The last bit that I wish they had changed was dealing with player?s moods and attitudes. Sure, it is all part of being a MLB manager, but little things like that annoyed me. Sure, you can turn off the feature, but it still has an impact on your manager rating. Why couldn?t they have focused on changing that rather then adding that Hitter?s Eye feature? Frankly, if Roger Clemons isn?t happy with the current situation, then he can cool his jets in the AA league for a while. I got no problem sending these spoiled little boys down a few pegs if I have to. Granted, in the real world, crap like that would get a manager fired, but we?re living in my world now, aren?t we.
Overall, with additions of some addictive mini games and Xbox Live content, MVP Baseball 2005 will make gamers regret that Take-Two got their hands on that exclusive third party contract. While the core game has made very few changes, the additions made a real difference. After playing over fifty games in my season (go Cardinals), I?ve come to the conclusion that MVP Baseball 2004 was a great game and it was the best decision EA ever made not to mess with that winning formula. The added mini games are used to spice up pitching and batting drills, making them as addictive as Bejeweled and Mine Sweep. Plus, the greatness of Xbox Live for online leagues, EA Sports Ticker and constant roster updates just makes things even sweeter for Xbox players. It still seems that EA has not received my letter about flat and lifeless people in the seats, because the same problem plagues MVP Baseball 2005. Besides that, the graphics look great with some amazing player face and body shape detail, incredible stadiums with amazing backdrops and well designed multi-angle replays. Sound wise, EA has always had a firm grasp on what players want to hear and delivers flawlessly in MVP. The first time I heard the roar of the crowd after victory sent shivers down my spine with how clear and real it sounded. Couple all of this with even tighter controls then last year, it is going to be a real challenge for Take-Two to beat EA?s MVP Baseball 2005. Love them or hate them, you have to tip your hat to EA for producing another fantastic baseball title. It?s just a real shame that it will be the last for some time, if not ever. Rest in peace MVP Baseball, may these exclusive wars come to an end.