MLB 2005 Review (PS2)
989 Sports has been around the Sony Playstation and Playstation 2 since their inception. Kudos should be given to Sony for staying with the development house and giving them the opportunity to succeed; even when reviews have usually been average or below average. However, whether the products have been good or bad, they’ve usually sold enough copies to keep Sony interested in another release the following year. “MLB 2005” is the latest 989’s foray into the baseball gaming market. As a PS2 exclusive, 989 only has to worry about developing for one console. You would have thought that by now, they would have had that perfected, but in the end, 989 Sports has often fallen considerably short of that goal.
“MLB ‘98” was my first experience with a 989 Sports game - back in the original Playstation days. It was a good game for the time, but not a great one. Since then, there have been releases year after year on the Playstation, but with seemingly little changes. They have added some modes of play, but the look and the feel of the game never changed on the Playstation. Eventually, Sony brought 989 Sports into the baseball wars on the PS2, with “MLB 2004”, and lackluster results. I haven’t played a 989 title since “MLB 2001” for the Playstation, due to the lack of improvements through the years. The release this year needs to be the turning point for 989 Sports if they’re to prove that they have a clue with what they are doing in the baseball gaming market; otherwise they’re going to have a tremendous amount of ground to make up to catch the front runners.
“MLB 2005” definitely does not lack in features. Starting off, there is the obligatory Exhibition mode of play. Pit any two teams, with a human against the AI, or another human. It’s a good starting point to get the gist of what you are going to see in the rest of the title. If you want to just see how hard you can smash the ball, then select the Home Run Derby option and swing for the fences with up to 5 different players, and up to 2 rounds of exciting action. If the tediousness of “simming” and playing through a long 162-game season isn’t your cup of tea, or for a quick mode of play that doesn’t take much thought, then the Playoff mode is for you. Set up what you hope will be this year’s playoff teams, then go at it and see if you can win the World Series. Even if you don’t want four teams from each league - like the real thing – you’re able to mix and match and the game will still create match-ups for you.
The last three modes are Season, Career, and Franchise. All three of these modes have a simulation option available to them called the Sportscast Manager. The Sportscast Manager is basically a play-by-play version of simulating your games. You see each pitch unfold in text with a picture of the diamond in the background. On the screen are the player that is pitching and the player at bat. At anytime, you can interrupt the Sportscast Manager and hop into the game and take control of either team. You had better make sure you’re going to finish out the game, though - as there is no way to jump back to the simulation screen, nor is there any way to save a game in progress. Season mode is just that, a configurable season using one or two human players going through a 14, 29, 82, or a full 162-game Major League Baseball season, in any inning length of game. You can trade players with other teams, and then play the games. At the end of the season, if you qualify, you’ll advance to the playoffs. As soon as your season is over, your only choice is to start over with another team and try again.
Career mode is the unique mode 989 Sports has been improving upon over the last couple of years. This year, 989 Sports has done a very good job of bringing a lot of features to Career mode. When starting this mode of play, you’ll create your player by deciding how they will look. There’s something new here, as 989 Sports uses one of the Playstation 2’s newest peripherals, the “Eye Toy”. If you own one, you can import any picture to eventually tailor the facial image to what you desire by adjusting and altering the size. After your picture has been imported, go ahead and choose your accessories, and your player will be ready for use. If you do not own an “Eye Toy”, you can still use the create-a-player tools; but they will not get you as close to a replica of your choosing as the “Eye Toy” can. Once that has been completed, it’s time to choose a position and a team to try out for; then you’ll head for spring training. Spring training only happens once in your career, and as such, you only have a couple of weeks worth of games to make an impression for the team you chose. If you succeed, they’ll sign you to a contract – but success isn’t as simple as it sounds.
Before you start playing your games, you’re given a list of goals that the team would like you to accomplish during spring training. One nice improvement that 989 Sports made here is that missing one or two of the goals doesn’t mean you won’t make the team - it just means your contract won’t be as loaded, and that variability makes the mode a lot of fun. Once you have been given a contract, it’s up to you to decide what goals (ten are chosen per contract) you’ll need to keep your signing team happy - as well as get you paid. Goals such as 200 hits in a season, two home runs in a game, or five doubles in a month are just a few of the numerous options you’re able to choose from to fulfill your contract. If you decide to be a pitcher, you’ll have pitching goals you need to accomplish. As you play, you’ll be given more points to increase your players’ attributes. If you fail to meet your goals, you’ll lose some of the attributes that you had worked so hard to acquire. The longer that your career is, the harder it becomes to meet your contract goals. The ultimate goal is to retire as a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
If you think you can just keep playing your player to rack up all these stats, think again. You have very little control over the day-to-day happenings of your team. You cannot change the lineup, or the starting rotation. You are at the mercy of your manager and general manager as to how much starting time you get. You do get to make in game changes though, so if you do end up as a bench player you could feasibly sub your player in. I’ve tried numerous scenarios when starting a career; and every time that I made the team I ended up being in the starting lineup or the starting rotation. I never once was relegated to bench duties. This is good to an extent, but also brings a lot of pressure. If I had a bad couple of weeks of play, they didn’t put me on the bench, they just made me inactive. When you get to that point, you have three options. Demand more playing time, demand to be traded, or retire. Demanding more playing time doesn’t always work, especially if the rest of the team is performing well, but when it does, it can buy you a few more games to make an impact with the team. Getting traded will only happen if another team is interested in you, and if you retire - well, you’re done - so you don’t have to worry about playing anymore. Getting traded can be helpful, but you still have to honor your existing contract, and if you’re struggling to get playing time, you’re usually on a short-term, ninety-day contract.
Franchise mode is the brand new mode for “MLB 2005”. This mode is extremely similar to “Madden 2004” wherein that your goal is to not only win, but also run a successful franchise. Succeeding here will take a lot of work, as you must manage your team’s finances - including player salaries, television deals, and stadium advertisements, all the way down to buying new modes of transportation for your team to get back and forth to different cities. Everything you do can affect your players, and one really nice thing about this is that the ratings are affected as the season progresses. Players’ basic ratings will raise and lower depending on their happiness level. This is done with the smiley faces that are also being used in one of the competing baseball titles this year. This mode is not as restrictive as career mode, either. Here you have complete control over every single aspect (you can give certain aspects to the AI to handle for you, but I do not recommend it) of your franchise, and keeping up with it can be a very large task.
Franchise mode succeeds in keeping the average player from getting bored with playing only the games. It opens up a whole new world in trying to make your franchise successful by managing all the little intricacies that real franchises face on an ongoing basis. While I liked the Franchise mode, the overall effect of it falls somewhat short of where it could have. After signing advertisement deals that were to be put in various places around the stadium, I was disappointed to not actually see these appear. This could’ve added another thrill by seeing the changes you make actually show up on your field of play. The same goes for television or radio deals, and not seeing their logo somewhere around the stadium is disappointing. While the omission of items like this doesn’t ruin the experience, it diminishes the overall impact. Some things do change, however - I had a checkerboard pattern applied to the grass on the field, and I saw it the next time I played in the stadium. Franchise mode has a tremendous amount of future possibilities, and has an excellent foundation to work with. I should point out that two players can play franchise mode, which is very nice for those head-to-head battles to see who reigns supreme. Though the interface is a little clunkier when playing a two-person franchise, it is still a very nice thing to see.
What to say about the graphics of “MLB 2005”? Certain aspects of the graphics make you wonder if you are playing on the PSX instead of the PS2. The scoreboards really failed to impress me. All the other games have real time scoreboards and “MLB 2005” is no exception, except that they look very shabby and can be extremely difficult to read. I’ve never been one to go gaga over a bunch of fluff features, but this is something that really detracted from the look of the game, especially when others have it. However, other aspects of the game are handled so nicely that it makes you wonder how certain parts turned out very well and others so mediocre. While playing the Home Run Derby mode, I noticed that the landing spot of the ball would stay on the warning track for the duration of the round. I thought this was a nice subtle detail that showed some effort. Many famous players are easily identifiable, and I was able to notice them without any assistance. I still wish “MLB” (and every sports game!) would follow in the footsteps of “MVP Baseball” and “ESPN College Hoops” and replace the players that they don’t have a picture of with the game’s version of them in the player photo. “MLB” used this type of look for the Sportscast Manager option to show who was pitching and batting. It just adds so much more to the games as opposed to the black silhouettes or the ‘no photo’ (which is unfortunately used during the on-field games in “MLB 2005”) that is seen most of the time. Stadiums inside the playing area look good and are dimensioned very well to allow for the proper types of hits you would expect at each stadium. The one exception here, however, is Minute Maid Park - and the omission of the hill in the outfield. I simply love that mound at that stadium and I was disappointed that it wasn’t in the game. They did include the train rolling out after an Astros home run, as well as a few other stadium happenings in other ballparks, such as the apple rising in Shea Stadium and the Liberty Bell rocking in the Phillies new stadium (I have not seen the new stadium in real life and do not know for sure if this actually happens during a game, but it’s nice nevertheless).
On the field, 989 Sports has added picture-in-picture base running windows, which help keep track of the action on the field while touring the bases. The animations of the double plays are some of the best looking that I have seen in a baseball video game. There are a few of the double play animations that look just as good - if not better - than what you might see at a real baseball game. I just wish all of the animations had this much concentration and effort into them. None of them were really extremely bad, but they could’ve used some extra effort. Outside of the field, you have a pretty mediocre-looking crowd. However, while it would be nice to have something decent to look at, I would rather have the crowd be the last thing developers worry about - after everything else is done correctly and looking good. You’ll also see absolutely nothing in the skyline. It would’ve been nice to see some extra subtle features, but again; this goes hand in hand with my feelings about the crowd - wait until other things are done correctly before concentrating on the excess fluff.
Of course, you have the typical sounds of the ball hitting the bat, the umpire yelling balls and strikes, and hopefully if you’re doing well in the field - the occasional “you’re out”! You’ll hear organ music here and there and the PA announcer is replicated very well; from calling the upcoming batters names to reading the mock advertisements that you’ll hear on occasion. I enjoy hearing the PA announcer during the games, and 989 Sports did a good job of allowing me to hear it and transform the atmosphere to feeling like I am at the ballpark.
The crowd reaction, however, is a mixed bag. While you’ll hear chants and chatter out of them, along with the rising and falling volume of the cheers; I could not ever get them to simply just shut up. It seems like there was never any “downtime” for the crowd and it became so increasingly irritating that I turned the crowd noise off entirely. Unfortunately, this meant that I didn’t get to listen to any of the other things that I enjoyed from the crowd, but there was only so much of it I could take.
Soundtracks with licensed songs and bands are becoming increasingly popular in the recent batch of sports games and “MLB 2005” is no exception. Songs from artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Nickelback, Black Eyed Peas, and Jane’s Addiction are present - along with some from not-so-commonly heard bands. As you can see from the artists above, there is a decent representation of songs from different genres available even though the number of songs available is rather small in comparison to some soundtracks.
The announcing crew of Vin Scully and Dave Campbell are back and they do just as well as they have in the past. Things do get a little repetitive on occasion, but not overly so. There’s a new addition in the booth in the person of Matt Vasgersian; who chimes in with bits and pieces here and there throughout the game. I especially enjoyed the “this date in baseball” happenings that are talked about by the team. These are reminiscent of what you might see in the baseball section of the local paper. There also are trivia and various factoids that are talked about as well.
GAMEPLAY & ONLINE PLAY
With all the mixed feelings I have had throughout this review, the one thing that I was extremely happy about with “MLB 2005” was the gameplay. This has been a hit –and-miss category for previous years’ incarnations. “MLB 2001” on the PSX was excellent in terms of gameplay, but didn’t offer much to keep the gamer interested for a longer period of time. Now, not only is the depth of the game a plus, but the gameplay feels very good and is a definite highlight.
When hitting, the “guess pitch” function remains as an option, and when it’s used correctly, it gives the user an extra boost of power. You still choose your pitch by pressing one of the corresponding buttons, but there is a new twist - your velocity determined by how long you hold down the release button. Note that holding the button too long for velocity can backfire, especially online, as it can cause your fielder to assume you preloaded the throw and want them to fire the ball to home plate – and possibly missing a chance at an out. So timing the length of your press can become important early, especially during an online game.
The difficulty levels of the game are there to satisfy people with varying skills. “MLB 2005” is one of the first games that I didn’t feel like I was cheating while playing the rookie level. This is a good sign, as when playing the rookie level you don’t need to worry about where the ball will go, since it’s almost always in the strike zone. You can just sit there and worry about getting your timing and location right. This doesn’t mean that you are going to jack every ball out of the park, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. It also doesn’t mean you are going to tear apart the AI, either. Now while you could take advantage, you can play a quick game and not get overly punished on the rookie level, but yet still have played a satisfying game. At the higher difficulty settings, the games become more realistic. In the rookie level, hits are plenty, but runs still take some work to get. On the harder levels, you’ll actually feel like you’re playing a replica of an MLB baseball game. Unfortunately, there are very few walks pitched by the AI or taken by the AI - if you’re looking for a number of walks similar to the real thing, than you’ll likely be disappointed.
The lack of roster updates is another large disappointment. 989 Sports was touting roster updates via online downloads, but those were eliminated prior to release. However, to the delight of Yankee fans, Alex Rodriguez is on the “Bronx Bombers”, and Greg Maddux is on the Cubs, but any newer changes will not be there unless you make them yourself. Speaking of online updates, online play is also a new addition to “MLB 2005”. If you have a broadband connection (I really don’t recommend a dial-up connection to play) you’re in for a treat. You can play head-to-head and in user-created tournaments as well - but where “MLB 2005” really shines is in the amount of information it tracks for the user. I like to see what I’ve accomplished playing against other humans, especially online, and “MLB 2005” treats the user to a ton of stats for your games (they also can be found online at www.989sportsonline.com). These stats are also sortable by your favorite team, if you so choose. There weren’t a lot of Kansas City Royals fans playing the game at the time, but it was nice to be able to see how I stacked up against the others. The game also plays extremely well online, with one workable exception. Hitting takes a little bit of time to get used to; as there is a slight delay while playing. While it doesn’t affect the game directly, it does take some time to get used to changing your timing of the pitches (think about swinging later and you’ll be in good shape).
I found a lot of things I really liked about this game and other items that I wasn’t too sure about, but in the end, “MLB 2005” is an extremely fun title. “MLB 2005” is a victory for 989 Sports. They’ve been ridiculed in the past for lackluster releases, but “MLB 2005” definitely delivers a satisfying experience. Yes, there are quirks here and there, but the single player modes like Career and Franchise are exceptional for this title. Online play is implemented extremely well, and is also very satisfying. If the PS2 is your only console, I highly recommend checking this one out. While it won’t be for everyone (what game is?), the vast majority of gamers who are looking for a fun hardball title will be getting just that.