MLB 2005 Preview (PS2)

Last week, Operation Sports was invited to attend the “989 Sports Gamers’ Day” in San Diego, California. 989 Sports held the event to show off the latest build of their newest sports title, “MLB 2005”. The game clearly displayed the dedication to quality and improvement now permeating the 989 Sports studios, and looks to reposition 989 Sports as a major sports development house once again.

There’s a lot to be excited about this spring – here’s what we saw.

MLB 2005

The “MLB” series has provided gamers with a solid, if unspectacular, baseball experience for years. However, the graphical punch of the series has left much to be desired. To their credit, 989 Sports has recognized this, and the graphics and presentation quality have been dramatically improved for this year’s iteration. The player models, while still a tad slender, are markedly more realistic and representative of real Major Leaguers. Player faces have also been improved, and the brand-new presentation does a great job of showing them off. 989 Sports’ extensive motion capture work has paid dividends here, as witnessed in some of the movies seen thus far on the Web. Player animations are beautifully rendered and realistic in form and motion – and they’re running at a crisp 60 frames per second. Stand far enough away from the screen, and the animations could fool you into thinking you’re watching the real thing.

Despite the vast number of animations, player control is not an issue. Pre-loaded throws are part of the package, and to enhance that even further, 989 Sports has implemented “branching throws” – interrupt points in the animations that allow the user to alter what the controlled player will do – all without sacrificing animation quality or falling victim to herky-jerky movements that have often plagued other baseball titles. The animations around first base are particularly worth mentioning, as the 989 Sports programmers have allowed the first basemen’s arm to have a complete range of motion. Coupled with the variety of throws from the infielders, you’ll see many different kinds of plays at first, from the mundane to the spectacular; with short-hopped throws dug out of the dirt, and leaping grabs at the bag. It all looks very natural, and adds greatly to the feeling of authenticity in the game.

Adding to the authenticity are all-new cut scenes that help give “MLB 2005” better presentation values than ever before. They’re along the lines of what you might expect – consisting of supportive base coaches, excited or frustrated players, and the requisite close-ups of players’ faces – but it’s the combination of all these little things that make a big difference in how a game looks and feels to a player. Not all of the cut scenes are for show, however. Mound visits by the manager have a real strategy behind them. As in the sport itself, the mound visit provides two potential advantages. Your manager may be able to encourage his pitcher, enabling him to get that tough out, or he could simply buy more time for his reliever to warm up so he can get in the game and put out the fire. For purists, this feature will warm more than a few hearts.

Home run celebrations are context-sensitive, to boot. If the batter’s crushed one, he may celebrate as he watches it fly, but if it’s only in first row, he’ll run it out like he normally would. Not only is it more realistic, but it injects a bit more drama into the game – and that’s always a good thing.

For those nostalgic baseball fans, “MLB 2005” has a few special surprises in store for you. There are six old-time stadiums in the game, complete with coat-and-tie wearing fans in the stands. Multiple throwback uniforms are available for each team, including some new ones created by 989 Sports specifically for the MLB’s most recent expansion teams. Players will also sport era-specific equipment depending on the uniform chosen. Adding to the flavor are nearly 80 “Cooperstown” legends, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and many more of the greatest players to ever step on the diamond – and many of them will have their signature batting stances and pitching deliveries in the game, as well.

All this is capped off by another year of Vin Scully’s legendary dulcet tones and Dave Campbell’s familiar expert analysis, along with Padres’ color man Matt Vasgersian; who’s been added to the announcers’ booth this season.

989 Sports has taken a tremendous leap forward this year, and it shows on the screen.

The improvements to “MLB 2005” don’t stop there, however. After all, the game’s the thing, and 989 Sports has kept that in mind throughout the development of “MLB 2005”.

The pitcher/batter interface has been revamped with improved and intelligent game play in mind.

There are now five cameras to choose from, including two “pitcher” cameras for those who like the view from behind the mound. All the strike zones are scaled to each batter’s respective height, and their hot and cold zones change – even within a single game. As a hitter, you’ll find that cursor batting is a thing of the past. In its place is the vastly more realistic “Zone Control Batting”. Like a real Major Leaguer, you’ll look for a pitch in your zone, time it, and swing. Combined with the game’s excellent angle on and representation of the 60 foot, 6 inch distance between the mound and the plate, batting feels quite natural, and heightens the enjoyment of the game. The “MLB” series has always featured a wide variety of hit types, and their new “True Trajectory” ball physics looked to be spot-on.

On the mound or on the field, new pressure-sensitive pitches and throws give the player more options to choose from when playing defense. The AI has been revamped, as well, ensuring that both your opponents and your AI-controlled teammates play a sensible, realistic game of baseball with all the strategy therein.

Online play will feature a robust set of options in line with 989 Sports’ other offerings. Solo play offers a few new wrinkles, as well. The new “Franchise Mode” follows along the path set by PC games before it, but provides a completely new angle for PlayStation 2 baseball titles. In “Franchise Mode”, you’re the owner, general manager and manager all wrapped up in one, and your team’s fate is entirely in your hands. “Franchise Mode” is really a game within a game, as all the contests are simulated with a novel set of controls that will allow you to control everything that happens in the game from the dugout. (This simulation tool is also available for use during “Season Mode”, with the added ability to jump in and play game directly at any time.) As the general manager, you’ll be responsible for getting the best players on your squad, from scouting to trades to signing free agents, and everything in between. As the owner, you’ll have even more options at your disposal. You can set prices for every part of your stadium – tickets, concessions, programs, and so on. You can purchase new items for your clubhouse that will help keep your team happy and playing their best. You can even build local advertising campaigns around your superstar players to bring in the fans. Everything you do impacts the bottom line of your MLB franchise – and it’s your challenge to take them to the top.

There’s another entertaining way for the solo player to experience the game: “Career Mode”. In this mode, you’ll create a player, and during your time in Spring Training, try to get signed by an MLB team. If your player is signed, he’ll have goals he’s expected to complete by the club. In the meanwhile, you’ll try to progress through the minor leagues and make it to “The Show”. If you don’t perform up to expectations, however, your player can be traded or waived outright. It’s a whole new way to experience console baseball.

Speaking of experiencing Major League Baseball, “MLB 2005” now has the next best thing. In our mind’s eye, many of us have seen ourselves wearing a Major League uniform, and playing hardball in the green cathedrals of our imaginations. “MLB 2005” makes that fantasy even closer to reality with its new Eye Toy functionality. In a matter of moments, any player with an Eye Toy can take quick snapshots of themselves, and then place their face on a created player. Simple to do, and impressive to see, “MLB 2005” brings you closer to the game then you’ve ever been before.

Whether “MLB 2005” moves to the forefront of the crowded pack of baseball releases this spring remains to be seen. What’s certain is that 989 Sports is putting their best foot forward this season, and its developers have their sights set on gaming greatness once again.

Play ball!