ESPN Major League Baseball Review (Xbox)
Many people thought the best baseball game available last year was Visual Concepts’s “World Series Baseball 2k3”. The game had a deep franchise mode and great graphics; and people were willing to overlook some of the gameplay flaws. This year’s game has a new name and a few new features. Let’s see if VC can keep the crown as the top baseball game.
Most games by Visual Concepts (VC) have impressive graphics and “ESPN Baseball” is no different. The stadiums are impressive and are great reproductions of the real things. Every ballpark is a virtual match of its real-life counterpart and Visual Concepts even got the city backdrops on many of the stadiums correct. “ESPN Baseball” once again does a great job with the stadiums.
The player models are good with the exception of two issues. First, “ESPN Baseball” only seems to offer three player model builds: muscular, skinny, and fat. The problem is that many players in MLB can’t be accurately portrayed by those three models alone. I would like to see more options in future versions. The batting and fielding animations are another issue. While this doesn’t occur all the time, there are times when the swing animations don’t match perfectly with the ball and times when a catch doesn’t match the fielding animations shown. These glitches occur more in other games and don’t happen much in “ESPN Baseball” but I would like to see VC continue to perfect this.
This is the worst part of the game, in my opinion. This year “ESPN Baseball” has Jon Miller on play-by-play and Rex Hudler once again doing the color commentary. Miller is my favorite play-by-play man in baseball. I grew up listening to him call Orioles games and ESPN telecasts and I was looking forward to this game when I heard he was the play-by-play man. Miller does a solid job in his first year with the series. The big problem with the commentary is Hudler. He repeats himself way too much in the game. His commentary rarely adds anything to the game and he is constantly screaming. His tone doesn’t match Miller’s; as Miller is low-key while Hudler screams about a pop up in the first inning. Hopefully next year, Sega will only use ESPN personalities and hire Miller’s regular partner Joe Morgan. Anyone else would sound better then Hudler.
The atmosphere is another negative. There doesn’t seem to be any logic behind when the crowd cheers and the volume at which they cheer. For example, I have heard the crowd cheer louder for a strike on a 2-1 count then a home run. The crowd doesn’t seem to hold their cheers for long, either. Many times after a home run, the crowd will be done cheering by the time the batter crosses second base. I have watched plenty of baseball games, and many times the crowd is still cheering by the time the next batter comes to the plate. While this isn’t a huge part of the game, the lack of atmosphere can decrease your enjoyment.
I have been a “High Heat Baseball” enthusiast for the past four years. It was the only baseball game I played for those years, and now that the series is defunct, I was looking for a game to replace it as my game of choice. I’m happy to say that “ESPN MLB” has more then adequately replaced “High Heat” for me.
I’ll start with the positives. The game has many small new features that while add a lot to the game. The inclusion of hot and cold streaks and the confidence meter add to the realism of this game. In real life, it’s normal to see a two-run home run at an important point in the game change the way a pitcher performs for the rest of the contest. Only the good ones can shrug it off and focus on the next batter. However in most video games, the pitcher is not affected in any way other then the fact that he just gave up two runs. The confidence meter actually affects the game as a pitcher will start to get in a groove when he strikes out five people and will get down if he gives up a three run homer. The meter has the same effect on the batters as a clutch hit will increase a player’s confidence and help his performance.
Another great feature is the effort meter in pitching. While I prefer “MVP Baseball’s” approach to pitching, I think that “ESPN MLB”’s approach is closer to real baseball. Pitching isn’t timing based, it’s about choosing the right pitch, location and effort. The effort meter allows pitchers to take a little off a pitch or go all out and throw the ball as hard as they can. The difference between a 70 mph changeup and a 65 mph changeup can be the difference between a strikeout and a two run double. The meter makes me feel that I’m doing more then just pressing a button when pitching. You’ll actually feel like you’re battling when facing a batter – and that’s a great thing. “ESPN MLB” has the right amount of foul balls and the AI will take a good number of pitches. The AI also pulls starters at the right time and the pitch counts are extremely accurate. There won’t be any games where the computer brings in a reliever when the starter has only thrown sixty pitches.
The batting is more of a hit-or-miss affair then the pitching. The batting stances are spot on, and there are a wide variety of hits; from bloop singles to line drives. The game offers three types of hitting: timing based, cursor and the brand new True Aim hitting. I prefer timing based hitting, but True Aim hitting is a solid addition. With True Aim, you direct your swing with the left thumbstick and contact is based on timing and where you swing in the strike zone. True Aim provides a good middle ground for people who find cursor batting to be too hard and timing batting to be too easy.
There are a number of small negatives regarding batting and fielding, however. First, runners only run through first base when there is a close play. It’s kind of annoying to see a batter stop in his tracks and turn back toward the dugout when being thrown out at first. I have seen some poor baserunning by the computer in a few games. Without moving the sliders, I’ve seen the computer hold their runners at third when it could have easily scored. Here’s an example: The computer had runners on first and second with no outs. The batter hits a ground ball to the shortstop, which sets up an easy double play as I throw to second and then to first. So, you would think that the computer would be left with a runner on third base with two outs. Well, you would be wrong. After the double play, I realize the runner on second ran back toward second base after I turned the first part of the double play instead of running to third. While this is a rare situation it’s discouraging to see this flaw. Once you turn up the aggressiveness slider, the computer seems to make better base running decisions.
First Person Baseball and the lack of major improvements to the franchise mode are the biggest problems I have with ““ESPN Baseball”.” VC has done a great job with its First Person modes in other games but I found ““ESPN Baseball’s” version to be utterly frustrating. Fielding and batting are hard because of the camera views, which make it difficult to follow and track the ball. It just seems to me that baseball doesn’t seem to translate well into a first person mode. I enjoyed last year’s franchise mode, because VC totally rebuilt the mode and added many new features. This year, VC seemed to rest on its laurels and really didn’t add much new to the mode. While I don’t expect VC to rebuild its franchise mode every year, it would be nice if they would make significant changes or additions to it.
As I stated earlier, I’ve found my baseball game of choice this year and it’s “ESPN Baseball”. The on-field aspect of the game is greatly improved, and I get realistic gameplay and accurate results - and that’s about all you can ask for in a game.