MVP Baseball 2004 Review (Xbox)
Last summer, “MVP Baseball” first arrived upon the scene; built from the ground up atop the wreckage of Electronic Arts’ last hardball offering, “Triple Play Baseball”. The previously best-selling franchise had become but a shell of its former self, as well as a critical flop. Following a slow fade that lasted for years, EA Sports had no other recourse but to consign the title to the dustbin of gaming history.
“MVP Baseball” was created by a design team at EA Canada, in the baseball not-so-hotbed of Vancouver. The game took a fresh approach to game mechanics; incorporating an innovative system for pitching and fielding, as well as discarding the unrealistic cursor-based hitting system that had plagued many of its competitors’ titles. While “MVP Baseball 2003” had more than it’s share of problems (and detractors), there was no question that its new approach to on-field play deserved admiration and praise. Now, in its second year of what “MVP” producer Brent Nielsen referred to as a “three-year cycle”, “MVP Baseball 2004” addresses last year’s flaws, and builds upon last year’s successes to create a wildly entertaining and thoughtful reproduction of the sport of baseball.
”MVP Baseball 2004” offers a mix of breathtaking animations, splashy colors, and nicely varied player models. Simply put, there’s no sports game that this reviewer’s ever seen that’s had such a remarkable variation of realistic and functional animations. The devil’s in the details, as they say; but so is much of the joy of watching the players in “MVP Baseball 2004” move around the diamond. From players scrabbling in the dirt to pick up errant throws, to outfielders contorting themselves while making backhanded catches on the run, to pitchers reeling after being hit by a wicked liner, the animations in “MVP Baseball 2004” are startlingly realistic and completely immersing.
All of these wonderful animations don’t mean much, however, if they hamper the user. Fortunately, they don’t. Transitions are essentially seamless for the most part, and the animations themselves are not simply for show – they unquestionably affect the way the game is played by injecting even more realism into the proceedings. There’ll be more on this later.
The visual presentation of the game is outstanding. With multiple camera angles available to the player for pitching, batting and fielding, there’s sure to be something for everyone. Cut-scenes are few and infrequent, but they happen at appropriate times, and do add to the overall flavor. While the player’s faces are occasionally hit-and-miss, the player models are spot on. From the hulking build of Frank Thomas, to Roger Clemens’ pot belly, or to the physique of pint-size fireballer Billy Wagner, the models represent their real-life counterparts well enough to make them instantly recognizable from afar.
New wrinkles include an innovative and useful picture-in-picture view of your swing; from either a top-down or profile view that displays the replay of a particularly poor swing and miss. It’s useful for diagnosing your swing problems, and serves as an easy target for multiplayer hecklers. The “quick key” feature allows you to see the bullpens and dugouts of each team in small windows, while adding menu functionality to boot. You’ll see actual replays on the Jumbotrons during the game; not just a smaller image of the game window. Some scoreboards reflect the game as it’s being played, and some other video boards exhort the crowd to cheer or show small, team-specific presentations. These are but a few examples of the small things that EA Canada has added to “MVP Baseball 2004” that helps pull together the entire graphical package.
Despite all these wonders, however, there’s still room for EA to improve. Surprisingly, with all the attention to detail on-field, there are no base coaches – just empty coaching boxes along the first and third base lines. It wouldn’t look so odd if everything else on the field didn’t look just right – but it does. The crowds are uninspiring to say the least. They’re mostly two-dimensional (which is glaringly obvious when balls are fouled back), and poorly animated. It does detract from the look of the game – especially when using the behind-the-pitcher camera. When looking at the bullpens from the “quick key” menu, a pitcher will listed in the window with the correct handedness, and will pitch in the game correctly, but may be warming up with the wrong hand. Despite the fact that “MVP Baseball 2004” does an excellent job with synching its collision graphics – ball contacting bat, ball falling into glove, and so on – players will often run right over home plate without touching it during a “broadcast” replay. There are occasional frame-rate stutters when a ball is thrown completely across the diamond, but they’re very minor, and have no affect on actual game play, as the ball is in the air when they happen. “MVP Baseball 2004” has six charmingly rendered fictional minor league parks, but in what seems to be a disappointing oversight, Spring Training games all take place in each team’s major league ballpark.
In the end, however, all of these issues are essentially nitpicks, and the pluses far outweigh the minuses. When you play a game at Forbes Field, and the players are drenched in a lush sepia tone to convey the nostalgia of the grand old park, you’ll know you’re playing a game that was created with both care and artful stylishness.
Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow handle the play-by-play, and they do an admirable job. They keep up well with the action, and have something particular to say about many star players. To their credit, they’re enthusiastic and never sound as if they’re simply going through the motions. Like all commentary, it tends to get repetitive after a while, but the work here is solid. Harold Reynolds provides the narration for the tutorial videos available in “MVP Baseball 2004”, and his contagious exuberance comes through as well.
While the announcers perform the yeoman’s work, the rest of the audio in “MVP Baseball 2004” is excellent. The crowds cheer dynamically; getting excited or disappointed at the appropriate times. You’ll hear the occasional heckler, vendors hawking their goods, and many team-specific chants. As a whole, the crowd in “MVP Baseball 2004” sounds much more vital than the average sports game’s. The on-field audio is outstanding. The crack of the bat sounds fantastic, and there are so many variants of it that you’ll be able to tell a fouled ball from a “nubber” by sound alone. Players holler instructions to each other (and by extension, the user) between pitches, and the other more mundane sounds of the game are spot on.
If there’s one major drawback to the audio in “MVP Baseball 2004”, it’s in the “EA Trax” department. By and large, the songs all sound like they came from Sum 41/Good Charlotte/Blink 182 cover bands. A little (or a lot) more variety definitely would’ve been appreciated. Xbox owners can’t utilize their custom soundtracks, which is a disappointment. Setting up my Double-A squad’s batting order to the strains of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” would’ve been almost too good…
The “EA Trax” bar appears after every song change, and stays on the screen more than long enough to wear out its welcome. It can be moved around the screen with the right thumbstick, but it’s always big enough to cover some part of any menu save the initial one. There’s got to be a better way for EA to implement this…
Taken as a whole, the audio package in “MVP Baseball 2004” is quite good, and does what quality sound work should do – it adds to the title without drawing undue attention to itself.
The feature set of MVP Baseball 2004” includes one thing that no other baseball game can boast – minor leagues. Every Triple-A and Double-A team is licensed and in the game. In many ways, it’s more impressive than it sounds, as playing a game with minor league squads can be so different in experience that it’s nearly a game within itself.
The talent level varies so greatly, that routine plays for the big leaguers can be a challenge in the minors, so playing with the farm clubs requires more deliberate play. It’s an interesting and very enjoyable twist, and once you’re used to having the minor league clubs as a playable option, you may wonder how you ever played a baseball game without them.
For roster aficionados, a robust roster management system has been incorporated, and provides the user with the ability to customize essentially every facet of every team in the game, including the minor league clubs. Creating or editing players is a snap, and the user can edit existing MLB players’ abilities, appearance, jersey numbers, and more. Everything but height and body type can be edited for fictional players, allowing the user the opportunity to mimic his or her favorite minor league squad’s roster to near perfection.
The “My MVP” menu allows access to user profiles, a trophy room, and “MVP Rewards”, the repository for all the “unlockables” available in “MVP Baseball 2004”. Over time, and with quality play, the user can earn points that can be spent to unlock 52 legends of the game, 60 “retro” jerseys – ranging from the classic to the hideous – and eight stunningly rendered classic stadiums. Each of the classic stadiums have been given special color treatments to further evoke their nostalgic charm. There’s a lot to unlock, and it will take a lot of points to unlock everything; so if players have interest in doing so, there’s a lot of replay value in this section alone.
There are six different game modes available in “MVP Baseball 2004”. Exhibition mode is exactly what you’d expect: set up a game between two teams, pick a stadium, and have at it. The Scenario Editor allows the user to set up any game situation in exacting detail, and play it from that point. Are you a Red Sox or Cubs fan still agonizing over last October? Then set those Game Sevens back up, and see if you can do any better. There won’t be any fans hanging over the railings this time to swipe your foul pops at Wrigley – I checked…
The Home Run Showdown returns from last year, with its frenetic, distance-based contest still intact, and this year, the mound men get in on the action as well with the Pitcher Showdown. Like the Home Run Showdown, the screen is split, and two pitchers vie for superiority via strikeout. The hurlers face the same lineups, and the first one to reach the specified number of K’s wins. Giving up a walk or a home run will penalize the pitcher, and remove one of their strikeouts. It’s a fun diversion; perhaps even more so than the Home Run Showdown.
The Manager Mode is utilized to its fullest extent as part of the Dynasty Mode, but it’s also here to play as a stand-alone feature. Manager Mode serves as a different way to simulate the outcome of a game. Instead of playing the game yourself, you make the choices a manager would. You can order your pitcher to pitch around a dangerous batter, call intentional walks, beanballs, and control the actions of your bullpen. On offense, you can call for bunts, hit and runs and steals, as well as change your defensive alignments and call for pinch hitters. A graphical representation of the game appears on the right-hand side of the screen, and all the information needed in the game is located therein. As a stand-alone feature however, Manager Mode is lacking. Only default rosters can be used, and the game is simplified to each at bat, as opposed to each pitch. Relief pitchers don’t have to be warmed up, either; reducing the strategy of an otherwise strategy-based mode. However, when used in conjunction with Dynasty Mode, Manager Mode shines as an alternative to simulating games with zero control over the outcome.
Speaking of Dynasty Mode, let’s dig in to the meat and potatoes of “MVP Baseball 2004”. In Dynasty Mode, you’ll take over a franchise, and can control its fate for up to 120 seasons. That’s right – it may indeed be possible to take the Detroit Tigers to a World Series by the year 2124…
As you set up your Dynasty, you may choose either the default rosters, saved rosters or a fantasy draft in conjunction with either to populate your league. You’ll choose your starting difficulty level (which can be changed during Dynasty play if things get too easy for you), and toggle various settings which will change the nature of your league. Unlocked “legends” can appear as free agents during the off-season if you so choose, adding an interesting wrinkle to Dynasty play. If the task of toppling the wealthy Yankees seems too daunting; turn off team budgets, and spend like you were “The Boss” yourself. For those who want to duplicate the MLB season exactly, the Fair Trades option can be turned off; providing the user the ability to make any trades they want for any team they want at any time they want.
You’ll choose your organization next, which will consist of a Major League club, and their Triple-A and Double-A affiliates. You’ll notice their “Rival Teams” on this screen, as well. These are the teams you’ll want to beat to keep that all-important team chemistry at a high level. Team goals are available here as well; listed in the form of three-year goals and one-year “Stretch” goals. You’ll need to complete all of the three-year goals if you expect to keep your job. The one-year goals aren’t as critical, and they only need to be accomplished one time during a three-year span. These goals are heavily dependent on where the teams stand today. For example, the Yankees will expect you to win two World Series titles and 300 games in a three-year span, while the aforementioned Tigers would like to have one player finish in the top 10 in MVP voting, and win 100 road games in three seasons. Whether you succeed or fail in these goals will determine both your team’s budget and your job security.
The Dynasty Management screen has all the tools you need to succeed. Your team’s chemistry level will be listed at the top right; with your rating as a manager directly below it. Your club’s rankings in pitching, hitting, fielding and speed are also shown. The lower right-hand corner of the screen displays information about your next opponent, in the exact same format that your team’s information is displayed above it, with one exception: the Game Impact rating. Each game has an impact rating from one to ten. The higher the Game Impact rating, the more effect it will have on your squad’s chemistry; either positively with a win, or negatively with a loss. A few quick trigger button presses will display your upcoming schedule, budget, and standings in the same window. At the bottom of the screen, a sports ticker keeps you updated with all the happenings around the league. All of these things function in the exact same way for the minor league clubs, and a few simple button presses will toggle through the three teams in your organization.
The MVP Inbox provides the user with an e-mail system that keeps the player up to date with everything that happens inside and outside their organization. The e-mail system is deep and well-designed to quickly interface with the other menus in game. The Scouting Report will give you a detailed view of your next opponent, including a recap of the season series to date, as well as a look at their probable starting pitcher and lineup. Standings, stats and league news can all be accessed through the Around the League menu.
However, the true heart of Dynasty Mode resides in the Team Management menu. From here, you can access your payroll, broken down by every player in your organization and negotiate contracts. Every player has a happiness rating, and their salary will undoubtedly play a large part in that. When you negotiate a contract with a player, you’ll also give them an expected role with your club. If the player doesn’t get the playing time he’s been promised, you can expect trouble down the road. You’ll set your lineups, rotations and depth charts from the Team Management menu as well. You’ll also be able to call up hot prospects, put players on the disabled list, and see who’s been suspended- and for how long. The Transactions sub-menu is the last (and perhaps most fun) part of Team Management. From here, you can initiate trades, put players on the trading block (and likely affect their happiness, as well), and search other teams’ trading blocks in the hopes of improving your team. When you’re happy with the teams in your organization, it’s time to play ball!
When a day begins, the games in your organization will be listed in chronological order, and that’s the order in which they must be played. You may choose to play the game, “quick” simulate it, or manage it via the aforementioned Manager Mode. In any case, you’ll have the opportunity to “intervene” – hop into the game and play it yourself. You can also hop back out of the game at any time, and simulate or manage the remainder of the contest. Once the day is through, you’ll be taken to a screen displaying the latest league standings.
Dynasty Mode is a remarkably complex, challenging and addicting feature, and it provides nearly unlimited replay value. Once again, however, there’s room to improve. CPU-controlled teams’ lineups sometimes appear off-kilter, with high on-base percentage players hitting in the heart of the order as opposed to some free-swinging sluggers. It doesn’t happen with every team, but it does happen on occasion. While a myriad of statistics are tracked, some stats (like Holds for pitchers) are absent. Far too many players seem to retire in the off-season; including some decent young prospects retiring for odd reasons.
Again, however, these are really nitpicks. CPU lineup optimization has never been perfect in any game I’ve ever played. No other game has such a minor league system, so no other game can really do any better with prospect advancement this year, anyway – and the omission of a few stats should only bother the hardcore “seamheads”…like me.
However, one more issue does deserve mention – there is no positional fatigue in “MVP Baseball 2004”. If a player doesn’t get hurt or suspended, he’ll likely play in all 162 games, regardless of his position. This detracts from the realism of the game and will hopefully be addressed in time for next season.
“MVP Baseball 2004” has provided and impressive array of options and features for a second-year title, and there’s no question that it will stack up well against any other title released this year. The ability to hop in and out of any game at will gives the player unprecedented control over the way their season progresses. It’s also not possible to overstate how much the playable minor leagues add to “MVP Baseball 2004” – it really is like having two games in one.
To this reviewer, nothing in a game matters; not how beautiful it looks or sounds, nor how many features it may have, unless the gameplay is both solid and enjoyable. Fortunately, “MVP Baseball 2004” has both – in spades.
It’s innovative style of play has been refined to provide a combination of ease and realism, and the result is like no other game on the market today. If there’s one thing that truly stands out about “MVP Baseball 2004”, it’s the fact that to succeed, you have to think like a real baseball player thinks – in every facet of the game.
The pitching interface is the same as last year in design, but functions in a much improved and varied manner. To pitch, a face button corresponding to each pitch type is pressed. Directly below each button is a bar that shows the pitcher’s ability with each pitch type. As the appropriate button is pressed, a meter will start moving in sync with the pitcher’s windup. The longer the button is pressed, the more power and/or movement the pitch will have. However, the longer the button gets held down, the harder it will become to throw it accurately. There’s a red section at the end of the meter that’s slightly different in length from pitcher to pitcher. If the button is pressed so far that it reaches the red zone; that pitch will become much more unpredictable when released. Click the button again in the green accuracy zone, and the pitch is released.
As simple as the process is, the strategy behind each pitch can be as complex.
First, each pitcher’s meter has a slightly different red zone, and that zone literally gets larger after every pitch – that amount is dependent on the stamina of the pitcher, and how hard the pitch was thrown. Each pitcher has a different ability level - affecting their accuracy zone - for each pitch type. Accuracy zones have play in them; meaning that hitting the edge of the green accuracy zone won’t result in a pitch as accurate as one that hits in the middle of it, and the zones all shrink as the pitcher’s stamina declines. If the player doesn’t hit the accuracy zone at all, the results can be disastrous, so throwing every pitch with maximum power isn’t advisable. The result is a very fluid, dynamic pitching system that forces the player to balance their risk against their possible reward. It’s elegance is in it’s simplicity.
In the field, the same holds true. For the first time in a baseball video game, you can finally see why Royce Clayton always seems to have a job somewhere. The fielding model in “MVP Baseball 2004” is nothing short of brilliant in concept. Each individual player has a Range attribute, separate from speed, which is something true baseball fans will appreciate right away. Plenty of rangy defensive players aren’t that flight of foot and vice versa, but to this point, no game has truly represented the difference well – until now. Each player’s arm strength and accuracy is factored in, as well. The red zone is longer for the poor-armed fielders, and throwing into that red zone nearly ensures an off-line throw at best. The end result is that quality fielders provide the impact on the diamond that they’re supposed to. Run the same fly ball down with Ryan Klesko and Ichiro – you’ll notice the difference immediately. Try throwing the ball in with Scott Podsednik and Larry Walker – same thing. Runners can and will be more aggressive against inferior fielders, and respect the abilities of the good ones. Running down a deep fly with Andruw Jones is fun – not work – and when was the last time you could say that about a baseball game’s fielding?
Last year, the throw meters caused a delay that sometimes allowed runners to unnecessarily advance. This year, it’s simply not the case. Throws can be “pre-loaded”, allowing a release as soon as possible – but not instantly. Why not? Because the player must transfer the ball from his glove to his hand before throwing, as in real life (unless he picks it bare-handed, of course). This is where the mental game in “MVP Baseball 2004” makes its appearance in the field. In many baseball games, a player simply taps the first base button when the fielder gets it, and off it goes. “MVP Baseball 2004” adds a refreshing dose of realism to this method, but the change may be daunting for some. Body positioning and momentum plays a huge role when throwing. If the player is moving, his red zone on the throw meter increases dramatically, and just like in real life, it’s hard to get something on a throw when moving away from your target. So if your third baseman backhands a hard grounder and attempts to throw while falling away from first base, he’d better be Scott Rolen or Eric Chavez, or you should expect that runner to be safe as the throw softly rainbows towards first.
Like in the real game, you’re much better off setting your feet before you throw, and it’s no different in “MVP Baseball 2004”. Of course, you don’t always have the time to do that, and then the brilliant risk/reward system forces the player to pick their poison. That’s baseball.
The right thumbstick controls dives, leaps and sliding catches. It may take a little getting used to, but once you do, “Big Play Control” becomes a major weapon in your defensive arsenal. Push to the side to dive for a grounder or sinking liner, push down to make a sliding grab, or push up to nab that streaking line drive or rob a home run. The control is thankfully context-sensitive, so you won’t find yourself foolishly diving an instant before you catch the ball standing up. “Big Play Control” is also available on offense to control baserunners’ slides. Pushing to either side causes the player to slide to one side of the base; possibly evading a tag or breaking up a double play. Pushing down will instruct the player to pop-up slide, and be ready to break for the next bag at a moment’s notice. Pushing up will cause a headfirst slide or barrel into the catcher at the plate. They can also be used in combination – pushing up and right on the stick will result in a headfirst slide to the right of the bag – perfect for stealing second!
At the plate, using your head is every bit as important as using your hands. Taking pitches is critical for success. Pitchers work “by the book” in “MVP Baseball 2004” – nibbling at the corners, using their bread-and-butter pitches when they’re behind in the count, and throwing junk when they’re ahead. The batting system is just as intuitive as the rest of the controls in “MVP Baseball 2004”, combining the simplicity of use with the complexity of strategy.
In a nutshell, the batting system works upon the tenets of simple physics. If a ball is pitched to the outside, you’re better off going with the pitch, and pushing it to the opposite field. If it’s pitched down in the zone, don’t try to lift it – make solid contact and drive the grounder through the hole. The two elements are timing and direction. If you swing late, the ball will weakly slice towards the opposite field; swing early and you’ll hook it into foul territory. Good timing is critical for quality contact. If you’ve timed the pitch correctly, the “direction” you’re hitting becomes the next determining factor. You can often make contact without choosing a direction, but don’t expect many hits. It’s not as simple as “push up to hit home runs”. If the pitch isn’t in the correct zone, you may have just wasted a good pitch to hit by fouling it back.
Think like a real player – get the barrel of the bat on the ball, and you’ll do fine.
There’s a bit of help to be found here, as well. If the pitcher misses his accuracy zone during a pitch, you’ll instantly have a good idea where the pitch is going. A yellow circle with an “X” in it will be a ball, while a circle in the strike zone will be the color that corresponds with the player’s particular hot and cold zone.
If you see a red circle up in the zone – well, now you know how Alex Rodriguez feels. Hasta la vista, pelota!
There are some issues to be aware of, however. You may see an inordinately high number of diving catches by the CPU. Errors are occasionally given on plays that are anything but routine. The AI manager also has a very slow hook. If a pitcher is throwing well, the AI manager will often leave him in much longer than one would expect – even into the ninth where a closer would be more apropos. Oftentimes, this occurs because the pitcher hasn’t thrown many pitches late in a game due to a human player swinging at everything, so this issue may diminish as players learn to be more selective at the plate. The CPU will also warm up pitchers earlier than one would expect. However, they don’t come into the game at inappropriate times, so this is merely a curiosity. When fielding, be prepared to hit the left trigger button to switch to the nearest fielder. The CPU will take your other fielders close to the ball, but will not pursue it to the point where they’ll pick it up. This is a definite issue in “MVP Baseball 2004”, and you should expect to see a lot of triples and inside-the-park home runs until you get used to switching fielders quickly and effectively. Once you do, this issue becomes a non-factor – but this definitely needs to be addressed in next year’s iteration.
“Sliders” are also available in “MVP Baseball 2004”, and there are plenty of them to choose from and tweak to your heart’s desire. While the game plays as well or better “out of the box” as any baseball title I’ve ever seen, “MVP Baseball 2004” gives you the option to play the game the way you want to play it – and that’s always a good thing.
On the field, “MVP Baseball 2004” simply can’t be beaten. You’re thinking every moment you’re playing, but the simplicity of the controls are so elegant in design that after a few games, you can concentrate more on your baseball strategy and let your thumbs handle the rest on auto-pilot.
This is how sports gameplay should work.
“MVP Baseball 2004” is the LeBron James of sports titles – the hype is overwhelming, but almost impossibly, it lives up to it, and perhaps even surpasses it.
The replay value is through the roof, and everything that’s been packed by EA Canada onto a single disc makes the retail price almost seem criminal.
Is it perfect? Of course not – but what game is?
It is, however, one of the most ambitious attempts ever made to replicate arguably the most complicated sport on the planet, and in most cases, it hits the mark in spectacular fashion. It’s unforgiving difficulty on it’s higher levels may be off-putting to the casual baseball gamer, but you’ll likely become a smarter baseball player and fan playing this game; and that may be it’s greatest accomplishment of all.