Like two titans, a pair of legendary franchises continue to ratchet up their rivalry. They sign huge contracts and throw massive amounts of money around in an effort to squash their competition. Though it looks like one of these two behemoths will claim the prize year in and year out, there’s always hope that a wildcard will unseat the giants, proving that heart and brains can beat big stacks of cash.
I’m not talking about the Sox and Yankees, nor the Marlins of 2003. I’m talking about EA and 2K Sports, who have taken their sports gaming war to ever-increasing heights. And who’s the wildcard? 989 Sports’ “MLB 2005” won the “Baseball Game of the Year” award from our staff last year. Can their follow-up match that effort and win one for the little guys?
Career mode is where “MLB 2006” really sets itself apart from the competition. It's a unique mode where you create a prospect and try to work your way up to “The Show”. After you've finished building your player using a relatively robust player creation tool - including the ability to import your own face via the “EyeToy” peripheral - you'll play your way through Spring Training, try to get signed to a contract, work your way up in the minors, and hope to get a cup of coffee in the “bigs”. Along the way, you can try to take control of your career by discussing your role with management, demanding a trade, blabbing to the media, and other fits of "diva" attitude that might get you farther along, or might get you sent back to Pawtucket. Watch what you say, however. My flamethrowing lefty sitting in AAA with a 0.92 ERA complained about his role as a long reliever, complained about his playing time, then went to the press to vent when his manager said no … and was instantly released from the team, and spent the rest of the year without a contract. Getting fired was one of the most shocking and exciting things I’ve had happen in a sports game, and really takes that concept of a “sports RPG” to a whole new level.
The key to the success of the “Career” mode is the “Fast Forward" feature. Though available in all game types, it plays a key role in “Career”, allowing you to skip to the parts of the game that interests you most. You can "sim" though the calendar to your next appearance, and within the game; to the next time you take the field or the mound; or you can simply skip to your next at-bat. Just like a professional athlete, you can cultivate a "me-first" attitude where you focus solely on your own achievements. “Fast Forward” lets you remain more active in your career than simply "simming", yet allows you to rip through a week of games in a half hour or so. One drawback here - the nightmarishly long load times, where you will spend more time dealing with loading screens than you will playing out your ninth-inning pinch hit. Though the “Fast Forward” is incredibly fast, the loading into and out of the game dramatically slows the addictive pace of “Career” mode. Unfortunately, as a positional player, you don't have the option to play the field as yourself alone (say, field only the shortstop position.). If you play innings where you are in the field, you will have to pitch and control all the defensive players as well. I would have liked the opportunity to simply play as my player, trying to make plays to get me the recognition I richly deserve as the next great A's shortstop. Or as a pitcher, it would be more exciting and realistic to be stuck in the position of knowing you've given up a potential hit, and praying that your teammates in the field bail you out.
If you want a bigger view of the action, “Franchise” mode is deep, and involves more than just baseball. Reflecting the MLB itself, “Franchise” is as much about money as it is about the game itself. You’ll handle everything from billboard ads and television contracts to stadium vendors and your team’s transportation. There’s a lot to do, and if you spend your money wisely, you’ll see results on the field. Since this sort of detailed business "sim" isn’t for everyone, you can let the CPU handle what doesn’t interest you, or use the “Season” mode to play one year as your favorite team without the headaches of business management.
In order to get through even one season, much less multiple seasons of a franchise, most gamers will need to do some simulation. There are plenty of options available, from standard simulation of games through the calendar, to the “Fast Forward” discussed earlier, to the “SportsCast Manager” where you can manage the game in detail through a simple graphical interface, to a classic “Manage Only” mode where you can issue direction to your team from the dugout.
New this year is the addition of a full Minor League license, allowing you to control your farm clubs, play their games in “Franchise” mode, and work your way up through the system in “Career” mode. The ballparks are generic for these games, but they are fun parks with inventive design. The curious decision here is that the Minor League teams aren’t available for any exhibition play. Like many others, my local team is AAA and while I don’t intend to start a franchise as their parent club, I’d like to play a game or two with the Salt Lake Stingers. Seems a shame to include the teams, but neglect the ability to play them in all modes.
“MLB 2006” has moved to a meter for pitching this year, much like what’s seen in “MVP” or countless golf games. It’s a simple three-click system, but is tied to the pitcher’s delivery, so that you are starting a windup, then controlling the release point of the ball. Instead of just “missing” an arbitrary target, you are releasing the ball too early or too late, with the appropriate results. It’s a difficult meter, and changes based on fatigue and confidence. Perhaps my favorite component of the pitching meter is that it changes once runners get on base, and you're in the stretch. The meter goes a bit faster, reflecting a more compressed pitching motion, and really drives home the point that there's a slightly different mechanic once a runner is on base.
Batting on the difficulty levels past “Rookie” is zone-based, requiring the use of the left stick to position the bat, as well as timing the swing right. You can influence the trajectory of hits (fly/ground, etc.) with the right stick. It sounds complicated, but feels quite natural in practice. You’ll need to get a good eye for pitch speed and location. The “Guess Pitch” function really helps here, as you can guess not only the pitch type, but also the general location. If you guess correctly on the pitch type, you’ll get a visual cue and get more power on your hit. A correct guess on the location gives you an actual target to swing at. It’s the best system I’ve played at replicating the feeling of “sitting on a pitch”. Besides providing good hits, it also leads to more walks. I’m an inveterate hacker, but am seeing more far walks in “MLB 2006” than usual. The fact is, I usually swing because swinging is simply more fun than not doing anything, but “Guess Pitch” provides such good feedback on your guesses that you actually feel rewarded for “taking”, because you know that even though it may be in the strike zone, it’s not the pitch you’re looking for.
Fielding is smooth, and is helped along by a fluid animation system that is among the best I’ve seen in sports games. They don’t feel canned, but seem to flow naturally, combining small individual motions into a realistic whole. Most routine plays are just that: routine. Much like real baseball, you’ll se a shortstop field a simple grounder much the same way every time. That’s why it’s called a “routine play”, after all. But at least once or twice a game, you’ll see a stunning play that will make your eyes pop. The visual assists for fielding are intuitive, and help keep the game form the standard system of “run to the circle, wait for the player lock to kick in”. It’s possible to misplay a simple pop-up, and the indicators are based off player statistics so you’re have an easier time with a good outfielder than, say, Manny Ramirez. The only flaw in the fielding is the power of the throws themselves. Though I know it’s pressure sensitive, and relies on a "pre-load", I still don’t have a handle on the power and speed of the throw. I’m sure there’s logic there, but it’s not very intuitive.
There are definitely some flaws in the game. Besides reports of freezing that I’m hearing in our Forums, I’ve seen a lot of flaws in the AI' performance. Though the CPU will often make excellent choices in subbing pinch hitters and runners, you’ll also see pitchers swinging away when they clearly should lay down a bunt, or coming to the plate to hit when there’s already a reliever warming up in the pen- then he'll be pulled before the next inning starts. I think the ability to make mistakes is an important part of good AI, but at times “MLB 2006” displays too many mistakes to maintain the illusion of playing major league baseball. It’s not consistent, but it’s awfully disappointing when you’re able to get a win simply because the CPU doesn’t display the baseball sense of a T-ball coach.
Though held back by the limitations of the PS2 (jaggies and low texture detail), the overall design is excellent. The color palette is rich and realistic, the ballparks are represented well, and the players are very well modeled. When someone like David Ortiz lumbers towards the batter's box, there's no mistaking him for any other player. The excellent player models and scaling really affects the game, as the strike zones shift with the player. If you can manage to pull a Veeck and send a midget to the plate, the strike zone will shrink accordingly.
In what is admittedly an odd category, “MLB 2006” should win some sort of award for "Best Loading Screens", as I actually continue to enjoy the simple iconography of the flag and the player. It's a small feature, but it’s another part of a beautiful presentation, as “MLB” carves itself a nice visual space with a presentation that modernizes classic baseball themes. The aesthetics of the menus and presentation can't make up for a clunky user interface, however. Though it all looks beautiful, it's a beast to navigate. Even setting up a simple Home Run Derby becomes a chore as you try to work your way through the menus.
There's another interface issue - the generally poor roster management. Though it’s better than last year’s effort, it’s still a chore to edit rosters and much of what shouldn't be is off limits. Though downloadable rosters are now available, it still won’t contain players like Barry Bonds and other players who aren’t part of the MLBPA. Though some editing can be done in certain modes, the base rosters can’t even be edited to include a player-created Bonds.
The announcing is not spectacular, but former 989 commercial star Matt Vasgersian really gives life to the game with his play-by-play. Dave Campbell is a bit of a dud, and the music is utterly generic aside from a track or two. Overall, the audio is nothing special, but doesn’t particularly detract, either.
Though many areas of “MLB 2006” show marked improvement from last year’s effort, online unfortunately isn’t one of those. Simple features; such as the ability to change starting pitchers or lineups are missing, and the web page statistics offered last year are promised in the manual - but have yet to appear as I write this review, On top of that, the game itself is laggy and difficult to play online. To a certain extent, the online flaws are inherent in the PS2 online strategy, where broadband is not required and there’s no consistent username, but it’s still a lackluster effort.
When voting rolls around again for the “Operation Sports Baseball Game of the Year”, I’ll once again be casting my vote for the 989 Sports entry. Though there are flaws, especially in online play and managerial AI, it’s a strong title that’s addictive and fun. The on-field play is excellent, with a pitching model that’s unmatched, and “Career Mode” is a completely new take on the standard sports gaming franchise/season gameplay, and I expect to see more publishers introducing similar modes.
Now I just need to remember to not mouth off to my manager, and shut my trap when the press comes by my locker.