Replay Value: 7
The shift to fictional college players and college parks has sucked a lot of wind out of the game's sails. What's dumbfounding is that EA Sports hasn't done anything to beef up the atmosphere in other areas. If you go to an actual sporting event at a college campus, you'll end up smack dab in the middle of a party atmosphere. The energy is palpable, with drunken fans holding up derogatory signs, chanting catchy limericks, and yelling obscenities at the visiting team. None of these things are in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball. The crowd is lifeless. The stadium environment is lifeless (although, in reality, most college fields don't have sound systems). The announcer is lifeless too. ESPN NCAA commentator, Mike Patrick, calls an accurate game and sets a smooth tone with his flowery vocabulary, but he shows no emotion whatsoever. When you hit a homerun in the game, he's all "... and there goes a homerun."
It doesn't help that the game's producers appear to have been hellbent on duplicating the drab style of a weekday afternoon local cable broadcast (the low-budget affairs that no one watches). Although the hitting, pitching, and fielding cameras offer a good eye on the hands-on action, the other camera angles and replays don't do anything to punch up the atmosphere. Most graphical cutaways simply feature a team logo that fades in and out between the different viewpoints. Electronic Arts plunked down a ton of cash to lock up the ESPN license for damn near a decade. It's insane that they didn't do anything to incorporate the ESPN look and feel into this game, apart from a score ticker at the bottom of the screen. If there is any upside to the game's presentation, it's that the graphics and audio live up to the system's technical capabilities. Stadium and character models are intricate, the animation is smooth, and the crowd actually looks and sounds like a real gathering of people.
Dullness aside, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is an intricate, involving, and true-to-life baseball sim. Each interface gives players precise control over every aspect of the game. The three different hitting interfaces all allow aiming to multiple area of the strike zone, and two of them incorporate "power" and "contact" buttons. The pitching interface employs a combination of an old school cursor and EA's precision pitch meter to allow pinpoint control over aim and accuracy. On the basepaths, you can control individual runners, pre-load stolen base attempts, and even go so far as to pick what type of slide the runner uses. Fielding has the least complicated interface, in that you simply have to move the runner to the ball to pick it up and then push a button to throw it to a base, but, even there, EA has incorporated a little English into the process in the form of a meter that adjusts power against accuracy.
In a move that's sure to please some people and alienate others, analog control has been incorporated into the hitting and fielding interfaces in this year's game. On the default setting, you have to pull the right analog stick down and then push it upward to simulate the swing of the bat. There's a definite rhythm to the mechanic, as making a good swing involves pulling back and pushing forward with the same timing that an actual batter would show. By default, the right analog stick also controls which bases your fielders throw to. These analog-focused controls take some time to figure out, but they do provide a viable alternative to the classic control schemes (which, thankfully, are still available for use).
Out on the field, the quality of play has diminished somewhat compared to MVP Baseball 2005, in order to reflect the NCAA's "softer" rules and the diminished skills of the collegiate players involved. You can't make a take out slide into second base, or crash into the catcher at home, for example. The A.I. still plays a smart game and does a good job of playing "small ball," but there are definitely more errors and homeruns happening here than in last year's MLB licensed game. Pitchers also have fewer pitches to choose from, and their aim isn't as accurate. If anything, these changes just show how well EA sweats the details when it comes to their baseball sims. Otherwise, the physics are still spot-on and there are still hundreds of different play animations to see from the flashiest play on down to the simplest put out.
Diehards will appreciate the revamped Dynasty mode, which incorporates team prestige and recruitment into the normally austere franchise concept. The goal, as always, is to improve your school's team and take them to post-season tournaments over the course of multiple seasons. In MVP 06 NCAA Baseball though, getting to Omaha means that you need to manage your program's reputation and constantly work to lure the top high school athletes to your school. Reputation is built by winning, and by completing sponsor and alumni challenges that crop up during the course of the season. In turn, that increased rep gives your team better equipment to use and improves the effectiveness of your coaching staff, which directly effects your players' on-field performance and their year-to-year progression. Recruitment also plays a major role in your success or failure. During the season, you have to court potential recruits by sending out mailings, making phone calls, sending coaches out for personal visits, and bringing the prospects to campus for a tour. The catch is that you only have a limited amount of points to spend on each action, which you earn by winning games. In order to complete the process, during the off-season you'll have to negotiate scholarships and promises of playing time with your incoming freshmen. Say what you will about all of the other changes that the switch to the NCAA license has brought to the game, this new college-focused dynasty mode is just what the doctor ordered for GM wannabees.
The $29.99 suggested retail price gets you much more than just exhibition games and a dynasty mode. A selection of editing tools allows you to create your own players, teams, and stadiums (to some extent). The stock selection of more than 100 NCAA Division-I schools and 30 stadiums is good, but it's better still to be able to insert your own school or stadium if they were left out. Also, since all of the stock players are fictional, due to NCAA rules, the player editor proves extremely useful for inserting real life player names and stats into the game. A broadband Internet connection is recommended if you absolutely want to get the most value from a purchase. The online mode offers multiplayer exhibition games and tournaments, which are usually smooth and without hiccups, along with an ESPN score ticker and streaming ESPN Radio updates. These ESPN features are particularly sweet, because you can configure the game to deliver them to you whether you're playing online or off.
Props to EA Sports for making the best of a bad situation and keeping the MVP engine alive with MVP 06 NCAA Baseball. The MVP engine truly is the best when it comes to portraying all of the subtle on-field nuances of the game and putting players in complete control over every aspect of play. The switch to college teams and players hasn't hurt the game's playability one bit. It has hurt the game's attitude, though, partly because college fields and NCAA rules are more subdued than the MLB equivalents, and partly because EA failed to inject the party atmosphere found at college sporting events into the presentation.