MVP Baseball 2003 Review
Baseball is one sport that Electronic Arts has not shown the same level of mastery in reproducing in the gaming medium that they've shown with football and hockey in recent years. In fact, dating back to the Sega Genesis platform, EA has tried several different gameplay styles and engines to try and gain a foothold in the baseball genre. Their most notable baseball series (and the one that many current PlayStation and PS2 owners recognize) is their Triple Play series. The Triple Play games suffered from an acute imbalance; offense was favored over defense, and scoring runs by the truckload was not an uncommon occurrence. Sega's World Series Baseball games and 3D0's High Heat series relegated EA's Triple Play franchise near-obscurity. EA decided to put an end to the Triple Play series last year, but that didn't mean that they were giving up on baseball. MVP Baseball rose from the ashes of the Triple Play series and tries to tip the scales away from arcade-style action and instead strike a better balance with realism.
The epic batter/pitcher interface has undergone some major changes, which require equal amounts of strategy and reflexes -- and a little bit of baseball knowledge certainly helps. For pitching, players can select one of up to five different pitch types, such as two- and four-seam fastballs, curves, splitters, cutters, and sliders. Once the pitch is selected and a location for the pitch is set, a meter appears on one side of the pitcher (depending on the side of his throwing arm). When actually delivering the pitch and holding the button, the meter starts to move. The longer the button is held, the more speed and movement the pitch will have. Once the button is released, the meter will start backwards towards its point of origin and a green area will appear. If the button is pressed again while the pointer is inside of that green area, the pitch will be accurate. If not, the pitch can miss the aiming spot altogether and could wind up over the plate to possibly be crushed. That's the arcade-style timing part of things, but there's still strategy involved. When picking a pitch location, the strike zone is divided into nine sections, and some sections may be either blue or red. If a pitch hits a red zone, the batter has more power in that area and can do more damage. If it's in a blue zone, the hitter may have a tougher time making solid contact with the pitch. Reading these zones, changing your locations and pitch types regularly, and mastering the pitching meter are vital if you don't want to be crushed by the computer or another opponent.
Batting is also a bit different. There is no batting cursor in MVP Baseball. Swinging the bat is done by the push of a single button, and several factors affect the flight of the ball once it makes contact with the bat. Timing is key to batting success here, and especially on the harder difficulty settings, adjusting to the different speeds and pitch types is important. Fastballs zipping by at 97 miles per hour are hard to catch up with, but if the swing is timed right, those pitches can be hammered. The red and blue zones are also important. Swinging at a pitch that is headed for a blue zone might not yield the result you're looking for, while it's a must to go after pitches that hit the red zones. Lastly, the left analog stick can be used to affect the direction of the swing. Inside pitches can be pulled, and outside pitches can be struck to the opposite field if you use the analog stick along with your swing. Fly balls and ground balls can also be hit on demand by pressing the stick either up or down. Got a runner on third with only one out? Press up to hit a sacrifice fly and get the runner home. Want to hit and run? Press down to try and shoot a ground ball through the defense.
With as good as the new pitching and batting interfaces are, there are some letdowns in other phases of the game. Fielding is not easy to do manually, and the automatic fielding option isn't always spot-on. There can be instances—especially in larger ballparks—that misplaying a fly ball can lead to a defense's worst nightmare: the inside the park home run. While cut-offs are good, outfielders sometimes don't back each other up in case of a misjudgment. Throwing is controlled much like in High Heat, by pressing the face button on your controller that corresponds to the base you're throwing to. There's a twist, though, in the form of a derivative of the pitching meter. If you hold the button down too long, your throw will be strong—but may be wild and lead to an error. Baserunning doesn't feel all that intuitive, and the computer can be counted upon to make some running mistakes, too. There is a nice picture-in-picture view of the baserunners so that you can see their leads and slides, but controlling the baserunners just doesn't feel like it's in your hands all the time.
There are plenty of game modes to keep players interested, including a great Franchise mode. What's great about it? Aside from the usual suspects (i.e. player trades, budgets, injuries, etc.), MVP's Franchise mode has goals for each player to meet during his (or her) tenure as General Manager. MVP expects you to play multiple seasons in order to complete these goals. We're talking about stuff like having a .600 or better winning percentage in five seasons, or having your win have two or more players earn Cy Young awards. You're also graded on your performance and can earn more money to be applied to your budget if your team excels and meets these goals. It's one of the—if not THE—deepest Franchise modes this reviewer has ever seen, shy of creating your own team. For those who don't want to invest that kind of time, there are single-season and exhibition modes, as well as a new wrinkle to the Home Run Derby. This time, the Derby is based on distance -- not number of home runs hit. The winner is the first player to hit a collective distance parameter, which is set before the game starts. It's also split-screen, so that two players can go at once, and there are subtle additions, including a "money ball", which is worth twice the distance hit, and a penalty for hitting foul balls or swinging and missing. It's very cool, but definitely only a temporary distraction.
If there's one thing that will be very apparent when playing MVP Baseball, it's that the game looks really, really good. For a change, EA finally got the lettering just about right on most jerseys, especially for the names. The ballparks are accurately represented (although what's up with no accurate in-game scoreboards?) and there are tons of different player animations -- seeing double plays and diving catches as smooth as these is a refreshing change from seeing the disjointed animations that High Heat has brought to the table recently. There are some occasional bland textures and some clipping sometimes occurs with the catcher during the pitcher/batter scenarios, but these flaws don't detract much from the game -- if at all. TV-style replays and cutaways certainly heighten the presentation value of the game, as do occasional stat overlays. The score overlay graphic is a bit confusing, but it's functional. What's even better is that everything flows at a smooth 60 frames per second.
MVP Baseball is encoded in Dolby Pro-Logic II and has some great sound effects and commentary. The crowd can really get into the game, and hearing the crowd from all angles is a rush, especially in a tight game. MVP's commentary is provided by Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow from the San Francisco Giants. Kuiper does a great job with commentary while Krukow is very pointed in his statements. If he thinks you suck, he'll tell you so. The commentary can get repetitive before its time, and Kuiper refrains too much from giving exact scores (a'la Tim Kitzrow in Midway's MLB Slugfest), but it's still a solid commentary package with decent amounts of emotion, information, and accuracy. Some gamers may not appreciate EA's TRAX selections for MVP. Bands like Sum 41, Taproot, The Donnas, and Socialburn make appearances here, and some may feel that it doesn't go with baseball. Still, if you like this kind of music (I do), you're fine.
There are a few other quibbles that I had with MVP. There's no option to warm up a pitcher before putting him into a game. That removes some strategy, and will certainly bother purists. I don't understand why created players can only have a maximum of seven letters in a last name. Since my name doesn't fit, but someone like Shea Hillenbrand can have his full last name, I have an issue with that. Lastly, when momentum shifts occur, they can go on for a full inning, regardless of what pitcher you put out there. It feels more like the game's AI is forcing these spurts at times, rather than having them occur more naturally.
The bottom line here, though, is that MVP Baseball 2003 is an impressive start for a new series. The tinkering that EA did with the pitcher and batter interfaces strikes a good balance between arcade-style reflexes while keeping measures of good old baseball strategy intact. The Franchise mode is impressively deep, if you have the time to devote to it. Offense only wins some games, now, as compared to the Triple Play days. It's possible to have scores of 4-2 as much as having scores of 14-6. This is a great foundation, and, with a little more tinkering, EA could definitely have themselves another division winner in their sports lineup. MVP Baseball is a solid rookie campaign.
3/14/2003 Peter Skerritt