MLB 2004 Review
989 Sports' MLB series arguably delivered the best baseball experiences that could be had on the PlayStation, from 1998 onwards. The visuals were sweet, there was credible commentary from booth legend Vin Scully, and the gameplay was rock-solid. After the PlayStation 2 was released, however, the series seemed to disappear while other 989 PlayStation mainstays like NCAA Gamebreaker and NHL Face Off made the jump. The MLB franchise seemed to be forgotten while 3DO's High Heat and Acclaim's All-Star baseball series picked up steam and loyal fanbases. After a long hiatus, 989 has brought the MLB series back and it makes its PlayStation 2 debut among five other baseball games this year. Can MLB 2004 earn the title of "Comeback Title of the Year"?
The batting and pitching engines are pretty simple. The batting engine gives players the option of swinging normally or pressing the square button to activate a power swing. As with World Series Baseball 2K3 and All-Star Baseball 2004, there are options to bat with a batting cursor or to just use a timing-based system. One thing that you'll notice almost immediately when batting is that the pitch speeds in MLB 2004 are quite zippy; fastballs will blow right by you at first, and adjustments to the timing are critical. Also different this year is that home runs seem to happen with a bit less frequency during actual games. They still do occur, but power swings don't seem to rake in the anticipated results as often as they have in earlier games in the series. This can be regarded as a good and a bad thing.
Pitching is as easy as picking a pitch, spotting it, then holding down the button to put more speed or movement on it. Spotting your location with the pitch cursor is a little touchy, though. It's almost too easy to overcompensate if you're trying to paint the corners in that you can move the cursor too much and miss your spot. You'll also notice that breaking pitches (especially sliders) have a lot of movement—almost too much. It certainly helps when the breaking pitches are working in order to keep opposing hitters off-balance, and strikeouts are certainly satisfying, but the movement just seems a bit exaggerated.
MLB 2004 has the usual lineup of game modes, including Exhibition, Season, and Franchise modes. There's a serviceable home run derby here, too, but it's not very exciting. Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for MLB 2004 in the gameplay department is the Spring Training mode. Spring Training mode lets players create a prospect and try to play him onto his team's Opening Day roster. This challenges players to think about individual performance as well as team performance, and that's certainly an added challenge. It is pretty cool to see a player modeled after yourself on the Opening Day roster as you try to keep him on the team by playing consistently well and netting results so that he doesn't get demoted to the minors.
Visually, there's not a lot to complain about when it comes to MLB 2004, but it's just not all that impressive. One feature that is worth mentioning is the facial mapping on the players. Just by seeing their faces, you can tell which player you're looking at—that's something that no other baseball game does with the same measure of success. The player models are of good size, and their animations for batting and throwing are usually pretty smooth. Baserunning looks a little more ragged, as players literally make 90-degree turns from first and third base—that just looks unnatural. One other feature worth noting is that park-specific home run events look pretty sweet in this game. The presentation style that MLB 2004 uses isn't bad, with a fair amount of stats at your disposal and automatic replays of big hits or catches. One complaint about the replays is that they are basically repeats of the previous play with no additional cinematic angles to heighten the experience. There are one or two new camera angles for home runs, but they truthfully aren't as exciting as the in-park celebrations that follow. One added feature is the "play of the game", which shows a replay of the game's biggest hit or other moment. That's one of the few special things about this game, and should be a feature that more sports games implement in the future.
Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully returns to the virtual booth in MLB 2004, accompanied by ESPN color man Dave Campbell. Scully, as always, does a really good job of calling the action with just the right amounts of inflection and enthusiasm. Some of the lines get a bit repetitive, and it will become obvious to those who have played any of the later MLB games on the PlayStation that some of the lines are recycled. Dave Campbell, on the other hand, has much better analysis this time out, including making some timely observations at times between innings. The sound effects in MLB 2004 are quite good, too, with very clean samples including the crack of the bat and respectable crowd noise.
Gamers who remember playing the MLB games on the PlayStation are going to feel right at home with MLB 2004—almost too much so. In fact, the game feels almost exactly like the older MLB titles did, with very little in the way of improvements. Sure, there are updated rosters, and 989 has done a decent job of bringing the looks of the MLB series at least somewhat current; however, whereas EA Sports' MVP Baseball 2003 has added new wrinkles to their game, and whereas Sega's World Series Baseball feels at least somewhat different, MLB 2004 is cursed with sameness. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but the formula just feels stale now in comparison to the current baseball leaders in MVP and World Series. Even though MLB 2004 marks the series' first PlayStation 2 appearance, perhaps it's time for 989 Sports to take the same approach that Electronic Arts took with MVP Baseball and perhaps rebuild the MLB franchise from the ground up. "Good" and "solid" just can't cut it against the competition this year, and MLB 2004 is relegated to the cellar because of that.
4/3/2003 Peter Skerritt