Of course, MLB 2006 will feature more than 800 actual ball players, all 30 MLB teams, and the actual stadiums and logos you've come to recognize while following America's favorite pastime. Fans that long for the "good ol' days" of baseball will be glad to know that the game will also include a dozen old-time stadiums, such as Forbes Field and the Polo Ground, as well as more than 60 legendary players (including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig). Online play will be a major feature as well, as players with a Network Adapter will be able to use their Internet connections to log on, play exhibitions, track leaderboards, and download roster updates. EyeToy functionality is in this year's edition too, allowing players to scan and put their faces on their own custom players.
The really big news about this year's installment of MLB concerns all of the new goodies that 989 Studios has added to the game to bring it up to par against what EA Sports and Visual Concepts are doing.
They've made the franchise mode even deeper, adding (among numerous other features) a player morale system that can change a player's day-to-day performance based upon many different factors. Some of the many contributing factors are salary, playing time, fielding position, line-up position / rotation spot, personal performance, team performance, trade status, ownership spending, and coach quality. The franchise interface has been revamped to put further emphasis on activities such as scouting, trading, and administration. You have the option to assign scouts to various parts of the country to hunt for new talent, and when you notice a hole on the team, you'll be able to tell those scouts to search specifically for a certain position. On the trading side of things, teams will offer trades based upon their standings and needs (rebuilding vs. playoff runs), and you can also use the trading block to motivate your own players by offering them to other teams as a not-to-subtle kick in the pants. Administrative duties, such as ticket prices, stadium seating and remodeling, and promotions will also contribute to how happy your fans are, how happy your players are, and how much revenue the team brings in.
To coincide with the updated franchise mode, 989 wisely borrowed a page from the MVP Baseball product and included authentic minor league teams in MLB 2006. The game includes 60 actual AAA and AA teams, and 5 stadiums.
If a franchise mode is too much work for ya, there's also an all-new Career Mode to try. In the MLB 2006 career mode, you can pick a player, start them in the minors, and help them work their way through the system to the big leagues (and hopefully onto superstardom). First off, you can create a player by selecting from hundreds of different stances, walk-ups, swings, step-ins, practice swings, and home-run celebrations. Then, you can build their experience in actual minor league games or in the training mode, which lets you visit the gym, practice plays on the field, and watch replay films. Ultimately, the amount of playing time you get depends on how well you play on the field. If you don't feel your player is being treated right, you have the option to request more playing time, request a promotion, demand a trade, re-negotiate salary, give a rah-rah speech to raise morale, or complain to the media in order to force the team's hand.
In terms of actual on-field aspects, 989 Studios has invested thousands of hours into adding all of the finer details and subtle nuances that last year's game lacked. These include drag bunts, wild pitches, broken bats, check swings, booted balls, pre-loaded throws, controlled slides, and so on.
What has us excited are some of the less subtle, new features that have been added to this year's game.
Multiple Batting Control Options: No more debates about which style of hitting works best. MLB 2006 has timing, zone, and timing+zone batting control setups, as well as the usual guess pitch and power-vs.-accuracy options.
All-New Pitcher Interface: Pitching in MLB 2006 is handled through a timing-release setup similar to the interface used in EA Sports' MVP Baseball. A curved indicator lets you control the speed and accuracy of each pitch, by giving you the ability to release the pitch when the ticker is in the high-power / low-accuracy or decent-power / high-accuracy areas of the meter, or anywhere in between. Confidence also plays a huge role in pitching. Getting K's and controlling the hitters will help you hit the corners and guarantee more strikeouts, and doing so will also increase the size of the pitching indicator and the speed of the ticker so that you can more easily throw good pitches. Conversely, throwing a crummy game will make it tougher to throw good pitches by shrinking the pitching indicator and speeding up the ticker. Pitcher stamina will also influence the size of the pitching indicator.
All-New Fielding Zone Marker: In most baseball games, you can catch a fly ball by running toward its landing zone and simply being in the right place at the right time. For years, you've known that if you have even one finger inside the large glowing circle, that your player would snag the ball. MLB 2006 shakes that paradigm up. The size of the fielding zone marker, as well as how quickly it's shown on-screen, is dependent on the player's fielding ratings. If you have a good player, such as Ichiro out there, the fielding marker will be huge and appear instantly. However, if you have Juan Gonzalez in right, you'll have to deal with a small, sluggish fielding-zone.
We're also very pleased to report that the graphics and audio in this year's game have improved by leaps and bounds over last year's. Who didn't make fun of MLB 2005 for the lack of check swings? And for the robotic animations that runners made while rounding bases or that fielders made while going for the ball? MLB 2006 features hundreds of new player animations, for things like check swings, bobbled balls, recoveries, broken bats, one-hoppers, slides, hook-slides, collisions, fake lead-offs, pick-offs, clothing adjustments, etc. The inclusion of real-time scoreboards and video monitors is a nice touch too.
They've also included something called Progressive Audio this year, which, from what we understand, means that the crowd will get louder and the stadium PA system will become more active as the game goes into late innings--especially if it's close or your team is on top. Brewers announcer Matt Vasgersian and ESPN's Dave Campbell provide the play-by-play, which features thousands of phrases, anecdotes, and interjection, many of which have been recorded with different degrees of emotion to reflect the excitement level on the field. For instance, the call for a typical double play would go something like "A-Rod dishes to second, the relay to first, double play," whereas a flashy double play would elicit "A-Rod dives for the ball! He gets it! Toss to second, quick throw to first, HE'S OUT! Oh my!" Along with that, dozens of different crowd catcalls have been put in to add a touch of blue collar realism to the on-field experience.
There's so much more than we can say about MLB 2006, and certainly Sony has given us all of the information, screens, and hands-on time that we'd need to write an encyclopedia on everything that's new and improved about their baseball game. We're firm believers that you CAN say TOO MUCH about a game, however, so we're satisfied having told you about the major changes to MLB 2006 and will let you discover the rest when the game ships on March 1st.
2/21/2005 Frank Provo