If you were a serious baseball gamer last year, you probably couldn’t avoid the justified hatred issued towards MLB 2004. Personally, I just couldn’t get around some of the control issues and graphical blunders that were rife throughout the title, and that was some of the issues thrown out by the media. Bugs, slowdowns, poor sound, the list went on and on. Obviously, a serious change was needed to revamp this fading franchise, and thankfully, 989 Sports has taken up the gauntlet admirably, appreciably tweaking their formula while adding some newer features that bolsters their game. Suit up with the boys of summer, because it’s time to play a little MLB 2005.
Like I said in my preview of this game almost a month ago, the continual question from most sports fans or gamers is what makes this year much better than last year’s game. Simply put, why should someone throw down another 40 or 50 bucks for this latest iteration of baseball? Well, you’ll still find quick start, exhibition, season, playoffs and home run derby options within MLB 2005. However, this is also the year that many of Sony’s peripherals have become integrated within their sports line, meaning that if you’ve spend money on certain games or items, you’ll be able to take advantage of them here. The headset that became popularized with SOCOM can be used to issue vocal commands to your players. For instance, you can rotate your outfield deep to cover heavy hitters by simply saying, “outfield deep,” into the microphone. Similarly, you can try to squeeze the infield by saying, “infield corners in.”
Additionally, those of you who like dancing in front of your TV via your EyeToy can use its functionality to scan your face into the game, using your image within the create-a-player feature. That’s right, no longer do you have to attempt to approximate what you look like with the character models, just snap it with the EyeToy and steal home with your favorite team to win a pennant. What’s more, the broadband adapter can still be used to create new online tournaments, play against friends or random opponents. Overall, it’s a creative integration of peripherals giving gamers special incentives for having some of Sony’s products.
Pitching and hitting has completely been revamped in this year’s title, making a much more strategic and interactive experience. Each pitcher can have up to six pitches that they can hurl, although some will have as few as two or three in their repertoire. Aside from simply hitting a button and throwing a ball, players can affect just how tight a ball is going to cross the strike zone with the pitch indicator. This is supplemented with the pressure sensitive throws that determine how much heat a pitcher places on a ball. If you combine this with a hitter’s individual strike zones, you will place a number of K’s in your stat book.
Similarly, hitting provides three separate levels of experience, allowing everyone from the hardcore fan to the baseball rookies to be a superstar. On its easiest level, it simply requires basic timing to crank a ball into the outfield or over a fence. On the higher levels, it combines timing with pitch locations and guessing what kind of pitch is being thrown. Accurately lining up these factors not only provides a power boost but also cranks a ball to wherever you decide with your directional swing; otherwise, you’ll whiff on a pitch or pop a ball up to a waiting defender. Hitting also figures into each player’s personal hot and cold zones. Gone is the clunky batting curser; in its place are nine sections representing a player’s comfortability against a pitcher. Constantly hit balls and you can watch your batters develop a hot streak, while missing or swinging at everything will cool your players down faster than a cold shower.
The career mode has also been augmented outside of the simple create a player feature found within other titles. Once a player has been created (this includes choosing his stats and pitches, if applicable) and a position, as well as a team, has been chosen, gamers will have the chance to choose a number of short term and long term goals for their player to fulfill. Starting out at spring training, gamers will have to fulfill a majority of these goals to receive one or more offers from a major league team. Once they’ve signed with a team, new goals have to be chosen for the upcoming season. Performing well during the season provides you with additional points to boost your stats and increase your paycheck, while poor play can get you placed on the inactive list or even traded.
Finally, the franchise mode has been completely overhauled. Taking a page from Madden 2005, players are put into the front office of a ball club, handling everything from team management to marketing and banking adjustments of your team’s coffers. This mode is truly all encompassing and gives you control from recruiting the hottest new prospects to veteran coaches and managers. Initially, you’ll be given the keys to your stadium and the roster of the current team, but as time goes on, you’ll have the option to upgrade the ballpark, provide newer training facilities and better travel accommodations. As the brains behind the team, you’ll also be responsible for advertising the upcoming season to your city’s fans and regulating their experience. This means providing fan appreciation nights, setting ticket and souvenir prices and the like. Just like the career mode, each team has its own goals that you’ll need to accomplish that differ by squad. Powerhouse teams might be expected to win a World Series or two as well as field a few award winners for the season, while struggling lineups might simply want to reach the post season or win most of their games.
Remember when I said that graphical blunders were a huge problem from last year’s title? MLB 2005 has thankfully resolved many of those issues within its refurbishing of the game, providing a more visually satisfying experience. Character models are much larger than last year’s game, and are much better animated than before. There are plenty of movements, like diving catches, double play attempts or slides into bases that look and feel very natural to the game itself. What’s more, the number of pitching and hitting stances taken from other players is incredibly accurate and impressive. The camera work for MLB 2005 is also exceptional, providing a ton of angles tracking the action that are just like watching a telecast on TV.
However, while the graphics have been boosted significantly, there are still a lot of problems that weaken the game. First of all, many of the textures are still way too generic and basic for a next generation console. You might expect that 989 Sports would specifically know how to take advantage of the PS2’s graphical capabilities, but this area seems to still be behind the times. For instance, grass and dirt textures don’t particularly look defined; instead, they’re swaths of green and brown. Considering that I’ve seen the same grains and surfaces on N64s or earlier machines, this should look much better than it does. Many of the animations that I described earlier have a tendency to repeat themselves over and over, making them appear more canned or forced than they actually are. Even weirder is the fact that hit balls can sometimes disappear from view or float around the field until a player performs a catch or throw animation. On top of that, many of the details found within the ballparks are way too basic. Firework celebrations look like those found from the NES days, stands have a significant amount of flicker that can be distracting and crowds are simply abysmal bitmaps of sectional crowds that aren’t facially defined or realistically animated in the slightest. Finally, while the player faces look closer to their counterparts than ever before, they still have a ways to go.
Sound still comes across somewhat better than the graphics of MLB 2005, simply because of the strength of the soundtrack and sound effects. There’s a number of alternative and rap groups found scattered throughout the soundtrack, which provides a decent amount of ambient songs during play or on menu screens. Similarly, sound effects like roaring crowds or a bat solidly connecting to drive a ball deep has a loud, echoing crack that feels like it was pulled directly from a telecast and sounds great. Add to it the teaming of Vin Scully, Dave Campbell and Matt Vasgergian, and you would think you’d have a solid delivery in the aural department. Hold on, there. The cheers, while they sound good, are your basic cheer that you might find in just about any sports game. What’s more, while the three commentators are still some of the best in the game at calling a game, the timing they have on the delivery of some lines still seems like they’re not in the same room or watching the same game.
Aside from these technical issues, there are still some gameplay hiccups that hinder MLB 2005 from being one of the better baseball titles around. For instance, while it features some of the latest updated rosters to this season’s squads (meaning you will see A-Rod in a Yankees uniform and other significant trades), there is no option to download updated rosters as the season goes on. This is a massive problem with a title that could’ve dominated online baseball play. Speaking of online play, to truly enjoy this game, you have to have broadband access. Dial-up play simply won’t cut it due to the huge amounts of lag you’ll suffer through. Online aside, there are other gameplay problems, such as a limited set of player customizations that weaken the career mode slightly and require some amount of dependence on an Eyetoy to take best advantage of it.
You’ll also find a few things that seem to plague some of the other features of play, primarily Franchise mode. Players won’t have control over their farm teams or minor league teams; unlike its competitor, MVP Baseball, which provides both AA and AAA teams, MLB 2005 focuses solely on the Major League. Also unlike EA’s title, there’s no way to play an actual game within franchise mode, which essentially reduces Franchise mode to a text-based simulation akin to that found on PCs. This is basically a toss up of personal preference for players to decide if they like this style of baseball play better than actually controlling a player. Personally, I don’t mind it at all, but I know some gamers that would rather the chance for action instead of screens of text and menus (that includes the Sportscast manager mode, by the way). In fact, that’s another issue that comes up: the preponderance of menus during sections you don’t want and the lack of them when you do. For instance, there are a ton of screens that you’ll have to navigate through to make a trade, perform a pitching substitution or other basic function, yet you won’t be able to easily get to player information when you’re trying to figure out if a base runner is fast enough to steal a base.
Overall though, MLB 2005 is much better than last year’s title by leaps and bounds, and comes closer than ever to presenting a challenge to EA and other baseball titles. In fact, it’s plausible that next year portends 989’s title to give MVP baseball a possible run for its money, thanks to its first party peripheral integration. However, technical issues and gameplay problems still hang up the game, making MLB 2005 a distant runner up to the videogame pennant.