Even though EA Sports has come a long way since the dark days of Triple Play, the company isn't ready to touch 'em all yet. MVP Baseball 2004 gets most of the big-picture stuff right--like pitching and batting mechanics--and it has a hardball feel that's very close to that of High Heat in its prime. However, somehow the developers have managed to screw up enough little things to unsettle most serious baseball fans. This is mostly a great game on the field, but it lacks a certain degree of authenticity. As a result, players will long for the improvements that EA will undoubtedly introduce next year.
Batting animations have been perfectly captured. You can even see Carlos Delgado leaning into pitches and cocking his right leg before unleashing a swing.
For right now, however, the current game is enough to please casual arcade sports gamers. On the surface, MVP Baseball 2004 is an impressive effort, and it's reminiscent of classics like Stormfront Studios' Tony LaRussa line and 3DO's High Heat. It certainly is an improvement over last year's inaugural edition of the series, mostly because EA has spent the last 12 months refining the gameplay and adding a number of features--like making it possible to warm up pitchers in the bullpen, visit the mound, and trade with computer teams--that were omitted the last time around.
Depth has been enhanced across the board, with an eye toward courting the attention of baseball management simmers. In addition to exhibition games, online multiplayer, editable scenarios, hitter and pitcher challenges, and loads of unlockable stadiums, uniforms, and players, dynasty play now stretches to 120 seasons. EA has taken a hint from its comprehensive FIFA soccer series (which boasts something like 500 teams and 10,000 players in its latest edition) and has included rosters from every AA and AAA minor league club in North America. Having the ability to send down projects and call up prospects makes fantasy league play feel much more genuine than it did in MVP Baseball 2003. The same goes for the greater attention to clubhouse shenanigans. One of the most important meters to watch now monitors player happiness, so you have to keep everybody smiling. Fail to give a pitcher the innings he wants and you might end up with him sulking at the end of the bench.
On-field action also features more options. There is a manage-only mode available when you want to step away from the arcade action. Games here play out much like in text-based baseball management simulations. You can even go back to the gamepad whenever things get interesting--if you ever put down the pad in the first place, that is. EA Sports BIG controls now allow players to utilize console-styled gamepads with dual analog sticks. This gives you manual control over sliding, diving for balls, and even going up on the wall to snatch back homers. You really get the feeling that you're in a complete ball game rather than just going through the motions of pitching and hitting.
Neat frills, like player dissatisfaction, have been added to dynasty mode, but long-term play has some issues with player fatigue and the development of prospects.
That's not to say that there is anything wrong with stepping onto the mound or into the batter's box. Pitcher-versus-batter confrontations are stellar. The pitching meter gives you more control than the select-pitch/select-location method used by other baseball games. It still feels a little odd to be pitching in a manner similar to how you would swing a club in golf games, though you sure can't argue with the way this pitching style ramps up the game's tension. Misfire here and your mistake will likely end up in the seats. Individual at bats play out in compelling fashion as well, although default settings are tweaked for higher offensive numbers. Gameplay-tuning allows you to make on-field play more realistic. For example, you can adjust the likelihood of batters making contact, power ratings, throwing speed, and so on (although don't expect to have a lot of pitcher's duels here).
Even though the control system practically screams attention to detail, there remain some strange omissions. All position players have ungodly levels of stamina. Barring injury, every nonpitching starter on your roster plays all 162 games--even catchers. And since injuries don't occur too often (though, oddly, there are a lot of long suspensions for on-field brawls), many players will break Cal Ripken's consecutive games-played mark within 14 seasons of starting a dynasty. However, it's not as if these numbers are tracked. Season stats are routinely wiped clean before the playoffs, so don't expect to look back fondly on banner years.