After the glory days of 3DO's High Heat Major League Baseball franchise at the beginning of the decade, things got rough for PC baseball gamers. Most development shifted to consoles, and 3DO's bankruptcy killed one of the best series in sports gaming last spring. But the drought is finally over. Following years of abuse from hardcore hardball fanatics over its unrealistic Triple Play series, EA Sports has finally hit one out of the park with MVP Baseball 2005. Impressive strides have been made over last year's sophomore edition of the series through the incorporation of enhanced realism, gorgeous graphics, habit-forming minigames, and a new career mode of play.
Owner mode lets you build New Yankee Stadium, but the tiny facility looks more like a triple A park than a successor to 'the House That Ruth Built.'
Play on the field sparkles. The pitcher-batter confrontation at the heart of baseball is as authentic as that depicted in High Heat 2001, the high-water mark of that series. Computer pitchers work with real intelligence that governs ball selection and location. They move the ball around, change speeds, keep the ball away when ahead in the count, and throw junk. MLB aces, like Eric Gagne and Kevin Brown, paint corners and put serious snap on breaking pitches. Pedro Martinez's slider, for instance, cuts across the plate like a runaway train. Taking the mound yourself is a tough assignment, too, because of a tightened-up pitching meter with a smaller sweet spot.
Computer hitters approach their duties with patience and have no trouble waiting for you to serve something up. At the same time, they're not invincible. Vary your pitch type, location, and speed and you can collect Ks with the right hurler on the mound. Stepping into the box against computer pitching isn't easy on the MVP and difficulty settings, although the new hitter's eye feature colors some balls at the moment of release (white for fastball, red for breaking ball, and so on) to let you know what's coming. All in all, everything holds together extremely well. And if you do see plays that you don't like, you can tweak sliders that control such factors as throwing speed, injury frequency, and pitcher fatigue.
That said, there are some quirks. More foul balls and walks add texture to games, although there still isn't enough of either. Play remains a touch on the fast side, making it hard to manually field sharply hit grounders and hot liners in the outfield. Couple this with the tiny size of the ball in the default camera, and singles can turn into roll-to-the-wall triples. Fielding assistance helps, though it seems like a cheat. Fielding is also the cause of an apparent bug that causes balls clearly caught in the outfield to be occasionally scored as singles. Fortunately, we only encountered this problem a few times in the two dozen or so games we played, but an issue like this needs to be addressed in a patch.
Of course, you need a little glitz to keep people playing. MVP Baseball 2005 delivers in that department with loads of features. Gamers with short attention spans can get instant gratification from exhibition play, manager mode, online multiplayer (which, incidentally, seems lag-free and now features 32-player tournaments, in addition to exhibition games), the home run showdown, and a pair of minigames. In fact, it's hard to stop playing the fiendishly addictive minigames, which hook you with simple gameplay and the allure of honing your skills for real games. The pitching challenge is an ingenious baseball version of Tetris where you score points by throwing the ball into colored blocks in the strike zone. Hitting is no slouch, either. There you take batting practice, where you must hit called shots, ramps, and even moving lawn mowers in the outfield, as well as wrecked cars and buses outside the fences.
Earn that triple with a hard slide past A-Rod.
And as usual with EA Sports games these days, almost every accomplishment earns points to unlock bonus content. Whether you pitch a perfect game, reach sixth level in the hitting minigame, or smoke Frank Thomas in the home run challenge, you accumulate points toward the purchase of classic players (from Ruth to Ryan), classic Cooperstown stadiums (like Griffith Park and the Polo Grounds...where games are seen through a sepia filter that makes it seem like you're watching 80-year-old newsreels), and classic old-time uniforms (such as the woolen togs worn by the 1915 Red Sox and the Day-Glo monstrosities that adorned the 1986 Astros).