MLB 2006 represents a significant upgrade over MLB 2005. More than that, however, this latest offering from 989 Sports compares favorably to both games recently put out by EA Sports and Take-Two Interactive. In fact, MLB 2006 is such a solid and comprehensive product that you just may want to make it your baseball video game of choice this season, particularly if you enjoy franchise-style modes.
MLB 2006 is packed with new stadium details and player animations.
Within moments of initiating your first game, you'll already be able to see and hear many of the improvements that MLB 2006 exhibits over its predecessor. The stadium models are still very accurate and packed with all the appropriate landmarks and closed-off seating areas. However, this year's game also adds animated advertisements and updating scoreboards to the mix. Individual members of the crowd don't appear to be as sharply defined as they were in last year's entry in the series, likely thanks to the changeover from flat polygons to fully 3D models, but they're also no longer stuck cheering by whole sections either. Out on the field, the players' bodies and faces are spot-on with reality, and so are their stances, routines, and mannerisms. If a particular player has a specific stance, plate routine, or behavioral quirk out on the field, it's been put into the game. The people at 989 Sports have also gone to great lengths to increase the number of different play animations, as well as improve the overall fluidity of player movements, to the point that players now transition from catching to throwing and back to rest again without skipping any motions in between.
To coincide with the upgrade in animation quality, the underlying physics have been improved as well. Hits don't always go to the same spots on the field anymore, and fielders don't always make perfect catches when the ball is in flight nearby. If you're late breaking left on a line drive, the ball may ricochet off the fingers of the glove. Just in general, the ball interacts with objects such as bases, gloves, the dirt, and body parts in an extremely realistic fashion. So events such as bobbled balls, one-hoppers, and bizarre bounces happen about as often as they ought to. By the same token, uniforms acquire dirt and grass stains based on plays made on the field. These sorts of details are exactly the kind of thing baseball purists want to see in a baseball video game.
Nowadays, most baseball video games try to duplicate the look and feel of a TV broadcast. Usually this means a high frequency of upper-body camera angles, screens littered with logos and statistical overlays, and action cameras that are often locked in place somewhere in the stands. MLB 2006 runs contrary to this trend by using camera perspectives and replays that instead show the action from the most useful vantage points. This means when you're fielding, the camera will zoom back so you can see more of the field. When it's time for a candy shot, such as a home run celebration, an instant replay, or a player's reaction to a boneheaded play, you'll be shown the event from the vantage point of another player or from a point right above the action. Furthermore, with the exception of batter walk-ups and side changes, the screen is mostly devoid of logos and stats unless you call them up by pressing a button.
It's also worth mentioning that the graphics, on the whole, are exceptionally clean. You don't need a progressive-scan display or a large television to notice fine details--like pinstripes on uniforms or the five o' clock shadows on players' faces--or to clearly make out what the various ads and scoreboards in the outfield say. Some baseball video games tend to use a mixture of high- and low-resolution textures; MLB 2006 is strictly high-resolution all the way. Nevertheless, it does include progressive-scan and widescreen modes for televisions that support them.
As for the audio, MLB 2006 offers a little bit of pop but is otherwise relatively low-key. An accurate description of the overall atmosphere would be something akin to listening to a local radio broadcast of an actual game while sitting in the stands. The various sounds of the ball hitting the bat, landing in gloves, and hitting the dirt are spot-on. You'll also hear umpires make their calls and players make comments from the field, albeit at a subdued volume. Throughout the stadium, individual spectators chime in with player- and team-specific chants, and the volume level of the entire crowd ratchets up when exciting plays happen or when the contest is close in late innings. Announcements and rah-rah music also originate from the public address system but, again, not at an excessive volume level. Throughout it all, the running play-by-play commentary keeps you informed of the goings-on, much like how it would if you tuned in to an actual game on your radio while sitting at the ballpark.
Matt Vasgersian's commentary follows the action perfectly.
All that's missing, oddly enough, are the musical interludes that play whenever a hitter steps up to the plate or whenever a new pitcher is brought in for the home team. Since every other baseball video game this year has them, and since every actual ballpark from the major league level on down to the single-A level has them, their absence in MLB 2006 is both striking and puzzling.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the audio is the running commentary, which pairs San Diego Padres play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian with longtime ESPN analyst Dave Campbell. Vasgersian has the general play-calling duties, which means he's the chattier of the two. He doesn't put much energy into the performance, but the variety of his comments, combined with the natural cadence of his voice, really helps make the commentary seem more like something you'd hear on radio or TV, as opposed to canned in a video game. Related to that, the folks at 989 have done an excellent job of tying his comments in to the action on the field. The commentary rarely lags behind, and when a bang-bang play occurs, Vasgersian will interrupt his train of thought without so much as a pause. Meanwhile, Campbell's contributions are limited mainly to pointing out specific player strengths and explaining in detail what went right or wrong for a team during replays and inning transitions.
Judging from the overall selection of play modes, MLB 2006 is a baseball game that casual players and diehards alike will be able to sink their teeth into. Of course, the game includes all 30 Major League Baseball teams and stadiums, nearly 1,200 actual players, and a healthy assortment of alternate jerseys and fantasy ballparks. Triple-A and double-A clubs are also available in the career and franchise modes. Offline modes include exhibition, career, franchise, season, and home run derby. Surprisingly, all the modes, with the exception of the career mode, support two players. Online, the game offers roster downloads, exhibition games, and custom tournaments that support as many as 32 participants. The roster manager makes it easy to load new rosters and modify old ones, and there's also a ridiculously complete create-a-player mode that lets you make up your own custom players. This latter option even supports the use of an EyeToy camera for importing and transplanting actual faces onto polygonal player models.
Play modes include exhibition, season, career, franchise, and online.
Enthusiasts of fantasy baseball will absolutely love the season, career, and franchise modes, which offer three different ways of devoting a fictional lifetime to the team of your choice. All three let you make trades and follow your favorite team through the years, and all three keep track of league leaders, awards, Hall of Fame inductions, and statistics. In fact, if you're into stats, you'll be happy to know that MLB 2006 tallies metrics in more than 80 individual categories, which are broken down further into such specific headings as righties-versus-lefties, night-versus-day, home-versus-away, and with runners in scoring position.
The season mode primarily puts players in the role of a player-manager but does include a small selection of general manager duties as well. In addition to controlling the players on your team during games, you can also use a number of menus to participate in drafts, make trades, set lineups, and juggle players between active and inactive rosters. The CPU handles the majority of administrative tasks automatically, with the exception of contract negotiations and budgets, which you only have to deal with in a limited capacity during the offseason period. Events such as the All-Star Game and playoffs are also present.
The career mode adds a personal twist to the season concept. Here, you don't have to worry about managing lineups or making trades. The CPU will handle those things for you. Your sole job is to create a rookie player and then take him up through spring training, the minors, and beyond. Good performances will earn your player more playing time, better contract offers, and additional promotions, whereas negative performances could see him sitting on the bench or dwelling in double-A limbo. Promotions are handled in a realistic manner, so unless you're an established star, you'll start out in a utility or relief role each time you join a new team. To make the starting lineup or rotation, you'll have to turn in good performances and pester the manager for more playing time. Related to these actions, comprehensive training and interaction systems have been built into the career mode. By playing games, your player will accrue training points that you can put toward upgrades in more than two dozen different skill areas. Meanwhile, the interaction menu lets you call team meetings, beg for more playing time, and request a trade or a call-up to the major league club. At the end of each contract period, new teams will offer your player contracts based on how many contract goals you successfully met. During negotiations, you can haggle with teams over the amount of money and the number of years included in the deal.