ESPN MLB uses a timing-based hitting interface.
Generally speaking, ESPN Major League Baseball gets more right, in terms of gameplay, than it gets wrong. Balls hit high in the zone tend to turn into pop flies, and balls hit low in the zone tend to result in ground balls. Breaking pitches, such as curveballs and sinkers, are more likely to result in weak grounders and bloop hits than fastballs and change-ups are. That's in line with what actually happens during a real game. The artificial intelligence is fair. Even though CPU opponents have a good eye for pitches while ahead in the count, they'll swing at strikes outside of the zone when they're behind. On the base paths, the CPU is pretty aggressive. If a fast runner is on first base, the odds are good that the CPU will try to take second. If there's a man on second or there are two outs, don't be surprised to see the CPU attempt a hit-and-run play. Also, even though the baserunning interface isn't very precise when the ball is in play, it is (at least) set up to allow you to preload stolen base and hit-and-run attempts before pitches are thrown. That way, you don't have to worry about mashing anything but the swing button once the pitch is released.
So what else does ESPN get wrong beside what has already been mentioned? Well, for starters, it would be nice if intentional walks and beanballs were available as standalone options on the pitching menu. It's flat out weak that you have to call for a pitchout four times to put a runner on intentionally, or that you have to aim a slider at a batter's chest just to give him some chin music. Other games allow you to make these moves at the touch of a button, so it's pretty silly that you need to throw wild pitches just to do them here. Another problem--more of a glitch really--is that balls will occasionally hit outfielders in the back and then bounce over their shoulders into their gloves. You won't believe your eyes the first time you see it happen, but if you use the instant replay to zoom in on the play, you can actually watch as the ball hits the player in the back and moves in a circular arc over his shoulder and into the glove.
When you add up everything that's wrong with the game's graphics, audio, and gameplay, you end up with a short list that's composed primarily of nitpicks and gripes. The significant problems--the ugly player faces and outdated baserunning system--don't take away all that much from what is otherwise one of this season's better baseball games.
If you actually take the plunge and spend 40 bucks to bring ESPN Major League Baseball home, here's a rundown of what you get. All 30 MLB teams and their stadiums are available, along with 16 different All-Star teams, six classic stadiums, and a team composed of legendary Hall of Famers. Each team has a number of different alternate and throwback jerseys to select from. The rosters are current, as of opening day, but the included player editor lets you create an almost unlimited number of custom players. If you have an Xbox Live account, you can use it to play against other players in exhibition games, and you can use it to download roster updates throughout the season. Online play is generally smooth, although there are occasions when lag will crop up, thus causing players to jerk around or causing the ball to disappear for a split second. There isn't much you can do when this happens except be patient. Unfortunately, you'll experience this sort of lag for at least 30 seconds or so in every game you play, no matter how solid the connection is with the other player.
Crazy catch glitch! Sometimes the ball will hit a player in the back and will then land in his glove.
Other nice features include the ability to save games in progress, gameplay sliders that allow you to adjust the pitching, hitting, and fielding abilities of CPU and human players, and the option to store your own user file, which the computer uses to keep track of your personal pitching and hitting charts, in addition to maintaining the trophy room that holds the awards you win in the game's various play modes.
The most significant new feature added to this year's game is its first-person mode. When you choose the first-person camera perspective, you see everything through the eyes of the active player. This means that when you're at bat and are running toward first, you'll see the action through the hitter's eyes. When you're pitching, you'll see the game through the pitcher's eyes. If a hitter makes contact with one of your pitches, the viewpoint changes so that you can go after the ball from the fielder's perspective. Unfortunately, contrary to what Sega Sports would lead you to believe, the first-person setting is more of a gimmick than a playable mode. The switch from one perspective to the next is so fast and bewildering that it's almost impossible to follow the ball until it's right on top of you. When you're up at the plate, the view is zoomed in so much that you can't tell if a pitch is in the zone or not. The developers tried to compensate for these shortcomings by dumbing down the CPU, but this just makes things worse.
Otherwise, the list of modes is about what you've come to expect from any decent baseball video game. The typical exhibition, playoffs, season, and franchise options are available, as are four other modes that you've no doubt become familiar with under different names in other games. The GameCast mode is a weak knockoff of the manager mode from EA's MVP Baseball 2004. It allows you to both simulate each at bat of a game in progress and make substitutions during the game. But unlike EA's version, you can't call for steals, bunts, intentional walks, or beanballs. You can, however, dive into the middle of a game--to start playing it normally--whenever you like. The duel mode replaces the home run derby from World Series Baseball 2K3. Basically, each player chooses one pitcher and one hitter from around the league and then competes to see who can throw the most strikes and score the most hits off of the other player. The situation mode is new in ESPN Major League Baseball, and, just like the first-person mode, it's a throwaway option that's too buggy to actually use. In theory, you're supposed to be able to change a variety of options--such as the inning, how many runners are on base, and who is at bat--to set up your own what-if scenarios. Unfortunately, the game goes crazy when you play this mode. CPU pitchers will issue intentional walks to human hitters for no reason, and runners will score from third even after the final out is made at first. Sometimes, the CPU will even put you in control of the wrong fielder when the ball is hit. Talk about sloppy programming. Thankfully, none of these problems occurs in the game's other modes.
This is what you see while batting in the first-person mode. It's impossible to tell where the pitch is going.
The fourth new play mode is called GM career, and it's basically just an enhanced variation of the franchise mode. In the GM career mode, you not only have to set the lineups, make trades, and sign free agents, but you have to do so while keeping the owner happy at the same time. Each owner has a different outlook for his team and sets different goals for the GM, based upon that outlook. If the owner is an investor-type, with an eye toward making money, he'll give you a modest budget and will ask you to put together a team that can stay near the top in the standings. Sign Sammy Sosa to this owner's team and he'll beg you to get rid of this expensive contract before the season starts. On the other hand, if you work for a maverick owner who's driven to make the playoffs, he'll give you a bigger budget and will let you pick up a few top-rated players. Your ability to satisfy the goals set by the owner affects the budget you get for the following season and helps to determine whether or not your contract is renewed when it expires.
Since the GM career mode is an offshoot of the franchise mode, it's not a bad idea to play through a few seasons in the franchise mode to get the hang of setting lineups and making player transactions before you add an irate owner to the mix. The franchise mode is deep enough to satisfy even the most devoted baseball buff. You're in charge of every aspect of the team's roster. This includes drafting players, making trades, and participating in offseason signings, as well as setting lineups, managing the disabled list, performing minor-league call-ups, and deciding when to give your players some rest. Tired players don't perform as well on the field, so it's necessary to provide a day off once in a while. In addition to paying the players you sign, you also have to spend money on the managers, coaches, and scouts that support your team. This support staff isn't just window dressing either. Good coaches will keep veteran players at the top of their games longer and will help minor leaguers progress into All-Stars. Player progression is one of the better aspects of the franchise and GM modes. A young player with an A-level of potential is destined to turn into a superstar within a few years, while a rookie with a C- or D-level of potential will likely remain a journeyman player during his entire career.
Accomplish the owner's goals in the GM career mode, or you'll be fired.
The main drawbacks to the franchise and GM career modes in ESPN Major League Baseball are the same shortcomings that were true of World Series Baseball 2K3 a year ago. The minor league system still only has one level, as opposed to the multitiered systems that you'll find in other games--especially MVP Baseball 2004. One minor league roster is more than enough to hold onto draftees and second-string players, but it's easy to be envious of the actual AAA and AA teams that MVP Baseball has. The ability to participate in spring training games is also absent, which is disappointing, since every other game currently available has this feature. Besides these omissions, everything else you could want is here, including CPU-instigated trades, fictional rookies, minor league development, weekly and postseason awards, retirements, Hall of Fame inductions, historical statistics, statistical tracking in more than 80 categories, and so on.
It's a shame that the first-person and situation modes are so broken, and it's too bad that the group over at Visual Concepts didn't go further to flesh out the game's baserunning interface or minor league setup. What you need to consider, however, is that the game's other modes--exhibition, playoffs, duel, season, franchise, and GM career--are perfectly playable. Furthermore, the pitching, hitting, and fielding interfaces do a wonderful job of simulating what actually happens on a baseball field. Some aspects of ESPN Major League Baseball may look sloppy, but the game is great where it matters most.