EA SPORTS comes running onto the field with the sophomore release in its MVP Baseball series, MVP Baseball 2004. At the plate, the new "Pure Swing System" is designed to give players improved control, with the ability to swing for the fence, pull the ball down the baseline, or swing for an opposite field; players have command of each type of swing for every situation. With this edition's new character control system, called "Big Play Control," players will be able to leap walls to rob home runs, drop down for a hook slide to avoid being tagged out, and even bully the catcher at home plate to force the extra run.
EA SPORTS has also included minor league teams from the AA and AAA classes, such as the Durham Bulls and Toledo Mud Hens. In "Dynasty" mode, players can build up their team through the farm system, negotiate contracts, and maintain team chemistry using information from unique player personality models. In "Manager" mode, players control the game from the dugout, using a collection of strategic, per-at-bat decisions -- call the steal, have the batter go deep, or lay down the sacrifice bunt. Players can even have the pitcher go after a batter with a bit of chin music.
Also new in MVP Baseball 2004 is the Cooperstown Collection, featuring legendary players outfitted in their authentic jerseys. Have the Babe reclaim his home run record, or add to the Georgia Peach's career batting average. Classic stadiums from yesteryear, featuring era-specific lighting and textures, are also included, to round out the feel of nostalgia.
Last spring, EA Sports unveiled its brand new franchise, MVP Baseball. It marked a new direction for the company as it meant the end of the much maligned Triple Play Baseball series. The first edition of MVP for the PC was more of a sampling of what was supposed to come in future versions. It was a good first effort, and introduced one of the best pitcher/batter interfaces in the history of the genre, but it suffered the expected growing pains of a new sports series. The follow-up, MVP Baseball 2004, is much better than the original, but there is still work to do before it's considered an elite sports title in the same league as NCAA Football and Madden.
MVP 2004's pitcher/batter interface remains top-notch; in fact, it's almost identical to last year except that the CPU hitters now take strikes and miss pitches in the strike zone. Working the corners and getting hitters to chase pitches is an absolute blast.
It takes a while to learn how to hit with any kind of consistency. MVP 2004 doesn't use a cursor-based hitting model found in other games; it's a bit simpler than that. If you press up on the analog stick the hitter tries to hit the ball in the air. Pressing down induces a grounder and if you leave the stick alone he tries to line the ball. It sounds simple, and it is, but getting your timing down will take a lot of practice. Timing is everything in MVP and until you master this part of the game, you should expect a lot of low scores and very few home runs.
There's also a wide array of hits in the game from Texas Leaguers to Baltimore Chops. The game doesn't become stale and predictable; each at-bat is an adventure that can take on a life of its own. You can foul balls off your foot, hit long fly balls that just barely go foul, or line shots that ricochet off of an unsuspecting pitcher. It's all here.
Another thing that MVP does extremely well is focus on the game and not the fluff. So many baseball games take too long to play a full nine innings. MVP 2004 takes a page from the now defunct High Heat Baseball series in that you can play an entire game in about 30 to 35 minutes. The focus stays on the action.
There is a myriad of gameplay sliders to help players adjust the gameplay to their liking. You can alter things such as pitch speed, batting contact, batting power, running aggressiveness, and so on. Sports gamers are a fickle lot, and allowing for such customization is important.
Just like all new EA Sports games, MVP 2004 provides many extra goodies to discover. As you achieve certain goals, you earn MVP Points that can be spent unlocking special items. However, unlike a game such as NBA Live where you unlock frilly things like new shoes and headbands, in MVP you unlock old time ball players like Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Ty Cobb -- all of whom are modeled brilliantly. Not only that, but old time parks such as Crosley Field and old Tiger Stadium are included, as well as several retro uniforms like the classic 1979 Pirates and the rainbow Astros. It's a baseball fan's dream.
It's a shame that with so much going for it that MVP 2004 fails to cover all the basic fundamentals of baseball. There is an extreme lack of walks in the game as pitchers are pinpoint accurate. In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference in the control of a power pitcher like Kerry Wood and an accuracy specialist such as Greg Maddux. Drawing one walk per game is reason to celebrate, and when pitching you will only give up a walk when you choose to do so. It's just way too easy to throw the ball where you want it.
There's also a severe lack of steals. In fact, after 30 or so games the CPU has attempted a grand total of two. Add in that the CPU will never, ever try a hit-and-run play and the game loses some of what makes baseball special -- there's no tension when a runner like Ichiro is on base. You know he isn't going to run, so why bother even holding him on first?
Finally, the pinch hit/substitution AI is downright baffling. A common problem is that the CPU will allow its pitcher to bat in the bottom of an inning and then yank him at the top of the next inning before he's even faced a batter. Things like this really take the shine off what is otherwise a highly enjoyable game.
EA Canada spent an awful lot of time adding a smorgasbord of features to this year's Dynasty mode (even though the rosters are ancient -- dated January 15th). On paper, it's enough to make a baseball fan's heart explode with anxiety. Just how ambitious is it? It allows you to manually play your minor league games. In fact, the game comes with real life AAA and AA teams, such as the Durham Bulls and the Columbus Clippers, and real minor league players. Drew Henson, for example, is on the Clippers roster at third base. You can even play spring training games to see how your youngsters perform against big league competition.
During the season, a league news page presents you with interesting nuggets of information such as if there's a disgruntled player in your clubhouse or if another team has placed a player on the trading block. While some of the info is kind of useless (the team scout reports are a waste of time) the news screen does an admirable job of sucking you into the league's world.
Sadly, while Dynasty mode is filled to the rim with features, it's almost unplayable in its current state. First, the stats are a little iffy to say the least. If David Wells wins the Cy Young Award in 2004 with the Padres with a 23-4 record then pigs are due to start flying any minute. In fact, many low scale teams do quite well in MVP 2004. The Reds, for instance, are a perennial pennant winner despite the fact that their pitching staff is downright horrid. In one season the Reds closer, Chris Reistma, saved 54 games with an ERA of 6.40. It just doesn't make any sense.
Stats are a subjective thing, though; who would have predicted that the Marlins would win the World Series in 2003? Unfortunately, the strange stats and results are only the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg. There's no position player fatigue so unless a player gets hurt he's going to play a full 162 games. The CPU roster management is laughably bad because each team carries 15 pitchers and ten hitters. So during the course of a game the computer has access to only two pinch hitters/substitutes. It is inexcusable for a game with so much depth to screw something like this up. Most CPU teams don't even carry a backup catcher.
Finally, the player development is broken, which in the end truly kills this mode of play. Young players take forever to develop into marginal major leaguers. So after a few seasons the league is filled with nothing but mediocre young players, and in the end all of this makes running a franchise pointless.
EA Sports is known for its top-notch presentation, and for the most part, MVP looks slick. Player models are merely fair and the faces on some of the players look downright ugly, but the animation is second to none. It's a beautiful game to watch in action. Infielders perform sweep tags, players do a myriad of slides -- it's just a great game to look at despite the average player models. The stadiums are gorgeous; no other PC game to date captures the feeling of playing in a big league park as well as MVP 2004.
Multiplayer is both hit and miss. When it works, it's an absolute blast, but it's terribly buggy. It's prone to locking up and when a player steals a base it has a tendency to start over in the first inning or reset the score to 0-0. These bugs don't show up every game, but when they do it ruins the experience. The safest way to currently play a multiplayer game is to agree with your opponent that no one steals a base, otherwise there's a good chance something will go awry.
MVP Baseball 2004 is one of the most ambitious baseball titles ever released, but with so much on its plate some significant problems slipped through the cracks. These issues are all fixable and the core game is very sound but it needs another year of work. Unfortunately, that's what we said about last year's game, too.
If you can live without walks and the lack of steals and you don't care about Dynasty mode then MVP 2004 is a surefire winner. But for those that want to sink their teeth into all of the features that the game offers, you can't help but be a bit disappointed.
People who downloaded MVP Baseball 2004 have also downloaded:
MVP Baseball 2005, High Heat Major League Baseball 2003, Triple Play 2001, Oldtime Baseball, Microsoft Baseball 2001, Hardball V Enhanced (a.k.a. Hardball 5 Enhanced), Madden NFL 07, Front Page Sports: Baseball Pro '98
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