With the start of the baseball season just getting underway, its time to practice your renditions of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” ready your gloves for homeruns or foul balls, and prepare to stretch during the seventh inning. While fans of the sport are gearing up to support the Boys of Summer through their opening games, the gaming industry is looking forward to releasing a ton of baseball titles. One of the first released for this season is MLB 2004, the latest version in 989 Studios spring series. Known for its meticulous attention to statistics and details, MLB 2004 tries to redefine its play with heightened attention to in-game action for this year’s edition.
To this end, MLB 2004 features the usual modes that baseball players have come to know and expect. Quick Exhibition matches, All-Star games, the ever-popular Home Run Derby and Playoffs make their requisite appearance. Seasons are featured as well, although you can specify whether you’re going to play a one-player or two-player season, providing additional competition between friends (simulated games notwithstanding). In Career mode, you can track the success and failure of either an individual player or a team, following their progress over a ten-year span. While choosing a team is self-explanatory, choosing a player involves creating and placing a new player on a squad and following their progress. Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the lineup, you can take advantage of your farm team, bringing up potential stars and demoting poorly performing players to the minor leagues.
Franchise mode is slightly similar, although you’re provided a randomly generated team of players to win the World Series with. What augments this mode is the reward system attached to player feats, which assigns points for home runs, shutouts, or streaks, which can then be used as leverage in trade agreements for new players. Gamers interested in the intricacies of drafts or trades may want to check out Franchise Manager mode, which places the reigns of the draft squarely in their hands. Those of you who are actually interested in checking out the game from a rookie’s perspective may want to take a look into the Spring Training Mode, which gives you a chance to earn your way onto a major league team, working your way through the farm system. If playing isn’t your thing, but you’d rather be an armchair leader of a squad, the Manager mode simulates gameplay based on specific lineups, pitching substitutions and other choices that you make for your club.
Obviously, once you get into a stadium, the game breaks down into the four basic components of baseball: pitching, hitting, fielding and base running. What’s interesting about MLB 2004 is there’s a decent balance of action and strategy present within the game itself. The Total Control Batting system is a prime example of this. While not a required aspect of play, it can provide tighter manipulation over your ball placement, giving hitters a better chance of getting on base. See, regular batting is based on aligning the hitting cursor with the ball as it crosses the plate. Once a batter decides to enter the system, they are presented with a strikezone for each hitter, along with previous pitches that have been thrown. Hitters are given a few seconds to guess where the next pitch will be thrown, along with what kind of pitch it will be. Accurately guessing will enlarge the hitting cursor, giving batters a better chance to knock one out of the park. However, incorrect choices will shrink the cursor significantly, making a solid connection with a ball very hard.
Graphically, MLB is a mixed bag of solid animation and graphical flaws. For example, character models are decently sized, and animate well. While there’s some facial animation and attention to stadium details, a majority of the attention was paid to making sure players looked realistic. For example, catchers going for a pop fly will pull up from the plate and wave off other players before making a catch. Similarly, you’ll notice outfielders making Willie Mays-style basket catches and climbing the walls to rob teams of homers. Camera angles are reminiscent of those that you’d see within broadcasts of baseball games; however, there are some moments when the camera won’t display the best angle for the onscreen action. Additionally, there’s way too much time placed into windups for both pitchers and hitters between each pitch, forcing you to manually cut through the animations to continue play. Finally, the crowd within the game is practically lifeless, consisting of bland 2D cutouts that stand or sit at random, no matter what happens on the field.
Speaking of the crowd, sound is practically non-existent within MLB 2004, which is both a blessing and a curse. While you don’t want to hear a musically enhanced ballgame that rises and falls based on the in-game action, you want something indicative of an outing at the ballpark. For example, with the exception of the National Anthem strains that play before you enter a park, there is practically no music to be found within the game at all. Similarly, crowd reactions are few and far between, which makes the game a quiet, almost meditative experience. In fact, this is merely broken by commentary from Vin Scully and Dave Campbell, although their banter back and forth doesn’t come across completely natural, primarily because of the long stretches of silence.
Finally, there are some problems that can be found within gameplay that undermine the creativity of the title itself. For one, the control can be a wee bit questionable. I agree with the idea of having each one of the four buttons on the gamepad correspond to their respective bases on the baseball diamond. However, the largest problem I ran into was a counter-intuitive system of button presses and directional controls for base path running. Some of them seem contrary to one another, such as pressing up to advance home from third base. Secondly, errors are practically impossible to commit, even when the ball blatantly falls in missed coverage. There are also moments where the game will assign coverage of a pop fly to a player who is nowhere near the ball, which can sometimes lead to a blown play on a deep hit. However, what’s worse is the odd behavior that hit balls exhibit, especially as they’re being thrown to bases. These aren’t flukes, mind you; they happen on every single play for both the computer and player alike and break the believability of the sport. First, balls that are hit straight will actually curve towards defensive players that attempt to make a play on the ball. The first time I saw this happen, I dropped the controller in disbelief. What’s even worse is the fact that players will get called out even though they’ve beaten the throw to a base. On a forced play, a runner can’t be called out if the baseman has to jump to make a catch. In MLB 2004, this rule is shockingly absent and will rob you blind of bases that you rightfully earn.
MLB 2004 is one of those tricky titles that have a lot of fun, interesting features, but the gameplay unfortunately sabotages much of them. The Manager, Farm System, and Career modes offer tons of promising matches to players who are willing to dig deep and get into the baseball stats, development of players and front office control. Additionally, the Total Control Batting system is clever and nicely implemented. However, the lack of sound, suspension of the rules of baseball (and at times, physics in the case of wildly curving balls) and control scheme limit the promise that this game shows. I definitely think that if some of these kinks can be ironed out, 989 Sports could have a home run contender on its hands; as it stands now, we’re looking at a nicely hit double that steals third base.