When EA decided to do an overhaul of their Triple Play series, the main question raised by fans was whether or not the changes would appear to be merely cosmetic. While many people were pleased with the emphasis that MVP Baseball 2003 placed on simulating the feel and flavor of baseball, even more decried the startling lack of depth in the Franchise mode and graphical errors that seemed out of place in the game. In some ways, it looked like it was “back to the drawing board” for EA. Thankfully, their latest attempt, MVP Baseball 2004 addresses all of these concerns while providing a much deeper game experience at the ballpark.
The first thing that EA focused on was overhauling the batting mechanics to provide a tighter offensive experience, a control scheme they call the Pure Swing System. Some baseball games essentially confine swings to either power chops or bunts, relying instead on the timing of the stroke to determine the outcome of the ball placement. MVP 2004 instead lets players control the placement of the ball by “pulling” or “pushing” the ball in specific directions. This can also be used to club balls directly into the ground for singles or sacrifice plays, or pop balls up as you attempt to go yard. The best thing about this system is that it’s simply tied to the direction of the Left thumbstick as contact has been made with the bat. For example, you can place a ball down the first baseline by aiming towards the base itself. While hot and cold zones still pop up for a batter to indicate the possibility of successfully making a big play, missing a pitch can result in an incredibly embarrassing replay of your whiff at the bat. Oddly, however, you have just as much of a chance cranking a ball out of the park that’s pitched wildly out of the strike zone as one that’s pitched right across the plate, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Once you’ve managed to get a runner on base, you get to engage in another new feature of MVP 2004, that of Big Play Control. Unlike other titles that simply control the basics of running along basepaths or stealing bases, Big Play Control lets players isolate and control each individual runner. For example, you can advance one player to get a jump on a hit ball while giving the order to another to steal a base. Even better, you can string these commands together to confuse human and computer opponents alike as well as save time during a play. The coolest part of Big Play Control baserunning is the ability to control exactly how you’ll slide into the bag. Aside from going in head first, players can also hook slide to either side of a base to avoid getting tagged by a baseman. Runners can also attempt to slide feet first and pop the ball out of the hands of defenders or charge them, trying to bowl them over.
This actually becomes key when dealing with the expanded Big Play Control given to the fielders. Fielders can select and hurl a ball to any one of the bases, or specifically to a cutoff man to lockdown any extra advancement. Even more impressive is the ability to use this feature to actively perform incredible defensive plays. Outfielders can climb the walls, robbing sluggers of homeruns or catching foul tips. You can also make sliding catches to pick off short popups or make diving snags to either side of you.
Pitching has also received a large overhaul, providing a much better sense of control over the hurling mechanics on defense. Aside from controlling the speed and style of pitch as it crosses the plate, players can now make the decision to intentionally walk the batter or even bean players they don’t like (although making this choice could potentially clear both benches in a massive brawl). Pitcher fatigue also plays a major role in this year’s game, as pitchers get significantly weaker as a game goes on. While many games figure exhaustion into their gameplans, MVP 2004 features mound visits that can affect the psychological state of your pitchers. For example, if you’ve got a player who’s walking all over an opposing team and you approach the mound, you’ll probably annoy your pitcher whose energy will significantly drop. On the other hand, if you’ve been pitching a no hitter and you only need three outs, visiting the mound could pump up your player, giving him just enough juice to end the game. Balancing this with warming up pitchers in the bullpen is therefore an essential skill that fledgling managers have to become comfortable with. There is one odd thing about mound visits, however. The computer inevitably walks to the mound and warms up their pitchers way too early, pissing their players off and making substitutions when they don’t really need to. It doesn’t make sense in a real game, so I can’t really see why it’s in a virtual game. Third or fourth inning substitutions, especially without any injury or radical leap in score, is simply bad management.
MVP 2004 comes with many of the modes you’d expect in most sports titles, such as the quick “play now” mode that lets you jump into a game immediately. Exhibition mode is rather similar to play now, although you can actually tweak and control more options to set your game up exactly the way you want it to be. Along the same lines is the included scenario editor, which allows players to essentially generate any possible baseball moment ever found or reported on. This means that diehard Boston fans can redress errors that knocked them out of the playoffs, just as Cubs fans can erase the memory of a certain fan that erased their chances at the big show. Of course, as a baseball title, you expect to find a homerun derby game, which MVP 2004 provides, but it also comes stacked with a new Pitcher Showdown, which lets players fight to get a certain number of strikeouts before another player. As you play any of these modes, you’ll also add to your EA Sports Bio as well as gain MVP points, which can be traded in for legendary players, teams, jerseys or even ballparks.
The largest, and perhaps most significant mode, within MVP 2004 is the Dynasty mode, where you’ll command a major league team as well as its AA and AAA affiliate teams. Here, every aspect of your teams are under your control, from the amount of money you pay players to the playing rosters for each game. Every day, emails from around the league come in, informing you about potential decisions that may affect your clubs. This ranges from players placed on the trading blocks around the league to scouting reports on opposing teams. You can choose to act on these items or simply file them away for future use. You’ll also be informed about the status of the players on your squads as well, who are incredibly vocal about their emotions. Someone might complain about their lack of playing time if they’ve been riding pine, their mediocre performances against some teams or being underpaid if they’re having a great season. Managers have to address these gripes and problems to avoid locker room dynamics from being completely upset and team chemistry going down. This can even include demoting egotistical players to the minors to get their act together.
Once you’ve done many of the front office decisions, you can dedicate yourself to actually playing the games each team has on their schedule. However, considering that all three of your teams can be playing on the same day, you may not want to play all of them back to back. Instead, you might want to either quickly simulate a game and get a result or enter into manager mode. Akin to the text baseball simulations found on PCs, you can send in specific plays to be executed by your team and find the output printed across the screen. Even cooler, if you notice during either simulation that your team is performing poorly, you can jump in and try to rescue them from losing a game.
While incredibly deep and full of a ton of management options that lets you control many of the functions of an organization (much less three separate squads), dynasty mode is still lacking certain fundamentals. For instance, there’s no way to simply work on one team without being forced to simulate your way through the destiny of two other squads. You also can’t play playoffs or World Series specific matchups without having accurately “simmed” up to that point for your team. The rosters, while accurate at one point during development, haven’t accounted for some of the early trades within the season. Neither do they support updated rosters from online sources, so you can’t actually start out with precise teams. However, perhaps one of the largest flaws found within MVP 2004 (something surprisingly picked up by 989’s franchise mode) is the control over stadium affairs and other organizational facets that are key to a team’s survival. Considering that sports sibling Madden came up with what has been described as the yardstick for franchise modes, it’s odd to find that there’s no control over stadium expansion, acquisition of new managers in the bullpen or expansion of scouting crews into different regions of the country.
Graphically, MVP 2004 is one of the best looking baseball titles ever seen on a console. Most of the players found within the game look exactly like their real counterpart, with a few of the players looking especially detailed (perhaps developer’s favorites, who knows). Even sweeter is the augmented animations found within the game, which look unbelievably smooth and realistic. Diving catches from outfielders are rarely the same canned move, and are often based off the player and the distance that someone has to cover. Similarly, collisions on basepaths look particularly painful, especially when a large player bowls over a smaller one. And is there anything sweeter than performing a perfectly executed hook slide under a tag? Stadiums have also received a boost in graphical accuracy, and while some minor details have been omitted, they’re pretty much exactly copied as is. These extend to minor league stadiums as well, which shows off some of the non-glamorous locations of other parks, such as those within neighborhoods or other cities. It adds a level of reality when you know that a player has clawed his way up from the small time to starting in a big league ballpark. The fans have also received some more enhancements as well, providing a much more lifelike reaction to plays.
The play by play within MVP 2004 is stronger than many other sports titles, primarily based on the variety of comments found from the announce team. Mixed with solid play by play, anecdotes and other statements, there’s a natural flow to the observations made that feels like you’re watching the game on TV. Even better are the reactions from the crowd. Team specific cheers, boos when opposing sluggers step up and even random comments pop up randomly to give much more of a realistic environment in the stands. Hearing fans stomp to “We Will Rock You” or jeer “Overrated” is simply awesome.
Overall, MVP Baseball 2004 is one of those titles that rectifies a ton of its predecessor’s problems while providing a solid foundation for next year. The inclusion of both the Big Play Control and Pure Swing systems provide a natural addition to gameplay, and the Dynasty mode, issues aside, has a certain level of realism that can only be improved on in next year’s version. Now if they improve that feature and include online support for Xbox users, this will be the start of a great baseball franchise for EA.