This year's wild card.
Baseball games are unpredictable; you never really know what you're going to next from one season to the next. One year, a game will bring all the right components together and simply smoke the competition. The next, it will develop in the wrong directions and fizzle on store shelves.
Such, I fear, is to be the fate of Sega's new ESPN Major League Baseball. Though this franchise has degenerated only a little over the course of a year, its nemesis at EA, MVP Baseball, improved quite a bit. The resultant gap between the two is, unfortunately, pretty noticeable.
The modes appear to stack up well at first. You can play a Quick game, Season, Playoffs or Franchise as well as GameCast mode, Duel Mode, Situation Mode and GM Career Mode. Plenty of options, to be sure, but often quantity does not equal quality.
GameCast mode, which allows you to make tactical decisions in a simulated game without actually playing, lacks many of the options included in MVP's equivalent Play-by-Play mode, such as the ability to call steals or have a pitcher bean a dangerous batter. Duel Mode is a nice touch but ultimately unrewarding, letting you pick a batter and a pitcher and have them compete for hits and strike-outs, respectively. Even though it does little for me, I'm glad the developers aren't simply letting a Homerun Derby mode stagnate on their main menu.
In Situation Mode, you can manipulate several variables (innings, outs, count) to create a customized baseball situation. Generally this means putting your team in an insane circumstance and trying to pull off a win in the face of enormous odds. The idea is fine, but just isn't remotely as rewarding as when a strange situation comes up over the course of a normal game. More interesting variables to modify (such as your batter suddenly being struck by food poisoning, perhaps) would have helped.
Things pick up in GM Career, basically a goal-oriented version of Franchise Mode. The goals are dictated by the owners (some want you to win; others want you to make intelligent fiscal decisions), and if you fail to meet them you'll be fired. At times, this is a compelling approach that examines the sometimes stormy relationship between GM and owner. Sadly, it usually dwindles into you merely trying to reach some pre-set goals rather than really fostering the feeling that you're in a tug-of-war with the bigwigs.
ESPN MLB isn't scared of adding new features, but perhaps should have been when they decided to throw in First-Person Baseball, a completely disorienting way to play. There's no more sense of scale or strike zone when you're at bat, and when you're playing defense the screen changes are so fast and leave you so clueless that you'll never be able to react in time to a ball hurtling your way.
A far better new feature is player confidence. If a pitcher gets hammered three times in a row or so, he'll take a huge hit to his confidence level and start throwing pitches way off mark. Since placing pitches has become more difficult this season, this can be devastating. If you screw up and get walloped in the first inning, your pitcher will have a minor freak-out, even if he's as cool as Pedro Martinez. The system is a good one and adds momentum to games, though I think it could use a lot of fine-tuning.
Speaking of fine tuning, the pitching scheme has changed slightly. You can now select from a greater number of pitches than before by pressing the corresponding button, then placing the pitch, and then throwing it. Power Pitching allows you to hold down the button to essentially charge your pitch. The more you charge, the more heat/movement you'll get and the greater toll the pitch will take on your pitcher's arm. It all works well enough, though isn't as smart or refined as the system found in MVP.
Batting in ESPN has been dumbed down since last year's World Series game by the removal of the batting cursor. It's now merely timing-based - press the stick in the direction it looks like the pitch is headed to score a hit. Pitches also seem to travel at a relatively slower rate in ESPN than in other baseball games. The default batter point of view is great, though, especially how it puts the pitcher directly inside the strike-zone window. Way to be a swinger with your big wood!
New to fielding is the turbo button, which is helpful when chasing fly balls but useless in the infield where sharp grounders will nearly always get away from you. But fielding is rarely much fun to begin with, so no harm done.
Graphically, ESPN MLB is a bit of a disappointment. Player faces seem to be textured separately from the rest of the skin, leading to a weird mismatched effect, and they look strangely fuzzy from a distance. Even though numerous animations have been added, some crucial animations have been left out, leading to herky-jerky transitions between players' postures. The fields look good and the framerate is pretty steady, though.
The game fares better in its sound. The effects are ubiquitous albeit well done and the announcers, Jon Miller and Rex Hudler, aren't terrible.
Perhaps the best feature of ESPN MLB is its online play for both the PS2 and Xbox, which doesn't mean much for PS2 owners who can also play MVP online, but can mean big things to Xbox owners who were left in the dust again by EA. Though Xbox Live! is a smoother service than the PS2 online matching system, it works fine on the PS2.
ESPN MLB isn't a bad game at all, but is functionally a step backwards from last year's game and just can't quite keep up with MVP. If you're a total ESPN nut or have a thing about updated rosters and online play, then ESPN MLB might not be a bad purchase. However, its funky modes and weird tweaks leave this game a couple balls short of a full count.