Most valuable indeed.
I recently went to a batting cage for the first time in about ten years, thinking I would smack a few balls, flex afterwards for the ladies and then go enjoy a cool one in the arcade. So I paid my fare, popped on a helmet (with the facemask, of course; a toothless geek is a sad sight) and strode bravely into the cage. Assuming a complicated and emotionally draining stance, I awaited the first pitch. As I saw it travel down the chute, I tightened my mighty grip, and when it finally came firing out at me I closed my eyes and swung.
And then, something interesting happened. I felt my first thumb-knuckles roll over on each other and grind together. Then, as I winced, I let go of the bat completely in mid-swing and flung it against the side of the chain link cage. The resulting clatter attracted lots of attention; several batters hit the deck and several children began to cry. So, I passed on flexing (the only people looking were a bunch of angry parents, anyway) and opted for Plan B: run crying to my car.
The moral of this story is that if you're an uncoordinated geek like me, you can still enjoy playing baseball…just not real baseball. Take EA Sports' new MVP Baseball 2004, for example. With a decent selection of modes, lots of cool details and wonderful play mechanics, MVP provides a ton of baseball goodness for those of us whose massive craniums far outshine our need for strength or coordination.
The Dynasty Mode has been juiced up from last year's version. Now you have access to all of the MLB teams as well as AAA and AA teams (although I won't be satisfied until I can play as my Stockton Ports), and as a result can send players to the minors as well as pluck any diamonds from the rough. Player emotions provide an interesting new element, with individual players becoming happy or sad depending on factors such as pay, performance and play time. This can make managing your team a bit trickier, and definitely adds some meat to Dynasty.
It's great seeing a game actually start to tackle the emotive aspect of the sport, though I imagine there are more interesting things going on behind the scenes than is indicated by the relative cleanliness and purity of games like MVP. What about juicing up players? What about dealing with drug problems and keeping gold-diggers away? It might make it hard to get that coveted official MLB license, but the future possibilities here are truly enticing. Hehe.
Another interesting mode is the largely text-based Manager Mode. In this mode the player is mainly concerned with the game's strategic elements. You make decisions about what types of strategies you want your players to employ and watch the game unfold, influencing its course play by play. This is a nice laid-back way to enjoy baseball, especially if you're really bored, and is a great break-time activity if you're in the middle of doing something else.
Other modes include Pitching and Batting showdowns and a Scenario Editor. The Scenario Editor allows you to create and play a variety of scenarios by manipulating factors such as inning, pitcher fatigue, count, and so on. However, putting yourself in insane circumstances is never as interesting as finding yourself there through the natural course of events in a game. Pitching and Batting showdowns are great ways to get used to the pitching and batting mechanics of the game. Generally, you compete against another pitcher or batter and try to reach a goal such as hitting for a mile or striking out so many batters before your rival.
The play mechanics are unilaterally well done, particularly the usually thorny fielding issue. This is due to the integration of lots of interesting little factors into the fielding scheme. Not only do your fielders power up throws via a meter that determines strength as well as accuracy, but the meter varies from player to player and from situation to situation. As a result, you'll actually be able to make great plays with great fielders and feel the limitations of that right fielder whose name you don't know because he isn't any good in real life.
Taking a cue from the success of NBA Live's Freestyle control, EA serves up Big Play Control scheme - a nice touch, even though it doesn't exactly deserve its own name. Basically, all your ubiquitous outfield commands have been mapped to the right analog stick, so by pressing Down you can dive and catch and by pressing Up you can leap for a ball or climb the wall in desperation. Big Play Control is also implemented in the running game and is a much more important feature there as it gives you many more options. For example, not only can you slide by pressing Down as you near second, but you can actually hook-slide by pressing Down and Left or Down and Right. Even cooler is the ability to put a lick on the catcher when you're heading for home plate. While varying degrees of illegality in attempting this maneuver would have been welcome, the collisions included are pretty adequate.
Pitching uses the same cool charge meter that was introduced last year and is still better than what you'll find in any other ball game. Each pitcher has several pitches and varying degrees of proficiency with each. It functions much like a swing meter in a golf game - press a button for strength, and again for accuracy - and makes pitching interesting. As innings wear on and pitchers wear out, it becomes harder to throw accurate pitches.
However, the batter is always at a slight advantage in MVP Baseball. Generally, if you time your swing right you can hit any ball thrown in the strike zone. Since timing is the key factor, it's not too hard to get around on any pitcher, even if he's throwing 96 mph fastballs. Swing just a tad early, and you'll at least make contact. If the degree of verisimilitude bothers you, many in-game factors can be manipulated to make things run parallel to your sensibilities. Of course, there are limitations. If there weren't, every time my batter rushed the mound after getting hit by a pitch (pretty rare) he'd bring his bat with him. Oh well, I'll keep dreaming.
Graphically, MVP is fine thanks to numerous cool animations and a consistent framerate. While the different versions suffer from the maladies or benefit from the graphical boons of their respective systems (i.e. the Xbox is marginally sharper than the others), none are recommendable over the others from presentation perspective. The game looks fine, and it doesn't sound bad either. The crowd noise is nicely varied and the announcers are completely unremarkable.
Online play is only available for the PS2 version and works decent enough. While the fact that the game can be played online at all on the PS2 gives it an edge over its console counterparts, you shouldn't feel too left out if you own a Gamecube or Xbox, as MVP's real strengths lie in its single-player experience.
MVP Baseball 2004 is a great baseball game across the board. Solid in every department, this one will be hard to top simply for the fact that it has very few weaknesses. While other entries might feature better stat-tracking or deeper Dynasty modes, they'll be hard-pressed to be as well-rounded as MVP. A very fair ball.