A student of the game.
There's no doubt about it - the roster
is the MVP of sports gaming. What else could possibly explain the way sports fans make their annual migration to a game store to pick up the latest entry of their favorite sports franchise? It might seem crazy that a list of names and sound bytes could influence a title's sales so, but it actually makes sense. People aren't just fans of the teams, they're fans of the players, feeling joy when their fielder achieves a record sum of home runs and depressed when their star breaks his ankle. If a game tells you a certain 3D model is that guy, it almost makes it as though you were that guy.
Nobody knows this like EA, whose masterful roster management has turned Madden into the most dominant video game franchise of all time. So it's surprising and a little uncanny that they've released MVP 06 NCAA Baseball, a title with some stunning new features but no roster with which to sell them.
In this college baseball sim, EA has created a cheap farm league where new ideas can get some play time before they're called up to the majors. Though it doesn't do well with its Dynasty and delivery, the game includes revolutionary hitting and fielding mechanics and a slew of ways to play, making it a pretty good start for the new graduate.
The most impressive new mechanic is the load and fire batting system, which sort of emulates a golf swing. Instead of timing a button press as the ball flies over the plate, you pull the R-stick back to wind up a swing as the pitcher delivers, then push the R-stick forward to swing at the ball. Contained within this simple mechanic are subtle power and accuracy factors. The longer you pull back, the more power you store, but pull back too long and you'll lose control of your swing. Alternately, you can improve your accuracy by pressing the R-stick in the direction of the ball when you swing. If, for example, the pitcher tries to hang a curveball over the right corner, pressing forward and right on the R-stick will improve your chance of nailing it.
You can control where it goes from there in two different ways. Swinging earlier or later than normal will pull or push the ball, respectively, and you can swing for either power (fly ball) or contact (grounder) with the touch of a button. Although we'd really like to see power and contact factored into the analog control somehow, all these features combine for the most realistic, involved batting scheme to date.
Fielding received a similar treatment but with very different results. While analog diving and jumping is old hat in baseball games, throwing to the bases with the R-stick is brand new. Frankly, we prefer the old face-button system, because placing your dives and your throws in the same analogous basket leads to some of the most erroneous errors we've ever seen. To whit: if you press the R-stick right in an attempt to throw to first base a split second before the game registers the catch, you'll leap away, kind of like I would if someone hit a hot grounder my way.
One problem with the scheme is the way they tried to adapt it to the old MVP '05 system, where you would charge up a throw before releasing it. You still charge your throws, but now there are two weird indicators. Figuring out what they're telling you without some serious experimentation is almost impossible.
Another noticeable difference between fielding here and in the majors is the crazy errors that don't have anything to do with analog stick issues. Since your players aren't anywhere near major league caliber, they don't play like it. They screw up throws and drop balls a lot, which can be frustrating, even if it makes perfect sense.
Since you can't play as anybody you know, NCAA Baseball allows you to create players to your heart's content. However, this system and its relationship with the Dynasty mode are a few runs short of a grand slam. Creating your character's appearance is definitely better here than in a major league game because you can make some seriously deformed weirdos, but it actually gives you too much freedom with his attributes and not enough guidance.
Once you've crafted your bow-legged, pin-headed pitcher, the game lets you set his pitches, their speeds, movements and accuracies, how well batters will hit them, and how well your pitcher will hit. Making your created players uber or awful in an area is easy, but knowing what stats an average college player should have is impossible. Instead of giving you free reign, player attributes should be rolled, like in Dungeons and Dragons.
Furthermore, if you roll an amazing created player, you shouldn't necessarily just be able to put him on your Dynasty team, as you are able to do in this game. In spite of the fact that you can populate your team with an army of incredible created players, Dynasty mode is pretty decent in NCAA Baseball. You get points to spend on recruiting, and you gain more points to spend by meeting team goals. It's a good, sensible system.
And it's in good company, too. There's a Tournament mode, a Home Run derby, Online play and a couple mini games, all of which are identical to their MVP counterparts. Joining them is the new offline Cooperative mode. Here, one player bats while the other base-runs, or pitches while the other fields. It's a good idea, although it's a shame EA didn't take it even further with four-player games.
They also could have spent more time on the player models and fields. Neither benefit from the slew of visual tricks and tools we know EA has up their sleeve. The players are boring, textureless models, the fields are drab, and even the framerate seems lackadaisical. Just from looking at it, you'd never know that this was actually a good baseball game.
The tasteful commentary might give it away. Mike Patrick does a fine, understated job of calling the plays, while Kyle Peterson, as the color man, is at least fun to imitate. There's nothing fun, though, about the terrible music haunting the menus and mini-games. Fortunately, you can turn it off.
While you can certainly do the same to MVP 06 NCAA Baseball, you may not want to. Sure, it lacks the licenses and loving treatment given to the major league games, but it's innovative enough for to warrant a go. Although some of its risks don't pan out, we still recommend recruiting this surprisingly skilled kid.