I don’t pick up sports games often. Really. I usually let my friends talk me into playing hockey or football when there are four of us together and a multitap handy. So when MLB ’06

I have played this game on two different setups, and the visual differences were amazing. My standard home setup is a 26 inch television on which the game looks really good. The menus are easy to read, even when they are crowded with statistics and other information. The game itself looks really nice when you hit the field, with some great time of day visuals. I loaded up an exhibition match using our local team, the Texas Rangers, and found myself standing at home plate. The stands of The Ballpark…er…Ameriquest Field at Arlington streched around me, and looked amazing. I was honestly impressed at the amount of detail put into this field and the others included in the game. They didn’t want these stadiums to be recognized, they wanted to put you in the there with the teams.

After ogling the pretty menus and graphics for awhile, I went to a friend’s house, and put the game up on the JumboTRON. Well, not quite as large as a Sony JumboTRON, but it was a 73″ Mitsubishi television. It looked pretty good. It suffered a case of jagged edges and some roughness around the models much like other PS2 games do, but looked very good at HD television resolutions. There didn’t seem to be much lag from being upscaled to HDTV sizes either, keeping gameplay smooth the whole time. (This same setup gives us problems with Guitar Hero, forcing you to play the note about half a second in advance of the dot hitting the bottom of the screen.) No matter the case, this is a game to play on the largest possible TV screen you can get your hands on. Why? Because once you get into the gameplay, it stops being a game and starts being an MLB broadcast.

Speaking of the teams, these aren’t basic models with numbers and names stamped on them. They put some detail in the models and animations, keeping them very smooth. Players jog around the field, catch, throw, slide, and sprint in a very realistic manner. Motion capture really paid off on this title, and just furthered their goal of immersing you in the game.

The music for this title was very well chosen, using modern rock and hip-hop tracks to provide a background to the menus. They picked some up-and-coming bands to provide high energy tracks to back otherwise boring menus of player stats, drafts, league news, etc. It serves its purpose, focusing me and getting me all worked up to sit and play a game.

During the game, there is no music, but three commentators instead. Three of MLB’s lead commentators provide (according to the game) 35,000 lines of dialog. It sounds very natural and works well, until you invest any amount of time into the game. Then you start to learn the ten or so phrases that are said during pitches. It gets old after awhile and I turned off the announcer voices after five or six games into my first season. It isn’t really a negative though…considering that you have to find some way to attach sound clips to a set series of events. The only way to get around the repetition issue is to attach an AI that can speak and make color commentary. Maybe on the PS3 version?

This is going to be one of the easy sections to read. If you’ve played a console baseball title in the last four years, there really isn’t much new here. The controls for the pitching, batting, and fielding are pretty straightforward, and usually have an onscreen guide for the pitching and batting. A nice added feature for this title is a complete listing of all the controls in the help menu. If you forget how to force a runner, a quick check can show you the command.

There are really two levels of gameplay that you need to evaluate on a title with this many options. First up is going to be the ‘on the diamond’ play. This is really a well done interface for a game. They try to make it look like a sports broadcast while still giving you the information that is needed to play. It is a slick interface, and it can be customized to show as much or as little as you want. Gameplay at this level of the game is very direct, and not outside the norm for baseball titles.

The other major level of the game is in the menus. When you are not on the diamond, it is possible to manage your team over a whole season or even control the fate of a single created player working their way through the major leagues. This is the part of the game I was completely floored by. I’m not a baseball player, and I’ll swing at any old junk you throw my way, but let me loose on player stats and management, and I’ll put together a team that should win on a regular basis. Really, the depth of this side of the game had me engrossed for several hours at a time, much more that I expected. I was able to play the ’06 season several times over, and just let the system simulate all my games. It was beautiful, and I could see who would win the World Series in a little over forty minutes if I kept my meddling to a minimum. (For the record, The Texas Rangers made it to the Finals or Semi finals based on their pre-Spring Training roster.) It truly amazes me that more sports fans aren’t into Role Playing Games, or vice-versa, because at this level of the game that is what you are doing, managine statistics and calculating possible results. As a manager I could also sit in on the games and make substiutions as I saw fit, to maximize the ablities of my players. I didn’t have to swing a bat once, but I watched every pitch, hit, and throw to see how my team was doing. It was a great way to enjoy some baseball.

I know I said that there were two sections that must be examined in depth, but the customization must be mentioned somewhere. Throughout the game there are various sliders, and they control how much the computer helps with your pitching, fielding, batting, etc. Through these sliders, it is very easy to have one player playing on Veteran with no assistance, and still have a Rookie difficulty player be able to compete with them.

With the SportsConnect site providing the multiplayer hub for this game, it is easy to make use of the best part of this game: online multiplayer. By simply setting up an account you can log in, join or start tournaments, play pickup games against an opponent, check out Major League Baseball news and much more. The features that the site provides create a strong hub of information and opportunities for play that many other PS2 Online titles lack. You can even download updated rosters for the 2006 MLB season, letting you update your teams to reflect trade changes, and post Spring Training cuts. While Sony doesn’t say how long they will provide updated rosters, I would expect that you could download rosters through the ’06 season at the least. I wouldn’t mind being able to choose which roster update I want to download(in the event I want to pick from early season or late season) but that is a minor complaint. As a small added bonus, the PSP version of the game uses the same site, and you can track your games for both versions though SportsConnect.