With Opening Day just passing us by, it’s time for a nice baseball review.  With that in mind, we’ve got 989 Sports’ MLB 2006 at hand to play around with.  In the past few years, 989’s sports titles have lagged behind a bit, especially with EA in the picture and more recently Sega / 2K Games.  So the question is, how does MLB 2006 match up against the others in the fight, and most importantly, is the game any fun?  Hopefully, we’ll find answers to these questions and more.

Even though this is a baseball game, you can’t have horrible graphics ruining the fun.  You want to see the ball flying out of the park, the dirt flying as someone dives in the infield, the pain on an outfielder’s face as he slams into a wall full-speed….you want it all.  Luckily, for the most part, it’s all here.  The graphics are very nice with a good amount of detail.  One of the best graphical things I’ve found was when watching someone run to first.  The runner hit the bag, took one step, hopped, and collapsed to the ground.  Then the game goes and pulls a replay, slowing it down even more.  Obvious injury, and it was incredibly cool to watch.  Broken-bat-singles are here, and they look realistic as well with the bat splintering and flying into the infield.  Players look good, facial features are believeable, and the parks are nice looking.  Speaking of the parks, there are 3D-animated intros to them, and they’re very beautiful. 

Just about the only real complaint about the graphics is more in the variety of them than anything else.  A close-up of the crowd during a spring training game showed 4 people in a crowd of 20 that looked and moved the exact same, as if they were cloned and moving in sync.   The crowd itself seemed a bit flat, but the ‘cloning’ was really detracting from the immersiveness.

Commentary in the game is handled by Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell.  Unfortunately, it almost seems like neither of them are truly up on the game.  I’m not sure where the problem is, but the commentary seemed a bit sparse and somewhat reptitive.  Granted, this is a problem with nearly every sports title on the market, but it’s still a problem. 

As far as the music goes, 989 and Sony seem to have gone the EA route and licensed fifteen songs for their soundtrack from known bands such as Saliva, Papa Roach, Young MC and Chevelle with a handful of lesser-known bands.  The music spreads from hip-hop to various flavors of rock, and it isn’t bad at all. 

Overall, since you’re here to play baseball, the commentary is key, and unfortunately it just dosen’t hold up over the long run.

It was surprising how easy the new Release Point Pitching, which is very similar to MVP Baseball’s Meter Pitching with the exception of choosing your pitch before you actually place and throw the pitch, made it to hit corners and play with the strike zone.  Batting was similarly simple as was throwing.  Running took a bit more getting used to, especially stealing, but it was still all relatively easy to pick up.  The controls themselves were tight, players moved as you would expect them to with various movements of the analog stick and buttons.  The only awkward control bit is when you’re trying to guess the pitch with the R2 button and decide to choose the pitcher’s 5th pitch, which is the R1 button.  Beyond that, though, there really aren’t very many things to complain about with the controls.

Baseball is baseball.  The challenge in making a game is trying to get it to behave in ways similar to the game actually plays out in real life.  Of course, when you interject a human player into it, their personal skill gets involved as well.  Luckily, there are a variety of sliders that you can play with to fine-tune the game exactly how you want it.  This is especially true in Franchise Mode, where you can choose how to train your players, what scouts to purchase and managers to hire (four of each at a time), and where to spend your money on research.

There’s also no shortage of game modes, with exhibition games, season mode and a robust franchise mode all included.  The gem (for the most part) is the new Career Mode, where you create a player, choose the team you want to go for, and start out in Spring Training.  If you do well over the three-week period, you’ll get a contract and be assigned to either AA, AAA, or (rarely) the major leagues themselves.  You’re given at least ten years to play with to try to increase your player’s stats.  You can request a trade, call out your team or manager, ask to be moved up in the batting order, negotiate your contract…and even play the game.  It’s very nice, and adds an almost RPG-like quality to the game.  If they continue to expand and tweak this mode, it’ll be very nice indeed in the future.

Unfortunately, everything’s not roses with the gameplay.  First off, the loading times are horrendous for a game this late in the console’s cycle.  Going into and out of a game requires between twenty and thirty seconds of loading each, which can really be a major pain if you go into career mode and are only interested in doing your character’s at bats, for example.  Also, when I popped this game in my PS2 on Opening Day, I presumed that I would be able to get updated rosters that accurately depict Opening Day rosters, which had generally been set a few days previous.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case, as the ‘updated’ roster had numerous problems with it.  Checking the Houston Astros, I noticed that one player is in the wrong position, one that has been injured for five months (at this point) is listed as healthy and starting, and a few others aren’t even on the team.  This is highly dissapointing, although it can be corrected over the course of the season with more (and faster) roster updates from 989. 

The other problem, found personally and reported on a number of forums, is a problem with the game locking up.  After discussing this with Sony and 989, we were told that Sony is aware of the issue and looking into it.  Luckily, the issue itself seems to be very rare, so judicious use of save games will save a lot of problems on this. 

All in all, the gameplay is quite solid, with a few flaws here and there, but still a good effort.

There’s a lot of depth in this game, and that’ll give the game itself a lot of playing time.  Between Franchise Mode and Career Mode, an avid baseball gamer could spend months playing this.  The Home Run Derby is great for a group of friends, and there’s also online play, although very few people seem to be online, but that could just be an issue with this reviewer’s personal playing times.

So the question is, is MLB 2006 worth $40 when MVP Baseball is $30 and Major League Baseball 2K5 is $20?  This, unfortunately, is the biggest problem.  It’s hard to pay $40 for a game when games which are as good if not better are cheaper.  MVP 2006 has minigames and both MVP and MLB 2K5 have significantly more people playing online. 

While the game is a very good and solid effort, it just dosen’t match up with its superior competition.  Next year, though, may be the time to move with 2K Games having exclusive third-party rights to MLB in 2006.