MVP Baseball 2004 Review

MVP Baseball 2004 is the follow-up to last year’s baseball game that set the genre on fire from its relatively boring slumber (Sega’s World Series Baseball was truly the gem of the genre). Gone were the lackluster Triple Play games of old and in its place was MVP Baseball 2003 headed by EA Canada, one of Electronic Arts’ best development houses. I really liked the game last year and really looked forward to see what EA Canada did to fix my 7 key problems from last year:

  • Computer not swinging at balls no matter how close to the strike zone they are

  • Fielder AI allowed In the Park Homeruns

  • Fielders would jump or dive with no human interaction

  • First baseman coming off the bag quickly, getting some calls he shouldn’t

  • Double plays were difficult to pull off

  • Runners were a little too ambitious and I didn’t feel I had much control over them

  • Home runs were difficult to come by

Dynasty was also a good first effort for a brand new game.  From initial previews and hype it seemed like franchise mode was going to be everything and a bag of chips.  We’ll find out later if that was true or not.

You’ll see whether they fixed the above problems in the Gameplay section of this review. Needless to say, EA Canada has made a better game this year with a more robust franchise mode, but there are some glaring problems that will make people who have a thing for franchise modes run in fear.

Graphics are generally lackluster in this game. World Series Baseball 2k3 is still the best overall graphics in the baseball genre, but this game does do some key things better than WSB 2k3. The first of which is the player animations. Instead of having the “snapping” batter animations in WSB (where a ball narrowly misses the player and he ducks out and then he “snaps” right back into batting stance with no smooth transition), MVP Baseball 2004 moves fluidly, showing you everything move your player makes. Even once the ball is in play the animations are better and more dynamic than WSB 2k3.

Where this game falters is generally in everything else, at least on the Xbox version (can’t speak for the PC version as of yet). The stadiums are lifeless. The 2D crappy looking crowds barely move, flags and clouds stay stagnant (although some stadium specific stuff is in here like the train at Minute Maid Park in Houston) no matter if the wind is blowing or not. Time doesn’t move in a real fashion. Let’s say your game starts at noon, it conceivably won’t be done until 2pm or after, but you’ll see the same shadows you saw when you began the game. The sun never moves…granted, I’m sure this is a tough thing to implement, but someone has to be able to do it at some point, right?

Just looking out at the stadium as you pitch or bat will make you insane as you see grass with no definition and jaggies on the pitching mound as well as anywhere dirt and grass meet. When replays come up you will see jag-filled outlines around players as they go through the motions. Now, these things may look sharper in 480 or 720p or 16:9, but I can’t test that unfortunately.  The game moves very well, but to the person that really looks at stuff they will see things they don’t like.

Overall the graphics are a mixed bag. Obviously if you are into baseball games for this section alone it would behoove you to pick up ESPN Major League Baseball when it comes out because they probably will not have radically changed graphical assets for the new year.

EA has thankfully thought outside the box and not given us a rap heavy soundtrack for this sports game. Only problem is that Xbox owners cannot put their own soundtracks in the game like you could with other EA Sports games. The songs are good, although I will be honest and say I didn’t recognize any band names (or maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough). Music only plays during lulls in gameplay and while you are in the menus.

The sounds in this game are excellent. I’m a Twins fan, so my home stadium is the Big Inflatable Toilet (also known as the Metrodome). What I found to be cool was that they had the little things that are done in the Metrodome in the game. The organ sounded the same, the crowd sounded the same and it was nice to see the section of legends that are in the right field upper-deck so brilliantly represented in this game. When the game is paused you can hear hecklers and people calling for hot dogs or peanuts. Granted, it doesn’t get you in the game as much as WSB 2k3‘s hecklers in the stands, but it does a good job.

The announcers do a pretty good job as well, although they like to say “That was almost a great play” a little too much as a hit ball goes just past the shortstop or 2nd baseman. I got real tired of hearing that because it was obviously not as close as they think it is. The other tiring phrase was by the color commentator constantly saying, “Take the pine, meat!” In fact, he has an obsession with the word “meat” for some reason. I would say the team lacked a bit of excitement though, except for the homeruns. They do a good job, but dare I say even Madden and Michaels do better in the Madden series, and that’s saying a lot.

Control has been refined quite a bit this year. You have more control over your fielders than you had last year, although you can still have the computer help you. The good news about that is that the computer isn’t going to just take over the fielding duties. This year EA Canada has implemented new hit control and base running control. The hit control is done with the left analog stick and you can attempt to control your hits and where they go.

The other big thing is the base running control, which is controlled by the right analog stick. You can dive headfirst into a base by pushing up, feet first by pushing down or you can do an angle dive by pushing diagonally.  Of course, the problem with stealing bases is that it is pretty much a broken dream once you try to implement it.  A great deal of time on sliders will probably yield good results and allow you to steal at a higher rate.  Christian Guzman is the fastest player on the Twins I believe and he only got one stolen base because the catcher overthrew shortstop.

The right analog stick also helps you when you field. You can dive left or right by pressing left or right on the analog stick and you can jump up or dive by pressing up or down on the analog stick. #3 on my list last year talked about the auto jump and dive fielders would do, now you have control over what they do and they no longer do stupid dives for balls they think are just out of their reach.

The pitching engine is back this year and I still say it is the best pitching setup out there. In fact, I hear ESPN Major League Baseball is borrowing it somewhat. Having control over the speed and accuracy of your pitches is just a wonderful thing in my mind and is easily the biggest thing the MVP series has given us so far.  Much like the stealing though, this section is somewhat broken as you cannot bait the CPU batter into chasing a pitch.  This means you have to paint the corners in order to get strikeouts.  Randy Johnson doesn’t paint corners, he just launches fastballs at close to 100 MPH to take out batters, doesn’t happen here so much.

Also making a repeat appearance are the throw meters that determine how hard a fielder throws. You have the option to turn this on or off.  It is a great addition to the game and even with it off you do have light or hard throws depending on how hard you depress the base button.

As I said in my Introduction, this year is better than last for MVP Baseball. They fixed many of my problems and this game is generally just fun to play. I honestly don’t remember the sliders being so robust as they are this year and this allows you to tweak the game to make it more simulation-like or action-based. I actually like the balance this game finds between those two extremes. The WSB series is a heavy simulation game, although you can turn it into an action-based one as well.

MVP Baseball 2004 gives you a lot to do. You can do a Home Run Challenge, a Pitching Challenge, do a quick game and do Franchise mode. Within Franchise mode you have power over your organization. You control the money, trades, rosters, etc. or you can have the computer do them for you. In this year’s iteration you can also play your AA and AAA team games as well. Players that have been drafted and have contracts are represented in the minors in this game though. It’s cool to have all those games to play, but you’d have almost 400 games to play if you did your AA, AAA and Major League squad games…and that doesn’t even include the playoffs!

Let’s get my problems from last year’s game out of the way first before we go into what is wrong with MVP Baseball 2004 this year:

  • Computer not swinging at balls no matter how close to the strike zone they are – still a problem in this game and sliders so far have not been able to fix this problem.

  • Fielder AI allowed In the Park Homeruns – still not the best it could be. Early on you will give up a lot of triples, but once you switch to aerial view for fielding and get used to the controls you should be fine and shouldn’t allow fluke triples or ITPHRs.

  • First baseman coming off the bag quickly, getting some calls he shouldn’t get – fixed, although another problem has shown up. Seems as if runners like to not step on home plate, yet they are called safe. Yep, replay shows that the player didn’t put his foot on the plate, yet he gets a score. I did have one time where my player went back to touch and got tagged out.

  • Double plays were difficult to pull off – still difficult, but better than last year. The key problem this year is that the AI runner is very adept at getting in the 2nd baseman’s face and not allowing him to turn the double play. Although this does happen in real baseball, it doesn’t happen at the rate it does in this game IMO.

  • Runners were a little too ambitious and I didn’t feel I had much control over them – they still seem to have their own minds, but it is easier to control them. There have been a few times my runner has gotten caught between two bases without me knowing what I did.  The stealing bases section is still in a heap of trouble though as you will be lucky to pull any off.

  • Home runs difficult to come by – not this time around, they’ve struck a nice balance between last year’s MVP where hitting a home run was hard and the previous Triple Play series that were home run festivals.

So, EA Canada fixed a lot of the things that were wrong in my mind last year, but there are a myriad of problems that rear their ugly head in this year’s game.  Some things come over from last year, others are simply game killing for any person interested in franchise mode and don’t have the PC version of this game.

Around baseball season I try to go to the Operation Sports forums, basically the place where all sports enthusiasts go to talk about new games.  The baseball and football sections are obviously the largest in the forum, but within about 48 hours of a game’s release you will know what is great and what is horribly wrong with a game (if there is something).  Many of the problems have been repeated in our forums via this thread:

  • Steals are broken – yep, they are…then again, so were they in the WSB series until the sliders were tweaked.

  • CPU does a poor managing job – can’t argue with that, although it seems like no baseball game can truly get this right. A company has to decide whether they are going to go for the hardcore crowd or those just looking for a fun game of baseball.

  • Outfielders being slow – yep, they’re slow, however you can tweak it with the sliders, but possibly not to the equality level most would want

Then there’s the big one: Franchise mode, much like NBA Live 2004‘s, is busted (Check out Bill Harris’ Night Call from March 15th for some astute observations from him and Bill Abner, a well-respected sports game reviewer).

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it is true. For the first year of your franchise you will have a great time, but once you go beyond year one get ready for trouble. Forum members over at Operation Sports have done some extensive research into it and I personally ran a 3 year simulation of this game and came up with the same findings. I took my Twins through 3 years. Everything worked peachy keen the first year, then things started to fall off. Funny thing was they owned the best record in the league in the first season (but didn’t win the World Series) and then had the worst record in the league the next even though minor changes were done to the core team. Granted, I had to let go of some people, but they had capable backups that were close in abilities with the departed players.

The problem with franchise mode is that over time the players don’t seem to develop their abilities. Young players also do not develop much outside of the first year and it creates a league where the old (we’re talking 36+ year olds) players are kings and the young players are pipsqueaks in the stats.  You could even have a hot young player coming up to the big leagues, sim a season past the first one and he will be nowhere near even the middle of the stats table.

NCAA Football and Madden have done a good job with this in my opinion and it’s sad to see EA Canada flub this one up pretty badly. Maybe they should sit down with Tiburon and find out how they pull it off. I’d say there are just as many ability stats in the MVP series as there is in the Madden series, although that is just a guess on my part.  If this type of problem showed up in NCAA Football or Madden I think a lynch mob would be sent to EA and Tiburon headquarters to “take care of things”.  MVP is still a pretty low sales performer, so there isn’t as much at stake as there is with Tiburon’s games in the grand plan of things.

What we’re left with is a game that is fun to play for the first year of franchise mode or against human players. There are a variety of sliders that you can tweak, but I don’t think any of them can fix the franchise problem. This game is a heck of a lot of fun to play, it just seems they forgot about the franchise mode on the way out the door.

There is a chance, as talked about in Bill Harris’ column, that the PC version can be fixed by the gaming community.  I don’t think such fixes will be available for the console versions though, which is very sad.  I also don’t see EA re-printing this game like they did for the Madden 2004 import roster fiasco.

The problems mentioned above don’t help this game get a respectable score here. Don’t get me wrong, the game is fun to play, but if you’re looking for something with a robust franchise mode you’ll want to look elsewhere. The problems with minor player ability upgrades in franchise really hurt this game in the long run, especially for people like myslef that like the franchise modes in sports games. It can’t stand up to its EA Sports cousins like NCAA Football and Madden, which is too bad because this series still has a lot of promise.

The other side of things is that if you like playing other people or you have the PS2 version and can play online, you will probably find a lot to like in this game. There is a problem with the PS2 online component in that you can only play with your #1 pitcher at the beginning and the #2-5 starters are not at tip-top shape to sub in. If you’re looking for some meat though, you may want to revert back to World Series Baseball 2k3. That is at least until ESPN Major League Baseball comes out, but who knows if that is going to be any better than last year.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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