If you've ever read my columns around this time of year, you know that I'm a baseball fanatic. When MVP BASEBALL 2004 showed up for my review, I could hardly keep it from my Xbox (yes, it finally displaced NINJA GAIDEN). While ESPN was my favorite choice last year, MVP is a solid game in its own rights.
The best way to break the game down is by the different elements so we'll start with the all important pitching. As a pitcher you have up to five pitches in your arsenal. Each pitch has its own button. You aim the pitch with a cursor (that fades after you move it) and then hold the specific button to determine the power/effectiveness of the pitch. When you release it, it will snap back towards a green area of the pitch meter. To get an accurate pitch you need to hit the button again in the green area.
As pitchers get tired, the green area becomes smaller for the most effective pitches. You'll have to counter-balance effectiveness vs. accuracy. It makes a huge difference, and you'll see your ace pitcher starting to give up a few more hits around the 60% stamina area.
The game allows you to warm pitchers up, visit a pitcher on the mound (which could give the pitcher a stamina boost, no boost, or a penalty) and sub in pitchers. All in all, it's fairly comprehensive.
But when someone does connect and fire a ball into play, you'll have to control the fielders. I pretty much have no complaints about the infield play. There are a few minor bugs, like when someone throws a ball in that dies in the infield and no one goes to get it thus giving up an extra base. The outfield has some issues. Players move too slow and it results in a lot of triples and even inside the park homers. The game allows you to bump them up a bit which can result in a slightly more realistic game.
The hitting works pretty well too. The key is learning how to best hit the pitch that is coming at you. First of all, you must time your swing. There is no aiming cursor instead, you can try and hit a pop fly or ground ball by pressing up or down on the control stick and to the left or right field by pressing left or right. This seems too simplified at first, but generally where you aim the ball makes all the difference.
There are a few other nifty features including the ability to control the runners slides with the right analog stick (which side of the back, head or feet first, or trying to kill the catcher on a play at home). One slide even helps to break up double plays (although it's executed far too successfully). When fielding, diving catches can be made with the right analog stick also something that occurs a bit too often.
All in all the game plays pretty well. There are also all of the typical features you'd expect from an EA Sports title including a Dynasty Mode. The Dynasty mode gives you a lot of options and makes you deal with the how the players are feeling. Things that can affect this include performance, playing time and the biggest thing for baseball players: money.
There are also home run derby and pitching duel modes, as well as the ability to earn points to buy retro stadiums, players and uniforms. It's a nice addition to a pretty good game.
The game looks great, until you look at the sky. I literally thought that I was playing in a dome once when the shot showed the ball in the sky. Actually, I realized I was playing a night game at Yankee Stadium and that the hard lines of the blue clouds looked like a roof. Other than that, the game looks pretty good, there are even some polygonal crowd members for those up close replays.
The sound is excellent in the game. While the commentary gets old after about 20 games, the crowd is excellent. The music in the game is also quite good and the licensed tracks help give the game that cool feel as each player comes to the play. The sound effects and music rise above everything else in this game.
MVP BASEBALL 2004 is a worthy competitor this year. It's been tuned and the gameplay works really well. Baseball fans should take it for a spin to see how it suits them.