Sega's sports lineup has been positively evolving for the past few years as developer Visual Concepts has worked to find its groove. The Northern California-based developer has been garnering critical acclaim for its sports titles since it first vaulted into the gaming limelight with its impressive offerings on the Dreamcast. The latest and arguably most focused evolution of VC's sports games has come about thanks to the acquisition of the ESPN license, which has recently become the new brand. This year's edition of VC's baseball franchise, ESPN Major League Baseball, features a number of improvements over last year's game, including online multiplayer support. This year's installment in the series is once again the result of a joint development effort between Visual Concepts and developer Blue Shift. The collaboration between the two companies has taken the series in a positive direction and has also managed to make it a legitimate contender in the genre. We recently had the chance to take an exclusive look at the upcoming game, which is slated to hit the PlayStation 2 and Xbox next month.
You'll find that the basic assortment of modes in this year's game is joined by some impressive new additions that should definitely please sports fans. Quick game lets you immediately jump into a contest. The innocuous "game modes" option is the heart of the game, and it features eight different types of games from which you can choose, including GM career, franchise, season, playoffs, exhibition, gamecast, duel, and situation. GM career is a new franchise-style mode that lets you play the general manager of a team as you make key trades, pick up needed players, and make vital organization decisions while trying to keep your owner happy so that you can keep your job. Each team has an owner who has a different personality archetype (for example, there's the maverick, the dictator, the fan, and more), and each owner has a different focus for team development (for instance, one may want to improve the team, one may want to make money, one may want to win, etc.).
Your owner will give you goals at the start of the season that you'll have to work toward, and during the actual season, he'll give you additional goals. For example, if you're the LA Dodger's GM and a four game series with the SF Giants is coming up, your owner might give you a goal to win the upcoming series with the Giants. Unlike the game's normal franchise mode, which offers unlimited play, the GM career mode is only 30 years in length. This adds a different level of urgency to the gameplay.
The gamecast feature offers some pretty neat elements that help suit your experience to the game. Specifically, gamecast lets you simulate a game, which is presented to you as if you're watching the game on ESPN.com. While this isn't anything too special, the cool twist comes in the option to hop in and take direct control of a game at anytime. This feature works in both franchise and GM career modes. The duel is another new mode that offers a fast-paced in-game-style experience. You'll pick a batter and a pitcher to go up against another batter and pitcher. You'll play one inning with five outs--and an out can be made by getting a strike against a batter, forcing the batter to hit a foul or get an infield hit, or having the pitcher catch a pop fly. Remember, there are no fielders in the game; there's only a pitcher and a batter. The pitcher scores points by striking out the batter, and the batter scores points by hitting balls in to the outfield--and the further you hit the ball, the more points you get.
The coolest new addition to the whole package is the first-person baseball mode. Hot on the heels of this slick feature's inclusion in ESPN NFL Football, VC and Blue Shift have opted to work some first-person magic into ESPN Major League Baseball. The game will feature two modes of first-person baseball--first-person and action cam. First-person is truly what you'd expect it to be, so you'll engage in everything from pitching and batting to fielding and baserunning all from a first-person perspective. Action cam is a unique combination of both the first-person perspective and an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective. The online multiplayer component of the game will support the PlayStation 2 network adapter and Xbox Live, both of which are welcome firsts for the series.
The gameplay mechanics have seen some changes and tweaks, which appear to have resulted in a very strong game of baseball. The pitching system has been revamped and now includes seven new pitches, which makes for a grand total of 17. While you'll find some expected pitch additions, the development team has included some more obscure ones, like the slurve, the palmball, and the circle-change. The pitching meter includes a new effort meter that fills up when you hold down the pitch button. The effort meter serves as a pitch modifier that will let you add more speed to a fastball, provide more movement on a changeup, etc. Using this feature decreases your health meter faster, and it can also make you miss your spots more frequently, thus forcing you to use it wisely.
You'll also find some other tweaks, like a turbo boost for fielding that enables players to run faster to the ball or lets them throw the ball more quickly. The game also features bare-handed grabs, new dive animations, and new wall-catch animations that are now situation-based (so that the look of the animation will change depending on what angle and position the fielder is in when he executes his jump against the wall). You'll notice that cutoff-man throws have been retuned and cursors have been removed from the pitching/batting interface.
A unique new feature in the game is the confidence meter, which affects each player's abilities as it rises and falls based on his game performance. For example, if a pitcher routinely strikes out the opposing batters, his confidence will go up. However, if he concedes a three-run home run that gives the opposing team the lead, his confidence will understandably sink. The meter will affect players differently depending on their positions. For example, a pitcher will be much more accurate and have a better chance of staying in the game for a longer amount of time if his confidence is high. The same holds true for a batter who will make better contact with the ball if his confidence is high. While we weren't able to try them, the online modes for the games will offer voice chat and leaderboard support for broadband play with a friend.
The graphics in the game have been overhauled, thanks to a new engine that bumps up the visuals from last year's game while maintaining a high level of overall quality. You'll find more unique player faces on the teams, and you'll find redone ballparks, in addition to the inclusion of Petco Park, which is home to the San Diego Padres. Player uniforms have also had some work done on them, and more than 20 retro uniforms have been added to the game, which is something of a mixed blessing since some of the new outfits make a case for rampant color blindness in the old league. Visual tweaks, such as new dirt effects and lighting, are also on hand to add some polish to the game's look. Furthermore, a new batting-camera angle has been implemented that offers better depth perception. Despite the shift to a new engine and all of the additional upgrades, you'll still find that the game runs smoothly. The PlayStation 2 game looks and runs well, but as you'd expect, the Xbox version rocks the house with its crisper visuals and pretty swank 720p HDTV support.
The audio in the game is coming together nicely and features a good mix of sound that paints an immersive soundscape. You'll hear the expected sounds of the game nicely represented as you play along. And, of course, you'll also hear some "good punctuation" in the form of sharp cracks of the bat.
From what we've seen so far, ESPN Major League Baseball is shaping up to be an assured follow-up to last year's game. It presents a nice array of new features that don't outshine what we liked about last year's game. Moreover, the online play is definitely welcome. ESPN Major League Baseball is slated to ship next month for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Check out our exclusive interview with the game's producer on our media page.