MLB 2006 Hands-On

989 Sports steps up to the plate for another go at its Major League Baseball series. We take a look.

Last year's MLB 2005 proved to be something of a breakthrough for 989 Sports' PlayStation 2-exclusive baseball series. While the company had a near-brilliant track record during the PlayStation era, the PS2 offerings had mostly been lost amid the shuffle of EA, Sega, and Acclaim franchises. However, MLB 2005 brought the series to a standout level, providing one of the best franchise modes on the market, along with solid gameplay, solid graphics, and an enjoyable online mode. MLB 2006 will be the logical follow-up to this past year's title, and 989 is confident that it will continue to build on the momentum 2005 brought the company. We had the opportunity to take a quick look at the new features in MLB 2006, and from our brief outing with the title, it seems as though the game's on the right track.

MLB 2006's franchise mode will see a number of tweaks to its interface and general level of restriction.

In terms of gameplay, most of the new changes we saw weren't remarkably drastic in any way, but rather, they seemed like nice bonus upgrades. For instance, one new feature is the game's method for fielding the ball. Each player has his own rating when it comes to fielding, and now this comes into play when you try to field the ball. Basically, when a ball is put up in the air, a large icon appears on the field that reveals a rough area where the ball should land. If a player's fielding stat is good, the icon will shrink, giving you a more precise concept of where the ball will inevitably land. Conversely, if a player's fielding stat is low, then that icon will remain larger, meaning you'll have to do a bit more guesswork. Another added feature is the new pitch meter. The pitch meter seems to work similarly to other sports gaming meters in that it involves timed button presses to set both strength and accuracy. The higher you set the strength of your pitch, the faster you'll have to be to throw an accurate one.

On the batting side of things, not a whole lot has changed. However, there is one addition that comes in the form of a new first-person batting camera that can be accessed before a pitch. The point of this camera is to allow you to look around the field to see how the defense is playing you. This is important because the game's artificial intelligence has apparently gotten a fairly significant boost. As a result, it will play batters and runners much more realistically.

Features-wise, MLB 2006 will include quite a number of tweaks and adjustments to the already deep-and-involved franchise and career modes. The franchise mode will be especially improved in terms of its interface, primarily with regard to being less restrictive. Some of the new setting features we got to take a look at included such things as secondary positions and trade settings. Secondary positions are exactly what they sound like, so they let you assign a secondary field position for a player. So if you've got a shortstop you also want to use as a baseman, you can do so without much loss in terms of play quality. Meanwhile, the trade adjustments we saw mostly came from setting what we wanted from other teams. Basically, you can make known exactly what kinds of player positions you're interested in filling, and the computer trade logic will adapt itself to your needs. There will also be an improved scouting system that lets you set exactly what positions you want your scouts to focus on.

In the game's career mode, which is totally separate from the franchise mode, you'll play entirely from the perspective of an up-and-coming major leaguer. You'll begin by going to spring training with a specific team, where you'll audition for a spot on its final roster. Eventually you'll (hopefully) work your way up to major-league stardom. Though we didn't get to see much of this year's career mode, we did see some of the different ways you can interact with your team's management personnel. Coaches, for example, will leave you locker room notes that explain what you need to work on and what you're doing well. These notes are specifically tailored to your performance, so they should be pretty detailed. You'll also be able to approach management to discuss such things as your amount of playing time or your dissatisfaction with the current batting rotation. In fact, you can even demand a trade. Each of these demands/suggestions has its upside and downside. Complaining or demanding a trade at the right time could be a huge boost for your career, but doing so at the wrong time could send your career into the tank.

Realistic batting rituals for nearly every major leaguer can be found in MLB 2006.

Graphically, MLB 2006 seems to represent a slight improvement over last year's title, with many changes coming in the form of animation. Specifically, 989 has gone and re-created the batting rituals for basically every notable player in the MLB. You'll see Sammy Sosa engaging in his famous kissing routine, while Nomar Garciaparra will go through his own long and involved ritual. The same goes for home run celebrations as well, so all players with notable celebrations will be represented in the game. 989 also told us that it plans to put a full range of facial expressions on each player model, though these facial expressions were not currently available in the build we checked out.

All told, we came away from our time with MLB 2006 pleased. We look forward to spending some more time with the game soon, so, as always, keep checking back with us for future updates on MLB 2006 between now and the game's springtime release date.

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