The pitcher-batter duel is one of the most complex interactions in all of sports. The number of head games that can transpire between a pitcher and a batter over the course of a single at-bat would put a soap opera ingénue to shame. Pitchers are always looking to work weak spots in a batter's swing, while batters are consistently spying and scoping out a pitcher's release, looking for patterns to exploit while in the box. As such, these subtleties between these two players are among the most difficult to capture in sports video games. With the latest baseball title from EA Sports, MVP Baseball 2005, the publisher-developer has tried to capture some of these details to add realism to pitcher-battle duels. We recently sat down with a preview build of the latest MVP game to see just how these upgrades affect the game.
The most obvious gameplay tweak in MVP 2005 is from the batter's point of view. Not only has the batting camera been tweaked slightly to bring the pitcher closer to the action (thus pitches don't seem to arrive from center field any longer), but also pitches are now color-coded according to pitch type. Breaking balls, for example, are red, while off-speed pitches are green, and fastballs are white. Pitches even include a contrail that will lengthen as the pitcher tires during a game. This color-coded approach to batting, dubbed the "hitter's eye" in the game, is meant to re-create the process hitters go through when trying to spy a pitch before it crosses the plate, whether by reading a pitcher's hand position at the top of his throwing arc or noting the position of the ball's seams in the pitcher's hand. These subtleties are, no doubt, difficult to re-create in a video game. Pitchers who do a good job of hiding pitches before their releases, such as Greg Maddux and Dontrelle Willis, will be more immune to the hitter's-eye feature, as pitcher windup animations are based on their real-life Major League Baseball counterparts.
It's important to note that the ball color only gives the batter information on the family a particular pitch belongs to. It makes no special differentiation, for example, between a curveball and a slider, or between a two-seam fastball and a four-seamer. In addition, there's no early indicator of where a pitch will land. All that a batter has to work with is a bit of extra information regarding the pitch type and, thus, the type of motion the ball will undergo before it reaches the catcher's mitt. Of course, for skilled players, this may be all the information needed to make solid contact.
For those who lack long-ball skills, the game's pitch-swing analysis mode lets you view a replay of the last pitch thrown from a variety of angles. During the replay, an outline of the pitch will appear as it travels through its arc, and the opportune timing window of a swing will be outlined with yellow and green color coding, which is perfect for timing those off-speed pitches.
Of course, batters aren't the only beneficiaries of gameplay tweaks this year, because pitchers also get in on the action. Mechanically, pitching is much the same as it was last year. You'll still choose a pitch type, and then you'll enter the familiar arc-shaped pitching meter to determine pitch power and accuracy. Instead of last year's all-or-nothing accuracy zone in the middle of the arc, however, MVP 2005's pitching meter has been subdivided to account for both spot-on pitches and good pitches that only slightly miss their marks. Nail a pitch perfectly in the center of the arc, and the ball will go exactly where you aimed it. Miss just slightly to the left or right of that thin green sliver of perfection and your pitch will miss to the left or right accordingly.
You're Outta Here!
Game management should be easier in MVP 2005, because the developer has strived to make crucial game information more accessible to players by making it unnecessary to press the pause button. Pressing the white button on the Xbox controller, for example, will give you information on the opposing team's lineup, as well as providing batting information on the current player at-bat. If you're interested in how Sammy Sosa fares in power hitting against right-handed pitchers, the information's there for you. You'll also be able to make managerial decisions, such as infield and outfield alignments, mound visits, pitching changes, or defensive substitutions, all on the fly.
One final managerial touch that's realistic, if not always helpful, is the ability to argue calls. Disagree with an ump's pitch judgment (and EA assured us there will be blown calls in games) and you can bring your manager out on the field to give that ump a piece of your mind. If you're truly annoyed, you'll be able to fill up an aggravation meter by repeatedly hitting a controller button to really let the official have it. Get too fired up, however, and your manager will be tossed from the game, and you'll no longer be able to make decisions for your team for the rest of the game. On the flip side, your tantrum may just inspire your players to perform at heroic levels for a few innings.
MVP 2005's owner mode is this year's answer to the popular franchise modes found in most baseball titles. In addition to controlling the team of your choice, you'll also have the opportunity to build a ballpark from scratch, as well as set ticket prices, run promotions, and manage your minor leagues (this year the game includes single A ballclubs)...all with the aim of putting a successful team on the field, both in terms of championships and finances. The ballpark setup screens lets you configure not only the look of your park, but also the configuration and distance of your walls through a number of predetermined settings.
Once you've got your ballpark set up, or once you've settled on one of the current or historical parks available in the game, you'll be ready to progress through spring training and in to the regular season. In owner mode, you'll be able to set up special promotional days on your calendar, where you can give away items such as team calendars, baseball caps, or keychains, in an effort to entice folks to come to the park to see your team. Each promotional event costs money, however, and your promotional budget is only so big.
Keeping your fans happy, whether through wins or bobblehead dolls, is just one of the things you'll need to think about as you progress through the season. You're expected income numbers are noted at the beginning of the season, along with a running tally of your year-to-date revenue, expenses, and net income. These numbers will change throughout the season based on your financial performance throughout the year. The more money you make, the more items (such as concession stands, team stores, and ballpark attractions) you can purchase to upgrade your stadium, which keeps the fans--and the dollars--rolling in.
In terms of presentation, MVP 2005 looks very similar to last year's effort, though the game will include new animations for whiffed swings, double-play throws, and fielding errors. Some of the dumb animations that frustrated players in last year's title (such as pitchers who didn't hustle to the bag on ground balls to first base) have been fixed this time around. On the audio front, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow return for broadcast booth duties this year. Though the game's rosters should be finalized soon, the developer assured us that an online roster update will be available once the game is released.
Though we're still in the doldrums of winter, baseball video games are beginning to heat up as we creep toward the opening of spring training. With its subtle and effective batting tweaks, several pitching and batting minigames, and online play on both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, MVP Baseball 2005, now in the series' third iteration, looks to be in good shape for its spring release date. We'll have more information on MVP Baseball 2005 in the coming weeks, as well as a full review of the game once it's released.