Only serious fans will immediately notice any differences between Sports Mogul's latest sports management game, Baseball Mogul 2004, and its predecessor. The new game is almost identical to last year's, featuring much of the same graphics and sound effects. But even though it's tempting to dismiss the game as a retread, there are a fair number of tweaks and additions under the hood. Sports Mogul has adjusted aspects of the artificial intelligence to make play more satisfying in key areas like trading and finance and has tossed in a few sorely needed frills that make the game at least a marginal improvement over its predecessor.
At a glance, the text-based baseball management series hasn't changed much since it debuted in 1997, with little evidence of real evolution even after six games. All of the core concepts remain firmly in place. You still battle your way to the pennant by juggling your lineup, making trades, and setting the going rate for tickets, hot dogs, and beer. The economics are simple; you mainly use slider bars centered on average league prices, and contract negotiations involve nothing more than choosing the length of the deal. Just pick your terms and the money automatically adjusts itself. Player development is confined to a single AAA farm club with a small roster size and prospects that always seem to live up to their ratings. Free agents can be signed with no competition from rival clubs as long as you meet the player's financial demands. The game continues to be very easy to play, even for those with almost no knowledge of baseball.
This ease of use is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows beginners to build a dynasty right away, but it doesn't afford real depth of play. Its new additions don't change the game much, but at least they change the game for the better, for short sessions anyway. Most notably, Lahman Database support has been added, providing access to more than a century of Major League Baseball history. You can begin play in any season from 1900 to 2003, giving hardball historians the chance to run classic clubs like the 1927 Yankees with Ruth and Gehrig or the 1919 Black Sox. This amounts to little more than a roster patch, however, so don't expect to simulate the dead ball era or even scale down salaries. Take a trip back in time and you'll find Babe Ruth making $20 million a year in the 1920s. Player abilities aren't scaled in any way, either, so legends often seem to put up absurd numbers.
Sports Mogul also has better artificial intelligence when it comes to trading. Unlike last year, in Baseball Mogul 2004, you don't get stuck with nothing but poor trades, and you can even receive a series of fair offers on a regular basis. However, the game offers far too many trades each season, including some rather unrealistic multiple-player trades that involve a dozen or more players packing up and moving to a new zip code.
Baseball Mogul 2004 also has a new finance system so that players now get paid in dollar amounts rather than in points. It's also easier to draw in fans, and therefore bring in more money, unlike in Baseball Mogul 2003, where finicky fans made it extremely difficult to hold on to your top players if you had a couple of subpar seasons. But in Baseball Mogul 2004, the problem has been reversed. While you can compete with big-market teams like the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, the playing field is so heavily tilted in their favor that nobody else has a chance. Small-market teams are hopelessly outclassed, whether they're operated by the computer or by a human general manager. In the 40 or so seasons that we played, the Montreal Expos never won more than 50 games and in one memorable year went 15-147. Conversely, the big-buck New York Mets never won fewer than 90 games and missed the playoffs no more than five or six times. That's a little extreme, no matter what you think of the competitive imbalance in the real major leagues.
At least player performance numbers are more realistic. Baseball Mogul 2004 features authentic Major League Baseball players, so you can compare them with the real thing. These comparisons are highly accurate, but they have some believable ups and downs to keep things interesting. Player stats are even realistic in the long haul, declining as the players move into their late 30s. Star players wind down by becoming journeymen in their old age, moving to different teams as their abilities dwindle. It's sad, but somehow fitting, to see legends like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds finish up their Hall of Fame careers coming off the bench in places like Kansas City and Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, you can't actually see the big leaguers this time around, since player photos have been replaced with a new stat-tracking box. This box is certainly useful, but it makes the game look less attractive; aside from the play-by-play window and the strange-looking faces of general managers and player agents, there is really no visual element to the game at all this year.
Baseball Mogul 2004 helps get the series back on track after an off-season, although it doesn't bring as much to the table as it should. To its credit, Sports Mogul tackled some of the pressing issues from last year, making the game much more playable. However, the new game's economic engine still leaves a lot to be desired, as do the graphics and sounds. This is still a better game than its predecessor, but in a peripheral way that won't draw new fans or convince bored Baseball Mogul veterans to give the series another shot.