Some aspects of ESPN Major League Baseball may look sloppy, but the game is great where it matters most.
The best way to describe ESPN Major League Baseball is to say that it's an improved version of World Series Baseball 2K3 that presents a handful of new and mostly broken play modes. The pitching, hitting, and fielding interfaces have been tweaked; a new twist has been added to the franchise mode; and the ESPN branding has been made much more obvious. However, all of these changes just take a lot of what was already good about last year's game and make it a little better. The folks at Visual Concepts could have--and should have--stopped there. But they didn't. Instead, they tried to work in four different new play modes, only one of which is any good. The other three are so underdeveloped and so poorly programmed that they make the game look sloppier than it actually is.
The first thing you'll notice about ESPN Major League Baseball is that it mimics the look and feel of an ESPN broadcast really well. The menus, pregame screens, and replay transitions all make use of authentic ESPN typefaces, logos, and special effects. If you strike out on a particularly nasty pitch, the ESPN K-Zone display will appear to show you the trajectory of the ball from a variety of different angles. When the camera focuses in for a close-up on a particular player--usually when he comes to the plate or reaches base on a close play--ESPN infographics appear that provide unique statistical information about the player or his team's recent performance. For instance, if a hitter steps up to the plate with a man on second, the infographic will show how that particular hitter performs with runners in scoring position. If you pause the game, the ESPN SportsTicker will appear at the bottom of the screen to update you with scores from around the rest of the league. How sweet is that? The ESPN branding also extends to the game's audio. Karl Ravech, the host of ESPN's Baseball Tonight, introduces the teams and discusses the pitching matchups before each game, while Rex Hudler and ESPN's play-by-play man, Jon Miller, contribute color commentary and playcalling during the game. The play-by-play doesn't always keep pace with the action, but the variety of things that Hud and Miller say makes up for that. If a pitcher gives up three straight hits, they let you know it. If a player is having a particularly good day at the plate, they mention it. Through and through, when you play ESPN Major League Baseball, you feel like you're participating in an interactive version of an ESPN baseball telecast.
Besides pumping up the ESPN cobranding, Visual Concepts, the game's developer, has also made a handful of improvements to the game's visuals and audio. The instant replays have been fixed so that they now show the entire play and not just a snippet of it. The stadiums look nicer, mainly because the grass and dirt on the fields actually kicks up now whenever a play is made. The player animation is better too. Batting stances and plays on the field look smoother, and there are just a lot more plays, in general, to see. As for the audio, the developers have decided to liven up the crowd for this release. Fans cheer when the home team puts a runner on base, when a run is scored, and when outs are made against the opposing team. If the game is close during late innings or if the home team is ahead by a couple of runs, the volume level of the crowd rises accordingly. The amount of heckling has been increased as well. When an overpaid or underachieving player on the visiting team comes to bat, the fans let loose with comments like, "Your commercials stink, Jeter!" or "Hey, Pokey! You're an easy out!"
World Series Baseball 2K3 had great audio last year, so the few enhancements that were made to the audio in ESPN Major League Baseball just make it sound that much better. The people at Visual Concepts should have gone farther with the graphical upgrades, however, because the flaws that were merely annoyances last year are more obvious this year--now that other baseball video games have had time to catch up. Player faces are hit or miss. For every player--like Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, and Alex Rodriguez--that looks perfect, there are players--like Hideki Matsui and Sammy Sosa--that look absolutely disfigured. Other baseball video games, at least, duplicate superstars' faces correctly about 80 percent of the time. Here, it's about 50/50. Also, while the majority of player animation is smoother than it was last year, the animations used for batting stances and for jogging off the field still loop faster than they should. As a result, players look like robots at the plate and when they're leaving the field because they're always skipping a step in their movements during these situations.
Even though the flaws mentioned above are disappointing, it's important to put them into perspective. A pimple on a supermodel's body doesn't take away her beauty. Likewise, ESPN Major League Baseball is a beautiful game despite a few blemishes. As a result, the lame face-mapping and choppy stances are easy to forget when everything else looks so good. The visuals are extremely sharp, especially on 480p or 720p displays, and the level of detail is exceptional. First basemen lean out to make off-balance catches. Second basemen and shortstops cut a line in the dirt whenever they make catches from their knees. Around the stadium, scoreboards update to reflect the current score and scores from around the league. And since the graphics are so sharp, you can actually read these scoreboards from the batter's box, even on a tiny 13-inch television. Hit a ball into the outfield and you'll be able to see the plaques in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Or the boats sitting in McCovey Cove outside SBC Park in San Francisco. Or the cars driving along the bridges that span the Ohio River outside Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.