As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Shut out of the MLB license by rival 2K Games, EA Sports turned a sour situation sweet by signing a deal with the NCAA to produce the first-ever video game based on college baseball. Not a bad idea, seeing as college baseball has a large fan base in certain regions, and that many diehard baseball fans will buy any video game built on the MVP Baseball engine, whether it features pro teams or not. Indeed, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is just as intricate and playable as MVP Baseball 2005 was, and it brings with it a few minor tweaks that should please the MVP faithful. The overall presentation is rather bland though, mainly because EA Sports didn't do anything to jazz up the on-field atmosphere after removing the thumping sound systems and happy home run celebrations that served to set the mood in its MLB-based games.
Because this is an NCAA-licensed product, you won't be able to send the Red Sox Nation up against the Bronx Bombers, but you can pair the 2005 College World Series champs, Texas, against runners-up Florida, or have Stanford square off against USC, which is a rivalry almost as intense as the one shared between Yankees and Red Sox fans. More than 100 NCAA Division I schools are available for play. All of the big conference teams, like those belonging to the SEC, Big 12, Conference USA, PAC-10, and so forth, made the cut. Smaller conferences, however, such as the Ivy League, Atlantic 10, and Mid-American conferences, did not. Neither did any Division II or Division III schools. Such oversights are unfortunate, but they can be remedied to some extent by making use of the game's individual player, team, and stadium editors. You may want to take advantage of those editors anyway, because all of the included players and roughly one-third of the 30 stadiums are fictional.
The list of play modes is pretty much identical to those included in last year's MLB-branded MVP Baseball 2005. Offline, you can get in a quick game in the exhibition or coach mode, practice your skills in the batting and pitching minigames, set up a specific situation in scenario mode, hit for the seats in the home run showdown, or take a team to glory in the tournament and dynasty modes. Online, you can participate in one-on-one exhibition games or try to take the top spot in a four- or eight-player tournament. The offline dynasty and tournament modes have undergone a few necessary NCAA-specific changes in this year's game. In the dynasty mode, instead of signing rookies and free agents to contracts, you have to recruit players out of high school by buttering them up with e-mails, phone calls, and campus visits. Meanwhile, the tournament mode lets you put together a tournament featuring anywhere from four to eight teams going at it in single- or double-elimination rounds.
College baseball isn't all that dissimilar from big-league baseball in terms of how the game is played, although there are some key differences. The most obvious is the use of aluminum bats, which, while cost-effective for schools on a budget, emit an annoying "tink" sound when the ball is hit and tend to produce faster line drives than a wooden bat would. While screaming line drives are a very unsafe situation, collegiate baseball has a number of rules in place that are meant to make the game safer. Take-out slides and home plate collisions are prohibited, for example, and the strike zone is smaller, which deters pitchers from throwing too far inside, and hitters from crowding the plate. For various reasons, lopsided scores are more common in college baseball. Aluminum bats and smaller ballpark dimensions are contributing factors, as is the generally low experience level of the players themselves. Perhaps in light of the college game's higher run output, there's a 10-run "mercy rule" effect, which ends the game early if one team outscores the other by 10 runs. These are college baseball's unique quirks, all of which (and more) EA Sports has gone to great lengths to implement into MVP 06 NCAA Baseball.
It's worth mentioning, though, that all of the game's NCAA-specific settings can be changed to so-called "summer" settings in the gameplay options menu. The aluminum bats can be swapped for wood, baserunning rules can be changed to allow hard slides, and the 10-run rule can be turned off. You can't play with major league teams, but if you want to play by the MLB's rules or make the game even more challenging, you can certainly do so within seconds, just by adjusting a few toggles and sliders.
For the most part, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball retains the same superb physics and controls that made MVP Baseball 2005 such a joy to play. Line drives, grounders, and pop hits behave just like the real deals, and there are also dozens of miscellaneous animations for infrequent and odd plays too, such as check-swing hits, booted balls, and off-line catches. The default pitching controls utilize EA's wonderful meter-based interface, which is the darling of diehard players everywhere. The baserunning controls let players control individual runners at the touch of a button, and you can preload stolen base attempts and choose various slides by tapping the different directions on the digital pad and right analog stick. The default fielding interface still lets you push the hustle button to sprint for distant balls, at the risk of injury or fatigue, and you still have to build power into subsequent throws by using a simple press-and-release meter. Not all is the same old, same old in this year's game, however; the default hitting and fielding controls have undergone a major shift into analog territory--to the right analog stick, that is.
They're calling the new hitting control method "Load and Fire," because it involves pulling the right analog stick backward to load power into the swing and yanking it upward to unleash the swing. You can also pull or push the ball by pointing the analog stick at an angle during the upstroke. There's a definite rhythm underpinning when to pull back and when to push upward, based somewhat on the pitcher's motion. You'll uncork a few dribblers and haymaker strikes trying to figure out that rhythm, but after you get used to it you'll feel like you have pinpoint control over the power and timing of your swing. To further complicate matters, you can also have your batter specifically try to swing for power or for contact by pressing the left or right triggers, respectively, while hitting. Whether this new interface is superior to the old ones will depend on your personal experiences with it. Thankfully, if you decide you prefer the old classic or zone-hitting interfaces, you can still enable them in the gameplay options menu. If you'll recall, zone hitting lets you swing with the press of a button and aim for a zone in the strike zone by positioning the right analog stick. In this year's game, zone hitting also makes use of the contact and power swing buttons, giving fans of that interface an added level of control.
On defense, the process of throwing the ball between the bases has been given the analog treatment as well. Dubbed "precision throw control," in order to toss the ball to a particular base, players now have to pull the right analog stick toward the corresponding direction and let go of it when the visible indicator turns green. If you let go when the indicator is green, the throw will be on target. Let go too soon or too late, however, and it'll take a hop or veer offline. For sure, it's an interesting new take on the whole process of getting the ball where it needs to go. Unfortunately, this new method of throwing still has some kinks to be worked out, to the point that most players will probably dive in to the options menu and switch back to the classic setup in the early innings of their first game. Besides utilizing the traditionally accepted diamond layout for base selection, the old method also let players preload throws by holding down the button before the fielder caught the ball. The fielder would then make the catch and unfurl the throw in one quick, smooth motion. When the game is set to use the new analog method, fielders don't respond to analog stick inputs until they've caught the ball, which makes preloading throws impossible and often adds just enough of a delay to the process to turn routine plays into close plays and close plays into extra bases.
After you figure out which control options are right for you, you can sit back and enjoy what is on the whole an extremely realistic, albeit college-caliber, baseball simulation. The pitch speeds are reasonably fast. The ratio of ground balls, liners, and pop-ups feels right. The CPU is smart enough to set up double plays and to intentionally walk your best slugger when first base is open. You can warm up pitchers and make mound visits too, which can boost or kill your pitcher's stamina depending on your timing. Generally speaking, the collegiate game is less precise than the professional game, because rosters are more limited and because college players have less experience than professional players. MVP 06 NCAA Baseball takes these differences in makeup between the MLB and NCAA into account. You only have 25 players to work with, and there's no minor league roster to draw replacements from. Bullpens are limited to roughly three starters and three relievers, which is about half the staff that a pro team would carry. In an attempt to reflect the diminished experience level of college players, the pitchers in the game don't hit their spots as well as the pitchers in MVP Baseball 2005 did. For the same reason, hitters' hot and cold zones are less forgiving, and fielders are more prone to make offline throws and other errors. Errors and blown pitches are fairly common in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball--perhaps too common.
Should you find yourself disliking a certain aspect of the game--say, fielders are too fast, or there are too many errors--you can always make adjustments to players' speed and accuracy by raising or lowering any of the 50 different sliders located in the gameplay-tuning menu. All told, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball nails the on-field nuances of the game, whether out of the box or after a few user-initiated tweaks.
In addition to nailing the on-field nuances in all of its play modes, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball makes great strides toward duplicating the off-field aspects through its intricate dynasty mode. Like the similar mode in previous MLB-licensed games, the dynasty mode puts you in charge of a single team for multiple seasons. You can set lineups, make substitutions, hire coaches, and play or simulate games throughout the season. Injuries, academic suspensions, and rainouts occur throughout a season, and sponsor and alumni challenges pop up from time to time as well. These random challenges add an extra layer of depth to the process, because by satisfying them you can earn new equipment and facilities for your program. In turn, your players will perform better on the field and make greater gains in the off-season.
Unlike in a typical MLB-style dynasty mode, new players aren't simply lured to the team with lucrative contracts; they're recruited. Recruiting is everything in college sports, and that's reflected in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball. Each season, you'll have access to a list of the nation's top high school players. During the season, you need to gradually butter them up by doing such things as sending mailers to their home, dropping in for personal visits, and making frequent contact via phone calls and e-mail. A recruit's interest level will dynamically change throughout the season, and you'll need to react accordingly. The only catch is that you start out with a limited amount of recruitment points that can be used to pay for such actions. To earn more points, you need to win games. The more you win, the more points you'll have to spend on recruiting. After the season is over, the recruiting process continues on a different track. The final step to bringing your new recruits to campus is offering them a scholarship and making promises with regards to playing time. Over time, your team will become more successful as you continue to bring better recruits into the program.
Unfortunately, you may not be able to take your favorite team to success in the game's various modes, at least not right out of the box, because it might not be available. While MVP 06 NCAA Baseball includes a large selection of Division I teams, along with 30 different ballparks, that still leaves hundreds of teams and fields unaccounted for. As it is, all player names and likenesses are fictional, because the NCAA doesn't have a players' union like the MLB does. These omissions can be remedied, for the most part, by making use of the game's team, player, and stadium editors. The team and player editors are fairly complete. You can change uniform colors and logos, adjust a player's body and facial features, and even go so far as to fine-tune a player's individual batting, fielding, baserunning, and pitching abilities. Your mileage will vary with the stadium editor, however. It affords precise control over aspects such as field dimensions, wall height, and field surfaces, but comes up short with regard to location backdrops and decorations. There are only 15 different backdrops to choose from, and you have zero control over what scoreboards and video screens end up in the outfield. The less fancy your favorite school's ballpark is, the better shot you have of re-creating it in the game.
Nowadays, online play is another key feature that people are looking for from sports-themed video games. There's nothing like the bragging rights that come from sitting atop the leaderboard or challenging members of your preferred online forum to a tournament. You can take MVP 06 NCAA Baseball online using your broadband Internet connection and participate in exhibition games and tournaments, as well as maintain a friend list and follow leaderboards. You can seek out specific opponents in the lobby or let the server find an opponent for you by picking the "quick game" option. The server keeps track of everyone's wins and losses, along with other in-game stats, and uses that information to assign skill ratings to players. When you select "quick game," the server uses that information to match you up with opponents that have the same skill ranking as you. You can also easily check another player's record and skill ratings while sending or receiving invitations in the lobby. The number of times a player has disconnected during a game is tracked, too. You can see that number in the person's player profile, and it will count against their skill rating if they disconnect too frequently. Games played online typically go off without a hitch, although there's a pervasive hint of lag that makes it so that you have to press buttons a split-second sooner than you normally would during offline games. The lag isn't game-breaking by any stretch. Mainly, it means that you'll have to learn to time actions differently when playing online.
New to the online feature set this year is a concept that EA is calling "Online Everywhere." It's called that mainly because the system will stay logged in so that you can receive game invitations, even when you're playing an offline mode or sitting idle in a menu. Receiving game invites while playing offline is nothing new to Xbox Live members, but it's a rather fresh concept for PS2 owners. The EA Sports version of online everywhere is more than just an invitation handler, however. The company has partnered with ESPN to provide live sports coverage through a score ticker, a news menu filled with full-length articles, and ESPN Radio updates that are piped through your speakers every 20 minutes. If you let the system log in when you boot up the game, you'll see the ticker and receive the radio updates automatically, regardless of whether you're playing offline or on. It's wicked cool to be checking scouting reports in the dynasty mode, when, out of the blue, ESPN Radio chimes in to tell you what's actually happening in the sports world.
There's no denying that MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is a great baseball simulator regardless of whether you play it online or offline. The amount of detail put into every aspect of the game is stunning. EA Sports may have made the game too realistic, though, as the overall presentation is extremely dull.
From a purely technical perspective, the graphics and audio are top-notch. Little has changed with regards to the game's television-inspired aspects. The various replays still employ quick TV-style cuts and fades to transition back and forth between the action-cam and replay-camera viewpoints. EA increased the resolution of the textures used for player faces, uniforms, stadium decorations, and the field surfaces, so that now everything looks just a little cleaner and sharper than before. Once again, it's jaw-dropping to realize just how many different player animations there are. You can play dozens of games and never see a foul tip or put-out happen the same way twice. Player animation has been the MVP franchise's strong suit since day one, and that's still the case here. The transitions between animations are sometimes jerky, and the frame rate will dip once in a while, but neither of these hiccups significantly dampens the joy of seeing these CPU-generated athletes doing their acrobatics out on the field.
Obviously, the stadium models in the game are less interesting than those in last year's MLB licensed game, since college ballfields are small by comparison and typically have only a single scoreboard. EA used that downsizing to the game's advantage by putting all those extra polygons toward animating the scoreboard and making individual members of the crowd look more lifelike. The accuracy of the real-life fields in the game is often astounding. For instance, fans of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will notice that the communications array atop the Environmental Sciences & Technology Building, located behind the left field bleachers outside of the stadium, has been duplicated precisely.
Ballpark audio is true to life, for the most part. In addition to the "tink" of the bat and the sound of cleats on turf, you'll also frequently hear players calling for the ball or making spur-of-the-moment comments to teammates. Stadium sound systems call out player introductions and deliver a variety of whimsical advertisements and public service announcements. The crowd does a good job of clapping whenever the home team does something good and jeering when the visitors catch a break. Easily the best aspect of the game's audio is the play-by-play commentary. EA tapped ESPN NCAA commentator Mike Patrick and baseball analyst and former Stanford all-American Kyle Peterson to do the play calling. Peterson's comments are limited to infrequent quips here and there, usually after bang-bang plays and momentum-shifting hits. Patrick's contributions, on the other hand, are constant and seamless. The range of his vocabulary and his nonstop description of events on the field comes across like an actual guy sitting in a broadcast booth, instead of some shill recording of canned comments for a video game. Patrick's delivery feels natural and dynamic, and is quite the contrast to the repetitive commentary turned in by Duane Kuiper in previous MVP Baseball games.
While the game scores a home run on the technical aspects, it barely registers a bunt in terms of atmosphere. College stadiums don't have loud sound systems or fireworks celebrations for home runs like MLB stadiums do, but they do tend to have stands filled with rabid fans that aren't afraid to show or yell their team spirit. Go to a local college sports event and you're liable to see people with painted faces, people holding signs, and people chanting slogans to spur on their team. You might even see cheerleaders doing their thing or a mascot roaming the stands. Inexcusably, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball doesn't portray any of these things. Players on the field don't do much more than pump their fists after a flashy play or big hit. The crowd, while nicely animated, is just a bunch of random people that only cheer in response to balls and strikes. There aren't any team- or player-specific catcalls or chants. There also aren't any fans in clown wigs, cheerleaders, or mascots in the stands, nor are there any close-up camera shots that point out particular fans. Even EA's NCAA Football games have mascots. Sitting through nine innings in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is the video game equivalent of Ambien or Valium. The attitude just isn't there.
Also sucking some wind out of the game's atmosphere is the bland nature of its television-inspired aspects. The number of different camera angles and cutaways is very limited. Meanwhile, talkative announcer Mike Patrick, for all that he brings to the play calling, barely raises his voice whenever a tide-changing play happens. What's really surprising is that so little was done to integrate the ESPN brand into the game's look and feel. EA paid a pretty penny last year to lock up the rights to use the ESPN brand in video games, yet here, the onscreen displays and infographics are of the generic EA Sports variety. They didn't bother to use the ESPN logo in onscreen displays or to fashion cutaways to mimic ESPN's college baseball coverage. In fact, unless you enable the Online Everywhere ticker and ESPN Radio features, there's no obvious indicator of ESPN integration, aside from the announcer referring to defensive replays as "Web gems." Hopefully, for next year's game, the folks at EA Sports will do more to integrate the ESPN brand into the game's overall look and feel, and to inject some energy into the crowd and announcers.
As usual, anyone considering picking up the game who happens to own both a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox will have to decide which version of the game to bring home. By and large, the differences between the two versions are so minor that there's no pressing reason to favor one over the other. Load times are quicker in the Xbox game, and some of the textures look nicer, particularly the grass. The Xbox version also includes support for 720p displays and Dolby Digital audio setups. However, the increases in texture clarity and sound separation aren't as obvious as they typically are when going from 480i/p to 720p. In many instances, the same textures are used regardless of which resolution the video output is set to. The PS2 version has an edge with regards to controls, in that button inputs are more responsive, which makes it easier to nail the timing on the meters employed for pitching and throwing. Ultimately, if you plan to get the game, you should probably just get the one for the system you tend to play more often.
When it comes to all of the nitty-gritty details surrounding how the game of baseball is played, you'd be hard-pressed to find a video game that's more authentic or complete than MVP 06 NCAA Baseball. It's just too bad that the presentation is so plain, because it's that lack of attitude, along with the absence of the MLB license, that is bound to diminish the game's lasting value for some people. Purists and people with deep school spirit should definitely give the game a shot, whereas casual fans and those without school ties should weigh a purchase carefully.