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Too much good stuff

Wii Remote mode

Wii Sports baseball left me underwhelmed with it's lack of depth and repetitive play. Smashing home runs in the home run derby mode and taking batting practice can be relaxing, but the game itself gets old fast. Thankfully, there is an option for baseball fans: MLB Power Pros. I own the 2007 version, which was the first of Japan's long running series to be released in the US and the first available on the Wii.

Like the original Wii baseball game, MLB Power Pros puts the power of the Wiimote's motion sensing to good use both on the batting side and (with less success) on the pitching side. The only significant feature missing is that players can't waggle the onscreen bat as the pitcher winds up. But that is mostly a cosmetic (though impressive) feature.

On the plus side, players are real Major Leaguers. They are represented by Mii-like dolls that approximate the look and mannerisms of the real-life players. Their actions on the field are influenced by a complex suite of attributes. So you won't find Ichiro hitting many home runs, but he will find a way to beat out more than his share of grounders. The other modes of the game seem to be more heavily influenced by player ability than the arcade-like Wiimote mode, but it's an important touch. When you control a pitcher, you'll have his full repertoire of pitches and have some control on speed and location. As a batter, you can try laying down a bunt with the pitcher or pulling the ball over the Green Monster with Manny Ramirez. Waggling the Wiimote summons more speed from runners and fielders.

There's a full game of baseball available with a huge variety of options. But you can also play home run derby or a quick three-inning affair that matches Wii Sports. Play in real parks with real players or in imaginary parks with teams of your Miis or an variation of the above. If it's been your dream to face Greg Maddox at Wriggly Stadium, this is your chance. And all of this is just one, relatively minor mode in a jam-packed package.

Exhibition Mode

The battle between pitcher and batter lies at the heart of any baseball game and at the center of MLB Power Pros. For quick pickup games with a friend, against the computer, or a CPU vs. CPU demo, the place to go is Exhibition Mode. There you will pick two Major League teams (no Miis outside of Wii Remote mode) and play using traditional console controls. Personally, I find the GameCube controller more natural than the Wiimote/Nunchuk setup because all the throwing and running buttons are always under the thumb.

This is a cursor-control game, which means the pitcher picks a location and the batter tries to guess where the ball will cross the plate. If all goes well (for the batter), the sweet-spot of the bat will smack the ball for a hit. Missing the location will result in a variety of sub-optimal outcomes. For a long time, this was the traditional way to design an arcade baseball game and it has been derided for being unrealistic. More recently, games have used a timing based system that works like the traditional golf power slider control.

Some people feel the cursor style puts too much control in the thumbs of the player. No pitcher has the pinpoint control and it's too easy for a player to get a perfect hit every at bat. I have MVP Baseball 2005 on the PC, which used a timing system, and I find MLB Power Pros more realistic. With Expert pitching, you have to time your release correctly in order to hit the catchers glove and turning off automatic lock-on makes batting more difficult. Further, each player has dozens of underlying attributes that alter his ability to respond directly to your controls. So a pitcher that lacks control will miss more often and a batter with poor contact skills will have a smaller sweet-spot.

For example, Johan Santana has a pretty good fastball, so it can be hard to make contact on strike one. If he throws it in the same location on the second pitch, the batter can be dialed in at take a good swing at it. Fortunately, Santana also has an A+ circle change that messes up a batter's timing. More often then not, the batter will have finished swinging before the pitch crosses the plate. A timing-only system would illustrate the value of a changeup too, but Santana also has an excellent slurve. In MLB Power Pros, a hitter who has been setup with a fastball will tend to swing over the top of slurve since the pitch starts off looking a lot like a fastball. A batter with good contact might be able to get enough of the pitch to foul it off, but it won't be automatic. The human player will need to recognize the pitch quickly and drop the bat a bit. There's just a ton of nuance in the cursor system that I never noticed in MVP Baseball.

As a batter, the strategy of "sitting on a fastball" makes sense. With the "Big Swing" option that reduces the sweet spot to circle, you have a good chance to drive a fastball in the strike zone. Once you get to two strikes, you can switch back to contact mode (the sweet spot becomes a teardrop with the point aimed at the handle of the bat) or try to foul off breaking stuff. With a home run hitter like Ryan Howard at the plate, it's easy to see why a hanging curve is such a big mistake-that sucker is gone. The two problems I have with batting are the inability check a swing and the difficulty drawing walks. The first is a minor annoyance, but its not a big deal once you get used to the idea. The second seems to be a function of the level of difficulty. In Normal settings with three balls, the computer pitcher bares down and throws nothing but strikes (which are often homerun balls). The computer gives up more walks with Expert and higher settings since it tends to work off the plate more. I'd welcome an option that makes the umpire's interpretation of the strike zone a little more fuzzy.

Games are played to completion pretty quick. Usually it only takes 20 to 30 minutes depending on how many replays you watch. Pitchers go into the windup almost immediately after the previous pitch is resolved and most of the cut scenes between plays can be skipped. There's no need to warm up relief pitchers, which might be unrealistic, but removes my least favorite aspect of real baseball: in-inning pitching changes. Plays end automatically once all baserunners stop moving and the ball is securely in the defense's grasp. Unlike more graphically intense games, foul balls are not loving tracked into the stands to show off details of the crowd.

Baserunning and fielding can be automatic, manual or semi-automatic. (Semi-automatic means you control lead runners and throwing while the computer manages everything else.) Manual controls are difficult and can be frustrating-nothing is more annoying than getting a made-to-order double-play ball that slips past an infielder and then rolls past an outfielder for a double. I also lose too many baserunners through forgetting they are on base during infield pop-ups. Better players might be able to control those aspects as well as the computer, but I don't think it's possible to do better than the automatic setting. Semi-automatic seems a good compromise.

Speaking of settings, there are far too many to go over in even an extensive review. It can be totally overwhelming, since it's hard to know what one particular tweak might do to the game. On the other hand, there's no real need to adjust the settings unless you want to. When you start up a game, each player can pick from Easy, Normal and Expert. The spread between the settings make games between unequal players (such as my son and I) competitive. Games can be shortened to 1, 3 or 6 innings to save time. Games can be played during the day or at night, fair or rainy weather, in MLB parks or a few imaginary parks, with many or no replays, and so on. Compared to other games, MLB Power Pros features only a limited number of camera angles, but the angles represented are quite pleasant.

Graphically, the game seems simple and cartoony. But there's a lot of attention to detail under the surface. For instance, balls hit out of Wrigley roll onto Waveland Avenue past speeding buses. (I'm pretty sure the street is closed on game days, but I appreciate the hat tip to quirky ballparks.) Afternoon games start out sunny, but the sun sets as the innings go by. First basemen toss underhand to pitchers covering the bag. Many, many players have unique stances and pitching forms. All the strange hairstyles and beards in the Majors are represented. Pitchers take uneasy glances over at runners on first and will pick up the rosin bag to calm themselves down. Balls take realistic trajectories off the bat. Runners from first try to take out the infielder covering second to breakup a double play. Catchers block the plate in a satisfying way. Every animation is smooth as silk. Pretty soon you don't see bobble-heads in the outfield, but baseball players.

I don't think anyone (except Konami) is satisfied with the sound. From the moment you load up the game ("MLB POWER PROS!!!"), you know this game tries to amp up the action with an excited announcer. The effect will be entertaining for a few games, but after a while, it gets old. While the play-by-play commentator (some guy named Jack Merluzzi), has a wide variety of lines, they don't always sync up with the action on the field. It's hard to figure out how these lines could be strung together on a single play: "And he was fooled inside. IT'S A HIT! He pulled it foul." It seems like something was lost in translation. Also both the stadium announcer and Jack screw up the pronunciation of player names, which many people find annoying. Personally, I find these glitches charming, but there's too much repetition in some of the more basic calls. Sports games in general are prone to this issue and it's not an easy problem to solve.

Exhibition Mode lays the foundation for most of the other modes. While it is fun to play a game or two on the side, it's even more fun to play games that matter in Season Mode. The little snippets of college baseball in Success Mode, which use the same basic game play, make for great season finales. When it comes down to the big Eckersley/Gibson situations, you want to know that everything hinges on a 3-2 backdoor slider. All in all, baseball has never felt more enjoyable for me in video game format than MLB Power Pros.

Success Mode

The thing is, MLB Power Pros is a product of Japanese imagination. The best evidence (after the character design) would be Success Mode: an RPG-style player creator. When I first heard about it, I figured it was one of those things I'd never understand about Japan. (No doubt, there are things about American culture that Japanese folks don't get.) It seems unbelievably off-the-wall.

As it turns out, Success Mode works pretty well. To put things in prospective, the first time I played a baseball game with a player editor (Earl Weaver Baseball: a true classic), I boosted the abilities of my favorite players. "Lou Gehrig was much faster than that. Let's give him 10 speed." Next, I created a new player with perfect stats. Then I made up a team with perfect players. While this can be fun for a while, there's no reason to care about a team of identical supermen. After that, I went through the most recent Bill James Baseball Abstract and created as many real players as I could. This was more fun, but tedious.

By setting up player creation as a Role-Playing Game, Success Mode solves both the hyper-powered and who-cares problems in one shot. You follow the same story each time you play as a Powerful University freshman who wants to make it to the big leagues. Each turn, you have to decide what to focus on for the following week: practice (there are numerous sub-choices), hitting the books, working a student job, going on a date, or just resting. Depending on what you chose, you may get experience points of several flavors (Strength, Mentality, Breaking Ball, and so on), which can be used to buy attributes and abilities such as hitting power, pitch types and Aggressive Runner.

For most of the game, you don't play any baseball at all. At the end of the first year, if you've impressed the coach, you will start the final game of the season for the Powerful Tulips. Your results are determined partially by how you control your player and partially by the abilities you've earned so far in the game. In turn, the results give you more experience points to buy abilities that will help you do better next year. Doing well in games is also how you impress the Major League scout that hangs around the university. And impressing the scout is the key to getting a minor league contract. Players that succeed in Success mode will then be playable in other modes of the game, including Season Mode.

Throughout the game, random scripted events occur that alter your character's stats. And you are confronted with a variety of choices that force you into difficult decisions. So it isn't really possible to create a perfect player without resorting to tedious save game exploits and even then you'll need to make some compromises. It's not an exaggeration to say that everything you do in Success Mode translates in to the final product somehow. For instance, if you routinely strike out or get extra-base hits an area of the strike zone, that area will be a cold or hot zone for the created player. After going on a date with a girl, you might end up with the Barehand Catch or Choke Artist ability. With so many unique attributes, it's hard not to become attached to your Success Mode creations.

This is as good a time as any to gripe about one missing feature: roster updates. When I play the Dodgers, Juan Pierre is awesome and Matt Kemp is so so. Of course I can buy the 2008 edition, but that will still be a year out of date by the time opening day rolls around. Andruw Jones will still be an everyday player. Konami could fix this by distributing (even for a small price) the roster updates directly. Even better, however, would be to allow users to make and distribute roster updates online. MVP Baseball hasn't seen an official update since 2005, but there is a thriving community updating the rosters. Not only would that be more cost-effective for Konami, it likely would result in higher quality rosters. The series has sold well enough to make a 2009 update possible, so we will have a solution to the problem soon.

Surprisingly, Success Mode comes very close to being a complete game all by itself. It's perhaps a bit short and could use more in game action, but other than that I'd be happy with the depth of this one mode. The true payoff, however comes from signing your Success Mode players in Season Mode and following the next 10 years of their career.

Season Mode

Season Mode builds on the core of Exhibition Mode by putting you in the shoes of a big league GM. For veterans of baseball games, this will be familiar territory: you can jump into your local team's front office or draft an expansion team from scratch. Beginning with opening day, you've got 10 seasons to work with in order to build a dynasty, which seems a bit short. (To be fair, I haven't finished a term at GM yet, so I can't really complain.) As with Success Mode, there's distinct Japanese feel with anime-style characters and load screens. You've got an assistant who guides you through the basics of the game (including some extreme basics like the number of teams in Major League Baseball), seems to have a crush on your character and cheers on the team at key moments.

As you might expect by now, there are tons of options, most of which may be safely ignored. For instance, you can initiate a trade with another team in order to improve your talent pool or get rid of expensive players. Before the trade is confirmed, you get feedback about the odds it will be accepted in the form of a zero to five star rating. A few days later, you find out if the other GM accepted or rejected your offer. All of this is totally optional, though you will be offered trades by other teams from time to time.

Games can be played through from start to finish for a fully immersive experience or you can simulate being a manager with Fast Mode or being a GM by simulating weeks, months or entire seasons at a time. Optionally, you may watch specific players or situations so that you can drop into the game when they come up. One especially good use for this option is to watch Success Mode players that you've signed to continue monitoring their progress. MLB Power Pros keeps track of all sorts of achievements from complete game shutouts to getting a certain number of hits to turning double plays, which score your team Owner Points. As the season continues you stock up points that are used to pay player salaries, buy players from other teams or purchase training equipment. Winning individual awards, getting into the post-season and winning playoff series increases your points scored as well. Essentially, the more exciting the team, the more interest the fans have, and the more money the GM has to play with.

Veterans of games like MVP Baseball might miss the depth of Season Mode initially. You don't set hot dog prices, schedule promotions, buy stadium upgrades and so on. The business side of the game is more abstract and the minor league system is just a holding area for upcoming players. Power Pros' training system more than compensates for these short-comings, however. During the season, you can assign players to practice on skills you'd like to have them improve on. Assigning a veteran and a rookie to a practice group will allow the older player to transfer some skills to the greenhorn. Too much practice will wear out a player, so they will need to be rested. To avoid micromanagement problems, players can be assigned to automatic training in which computerized coaches handle assignments.

For the most part, Season Mode lets you play the game the way you want to play it. You can micromanage every moment of you players' professional lives or sit back and let the Wii simulate entire seasons. And there are several viable strategies, such as gambling on free agents to win post-season points or training lesser players to become stars or signing Success Mode players you've created. Unlike Exhibition Mode, the games have meaning as teams find themselves in tight pennant races and players compete for post-season honors. Just as in real life, individual games are fun, but the real pleasure of baseball is the season-long dramas that play out each summer.

Extras

If this were an infomercial, this would be the moment where I'd say "but that's not all!" There is so much content jammed into Power Pros it's not an exaggeration to say there's something for everyone. Take for instance the collector. While you play through full games in Season Mode, finish Success Mode or compete in the Home Run Derby, the game awards you Power Major Points. These can be used to buy a variety of upgrades, stadiums, uniforms, pitching and batting stances, and baseball cards. The cards include basic statistics, pictures and a short description of the player's career as seen from the Japanese perspective. Getting everything is a major challenge and amounts to hundreds of hours of gaming.

While you are playing, the game keeps track of every pitch and the stat fiend can have field day with the various reports. I know I like to pitch a breaking ball down for the first pitch. The Profile section of the game has reports that tell me not only the exact percentage of my first pitches that are breaking balls, but what the batter did with those pitches. Every record, including various achievements, are tracked constantly. At the end of every game, you have the option to review each pitch. Can't remember if your game-winning homerun was off a hanging curve or a meaty fastball? Look it up! During season mode, you can see player statistics updated play by play. My only disappointment is there's no way to calculate advanced statistics like WARP and Runs Created. If only I could save the numbers to my computer...

When you are ready to step up your game (by taking control of fielders for instance) Practice Mode puts you through rigorous training. Every aspect of the game can be drilled until you have down. You can take batting practice against real or generic players pitching one or a variety of pitches. There's a pitching drill where you aim for a specific location. Fielding can be either on randomly hit balls or balls on a manually set trajectory. Base running practice covers the basics of moving from one base to another, but is very thin. Then there are general offense and defense sessions where there are no outs and you try to score or prevent runs. Each practice can be set in specific game conditions and use any control setup. It's an ideal way to improve your abilities.

Somewhere, no doubt, there is a group of friends looking for a round robin competition offered in League Mode. Until the game can be played online, those guys will be the only ones using it. They will also be good candidate for the Arrange Team mode, which give players total control over a team to be customized. Besides the obvious ability to add and remove players, players can change the colors of a team's uniforms, alter name and location, pick a home stadium and so on. Custom teams may then be used in other modes.

Fans of particular players have quite a bit of control over how they look and act on the field. Most characteristics may be edited down to the color of a player's bat, glove, and wristband. (The Japanese seem to have an unhealthy obsession with wristbands.) Abilities may be changed as well at the cost of a unique band on the player's nameplate. If you are willing to enter painfully long passwords, it's possible to exchange players with others. But passwords do not transfer from one version of the game to another. One thing that can't really be changed is the pronunciation of a player's name. Or rather the name can be changed, but only to a name that has already been recorded. So Barry Bonds will always be announced as "Great Gonzales".

The only reservation I really have is that the 2008 version is already out and the 2009 version is coming soon. Both games seem even better than the 2007 version and neither will are be overly expensive. Given that the game has been under development since 1994 in Japan it's already pretty well polished, so if you find a copy in the bargain bin it will be well worth your while.

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