MLB 2005 Preview

We drop by the 989 Sports offices to get a look at this year's baseball update.

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989 Sports has been hard at work preparing the next installment of their MLB series with MLB 2005, which they hope will offer just about anything and everything a baseball fan could want. To prove this, the development team is going so far as to include 11 modes of play, including an online component and the ability to put your face in the game by using Sony's EyeToy. While the version of MLB 2005 we played was supposed to have been early--aside from some bug fixes that needed to be taken care of--the game looked as though it's on its way to becoming a solid baseball offering for the PlayStation 2.

MLB 2005 has a complex franchise mode that lets you manage your team's business.
MLB 2005 has a complex franchise mode that lets you manage your team's business.

When we visited the developers at 989 Sports, it was easy to see that each and every person was not only passionate about the work put into MLB 2005 but each simply wanted to make the absolute best baseball game possible. As evidence, the team showed us the improvements they've made to MLB 2005 over its predecessor MLB 2004, which was released nearly a year ago. Included in the game this year are several modes of play, including career, franchise, simulation, online, and historical all-time greats.

The franchise mode in MLB 2005 is basically an entirely separate game of fantasy baseball that allows you to manage ticket prices, put in a new field, and even decide between taking a bus or a plane to the next away game. If you've played the franchise mode in Madden 2004, you have a good idea of what the franchise mode in MLB 2005 will look like. If you missed Madden 2004, here's an example of its depth (and the depth you'll find in MLB 2004). You are charge of so many aspects of your team that you can actually change everything from personnel to the price of a hot dog at the stadium. However, the one major difference between the two games' franchise modes is that in MLB 2005, you don't actually control the players. Instead, you call the shots like a manager during an actual game. The view you see on the screen during play resembles the live game tracker you'd see when following a broadcast on a sports Web site. This means that a virtual diamond is displayed from an overhead view, and dots are used to represent the location of base runners. The rest of the screen is filled with all kinds of information, including tons of stats and data concerning who's on deck. When you're not in the middle of a game, you have a ton of responsibilities in franchise mode that includes setting up advertising campaigns and promotional nights and even securing better television deals based on your team's performance. When we asked the developers of MLB 2005 why they would make such a robust mode that didn't include hands-on gameplay, they cited PS2 memory constraints as the sole reason.

While the ability to get your hands dirty in franchise mode might not be available, MLB 2005 has plenty of other playable modes, such as a career one that aims to give you the experience of having a career as a player in the majors. You'll have to earn a spot by going through the game's spring training mode and by making sure you perform well enough to make the cut. Even if you do happen to make a team, you'll still have to make sure to meet each of the 10 performance goals you're given at the beginning of the season. If you don't keep your performance up, you might get traded or released.

The career mode lets you get down and dirty by taking your player up through the ranks.
The career mode lets you get down and dirty by taking your player up through the ranks.

Beyond franchise and career modes, MLB 2005 includes your typical exhibition, season, versus, and online modes. The latter mode wasn't up-and-running when we got our chance to check out the game, but it's said to feature all of the online tournament and statistical categories as other 989 Sports games, like NFL GameDay.

One of the interesting features MLB 2005 will include is the ability to use the EyeToy peripheral as a digital camera so that you can create a player who features your very own face. We got a chance to see a demonstration of the EyeToy feature in action, and it worked surprisingly well. The EyeToy interface, as built into MLB 2005, makes it convenient to tweak the picture so that it fits the player model correctly. The USB headset for the PlayStation 2 is also supported, which will allow chatter between online players as well as provide the ability for a single player to issue commands during the game, like ordering an outfield shift.

To try and capture the feel of being on the field, 989 Sports worked with more than two-dozen major leaguers who not only provided insight into the mechanics and emotion of the game but also provided the motion-captured animation you'll see when you play.

MLB 2005 uses an impressive animation system to create seamless movement.
MLB 2005 uses an impressive animation system to create seamless movement.

In the controls and gameplay department, 989 Sports has made some significant improvements to MLB 2005 by including a new branching-throw mechanic. This new fielding/throwing mechanic makes it so that you can have your player seamlessly begin his throwing animation from the moment he fields the ball. For example, if the batter sends a grounder to the shortstop, you can chain the throw as you're picking up the ball so that your shortstop throws the ball just after picking it up--without returning to the idle ready position that you would see if you didn't chain the throw. This branching-throw mechanic not only makes the throw look better, since the animation is a seamless motion, but it also gives you a more realistic response from the players when fielding the ball.

At the plate and on the mound, MLB 2005 offers a variety of new features and changes, including the addition of mound visits, player-scaled strike zones, and even three different batting modes. Depending on your batting tastes, you can select a style that is just based on timing the pitch correctly, one that includes the ability to influence a fly or ground ball, and finally, a mode that gives you full analog control of where your swing will end up so that you really have to be on your game to get a good hit. On the hardest difficulty, it's almost like targeting the ball with an invisible cursor that you have to guide by using the analog stick. When you're at the plate, you can also try and guess where the pitch will end up. If you guess correctly, your swing will receive a 10 percent power boost. If you guess incorrectly, 10 percent of your power will be subtracted. All in all, the game seemed to play quite well, the control scheme was intuitive, and most importantly, the game felt instantly responsive--as if the animation and gameplay went hand in hand.

The triple whammy of Vin Scully, Dave Campbell, and Matt Vasgersian will deliver play-by-play in MLB 2005
The triple whammy of Vin Scully, Dave Campbell, and Matt Vasgersian will deliver play-by-play in MLB 2005

Visually, MLB 2005 is already looking fairly impressive. The beta version of the game we got a chance to play moved at a smooth 60 frames per second, and aside from a few bugs that still had to be ironed out, it looked very good. The animation of the players looked to be seamless, whether at the plate, swinging a bat, or out in the field tracking down pop-ups. In addition, the models themselves looked to be fairly detailed--especially in their faces, which look nearly spot-on. All of the action can be seen from your choice of five different camera angles, including offset, two different pitcher views, and two traditional umpire views. The stadiums, fields, and all kinds of extra details are being packed into this year's game. For instance, there are some 500-600 individual batting stances, 20 different home run animations, as well as all of the fancy lighting and particle effects you've come to expect.

In the announcing booth, 989 Sports has a three-man team featuring the play-by-play calls of Vin Scully (who's affectionately described as "Baseball's Poet Laureate"), ESPN's Dave Campbell, and the San Diego Padres' announcer Matt Vasgersian. The three-man team sounds as though they blend well together and offer up quite a bit of dialogue. While we were fairly impressed with what we got a chance to see and play of MLB 2005, we'll have to wait and see how the final version of the game comes together. At this point in its development cycle, it's safe to say that if 989 Sports is able to pull together the few loose ends that are left, it looks like MLB 2005 could be a very solid PlayStation 2 baseball game indeed.

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