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.
As for how it plays, the interfaces used in ESPN Major League Baseball are identical to those you'll find in other baseball video games. What sets ESPN apart is its pitching, turbo, and confidence meters. There's a pitch-effort meter, which allows you to put more spin on the ball by holding down the button longer. For fielders, there's a turbo boost that you can activate by pressing the L button. This allows fielders to both run faster and make stronger throws. Both of these new features have an effect on players' stamina. If you put too much effort into your pitches or overuse the turbo boost, your players will tire out more quickly and will be more prone to injury. This doesn't matter much in exhibition or online games, but when you're playing through a full season, it actually has an impact on how much time off you need to give your players. In addition to the pitching and turbo meters, each player also has a visible confidence indicator that grows or shrinks as a result of what happens during the game. If a pitcher throws a strikeout, his confidence will increase, and his pitches will become more effective. If a runner legs out a grounder or hits a home run, the odds that he'll be able to make contact the next time up increase significantly. By the same token, if a pitcher gives up a few hits or if a hitter grounds into a double play, his confidence will nose-dive, so you'll have to work harder to keep him in the game. This is a great way to simulate the 4-for-4 streaks and the 0-for-4 slumps that individual players sometimes have.
The pitching interface is relatively straightforward. You can choose a pitch by pushing one of the buttons on the controller, and then you can select the location by holding a direction on the control stick. To release the pitch, all you need to do is tap the A button or hold it down if you want to put more spin on the ball. The pitching cursor is disabled by default, which makes it difficult to see where you're aiming, but the controller's vibration motors provide some feedback as to where the strike zone is. It's easy enough to just go into the options menu to make the pitching cursor visible--if that's what you prefer. The onscreen hot-and-cold diagram also helps to give you an idea of where to aim your pitches. It sits beneath the pitching menu and shows you, at a glance, what the hitter's strengths are against the pitcher who's on the mound.
Along with the pitch-effort meter, Visual Concepts has made a couple of other improvements to the pitching interface since last year's game. The selection of pitches is wider and now includes advanced pitches, like the power curve, knuckle curve, and forkball. Mound visits have been implemented as well. You can use a mound visit to buy more time for the pitcher who's warming up in the bullpen, or it can be used to give back a little bit of confidence to the pitcher who's currently on the hill. The confidence gain isn't much, but it's enough to settle down a starter, and it helps a pitcher who's running out of gas to throw a few more pitches accurately.
Defense is handled in the same fashion that it is in other baseball video games. You can change the alignment of the infield and outfield by tapping the various directions on the control pad. Once the ball flies off the bat, the CPU puts you in control of the fielder who's closest to the ball. If the ball is in range, the fielder will catch it automatically. If you have some ground to cover, you can hold the L button to make the fielder run faster, or you can press the R button to make him attempt a diving or jumping catch. Relay throws from the outfield incorporate the use of a cutoff man, which gives you a great deal of leeway if you change your mind about where you'd like a throw to go. All you have to do is press the button for a different base, and the second baseman or shortstop will intercept and then redirect the throw. In general, the fielding is pretty believable. Put-outs and double plays are easy to put together, as long as the infielders catch the ball cleanly, and relays from the outfield are likely to take a hop or sail wide if you don't use a cutoff man. When a shortstop makes a snazzy diving play on a ground ball or catches the ball on a lunge, chances are that his throw to first will be offline, which will pull the first baseman off the bag. The first baseman will step on the base once he has the ball, but whether you get the out depends on how quickly your shortstop gets rid of the ball and how fast the runner is going down the line. Fielding is set to manual by default, but you can activate assisted- or automatic-fielding in the setup menu.
Those of you who have been keeping up with World Series Baseball throughout the years will be surprised to learn that ESPN Major League Baseball doesn't employ the cursor-based hitting interface that has been a trademark of the franchise for nearly a decade. Like all of the other baseball video games currently on the market, ESPN uses a timing-based hitting interface for its default batting style. If the ball is near the zone when you press the swing button, you'll probably make contact. You have the option of aiming your swing toward different areas of the strike zone by holding different directions on the control stick, which can help you to pull the ball or drive it the other way. If you want to show a bunt or attempt a quick drag bunt, you can do that too. The nice thing about changing to a timing-based hitting interface is that it allows for faster-moving pitches. Pitches come across the plate with a true-to-life amount of velocity now, and the entire batter-versus-pitcher matchup feels better as a result. Nevertheless, if you prefer the old cursor interface, you can enable it, and you can also adjust the speed of pitches in the options menu.
The one interface that hasn't changed at all is the one that involves baserunning. To advance all of your runners, you just need to push the X button. You can send individual runners to the next base, while the ball is in play, by pressing the X button and then tapping the appropriate direction on the control stick. To stop runners in their tracks or to send runners back, you can push the Y or B buttons. This setup gets the job done, but it's a bit outdated compared to the way All-Star Baseball 2005 and MVP Baseball 2004 handle baserunning. Those games let you control individual base runners by pressing different buttons on the control pad. Take MVP Baseball 2004, for example. If there's a runner on second and the batter hits a single to shallow right field, you can push the Y button to select the runner on second. Then you can tap down on the directional pad to make him run to third. The runner will take third easily, and the batter will stop at first base. In ESPN Major League Baseball, you need to push the X button while simultaneously pushing left on the directional pad to tell the runner on second to move to third. The problem here is that the X button is also the command that tells all of your base runners to advance to the next base, so if you push left too late, there's a chance that the runner on first will keep going, which often leads to an out at second. The timing on baserunning commands is easy enough to get used to, but it's not as refined as it could be.
Generally speaking, ESPN Major League Baseball gets more right, in terms of gameplay, than it gets wrong. Balls hit high in the zone tend to turn into pop flies, and balls hit low in the zone tend to result in ground balls. Breaking pitches, such as curveballs and sinkers, are more likely to result in weak grounders and bloop hits than fastballs and change-ups are. That's in line with what actually happens during a real game. The artificial intelligence is fair. Even though CPU opponents have a good eye for pitches while ahead in the count, they'll swing at strikes outside of the zone when they're behind. On the base paths, the CPU is pretty aggressive. If a fast runner is on first base, the odds are good that the CPU will try to take second. If there's a man on second or there are two outs, don't be surprised to see the CPU attempt a hit-and-run play. Also, even though the baserunning interface isn't very precise when the ball is in play, it is (at least) set up to allow you to preload stolen base and hit-and-run attempts before pitches are thrown. That way, you don't have to worry about mashing anything but the swing button once the pitch is released.
So what else does ESPN get wrong beside what has already been mentioned? Well, for starters, it would be nice if intentional walks and beanballs were available as standalone options on the pitching menu. It's flat out weak that you have to call for a pitchout four times to put a runner on intentionally, or that you have to aim a slider at a batter's chest just to give him some chin music. Other games allow you to make these moves at the touch of a button, so it's pretty silly that you need to throw wild pitches just to do them here. Another problem--more of a glitch really--is that balls will occasionally hit outfielders in the back and then bounce over their shoulders into their gloves. You won't believe your eyes the first time you see it happen, but if you use the instant replay to zoom in on the play, you can actually watch as the ball hits the player in the back and moves in a circular arc over his shoulder and into the glove.
When you add up everything that's wrong with the game's graphics, audio, and gameplay, you end up with a short list that's composed primarily of nitpicks and gripes. The significant problems--the ugly player faces and outdated baserunning system--don't take away all that much from what is otherwise one of this season's better baseball games.
If you actually take the plunge and spend 40 bucks to bring ESPN Major League Baseball home, here's a rundown of what you get. All 30 MLB teams and their stadiums are available, along with 16 different All-Star teams, six classic stadiums, and a team composed of legendary Hall of Famers. Each team has a number of different alternate and throwback jerseys to select from. The rosters are current, as of opening day, but the included player editor lets you create an almost unlimited number of custom players. If you have an Xbox Live account, you can use it to play against other players in exhibition games, and you can use it to download roster updates throughout the season. Online play is generally smooth, although there are occasions when lag will crop up, thus causing players to jerk around or causing the ball to disappear for a split second. There isn't much you can do when this happens except be patient. Unfortunately, you'll experience this sort of lag for at least 30 seconds or so in every game you play, no matter how solid the connection is with the other player.
Other nice features include the ability to save games in progress, gameplay sliders that allow you to adjust the pitching, hitting, and fielding abilities of CPU and human players, and the option to store your own user file, which the computer uses to keep track of your personal pitching and hitting charts, in addition to maintaining the trophy room that holds the awards you win in the game's various play modes.
The most significant new feature added to this year's game is its first-person mode. When you choose the first-person camera perspective, you see everything through the eyes of the active player. This means that when you're at bat and are running toward first, you'll see the action through the hitter's eyes. When you're pitching, you'll see the game through the pitcher's eyes. If a hitter makes contact with one of your pitches, the viewpoint changes so that you can go after the ball from the fielder's perspective. Unfortunately, contrary to what Sega Sports would lead you to believe, the first-person setting is more of a gimmick than a playable mode. The switch from one perspective to the next is so fast and bewildering that it's almost impossible to follow the ball until it's right on top of you. When you're up at the plate, the view is zoomed in so much that you can't tell if a pitch is in the zone or not. The developers tried to compensate for these shortcomings by dumbing down the CPU, but this just makes things worse.
Otherwise, the list of modes is about what you've come to expect from any decent baseball video game. The typical exhibition, playoffs, season, and franchise options are available, as are four other modes that you've no doubt become familiar with under different names in other games. The GameCast mode is a weak knockoff of the manager mode from EA's MVP Baseball 2004. It allows you to both simulate each at bat of a game in progress and make substitutions during the game. But unlike EA's version, you can't call for steals, bunts, intentional walks, or beanballs. You can, however, dive into the middle of a game--to start playing it normally--whenever you like. The duel mode replaces the home run derby from World Series Baseball 2K3. Basically, each player chooses one pitcher and one hitter from around the league and then competes to see who can throw the most strikes and score the most hits off of the other player. The situation mode is new in ESPN Major League Baseball, and, just like the first-person mode, it's a throwaway option that's too buggy to actually use. In theory, you're supposed to be able to change a variety of options--such as the inning, how many runners are on base, and who is at bat--to set up your own what-if scenarios. Unfortunately, the game goes crazy when you play this mode. CPU pitchers will issue intentional walks to human hitters for no reason, and runners will score from third even after the final out is made at first. Sometimes, the CPU will even put you in control of the wrong fielder when the ball is hit. Talk about sloppy programming. Thankfully, none of these problems occurs in the game's other modes.
The fourth new play mode is called GM career, and it's basically just an enhanced variation of the franchise mode. In the GM career mode, you not only have to set the lineups, make trades, and sign free agents, but you have to do so while keeping the owner happy at the same time. Each owner has a different outlook for his team and sets different goals for the GM, based upon that outlook. If the owner is an investor-type, with an eye toward making money, he'll give you a modest budget and will ask you to put together a team that can stay near the top in the standings. Sign Sammy Sosa to this owner's team and he'll beg you to get rid of this expensive contract before the season starts. On the other hand, if you work for a maverick owner who's driven to make the playoffs, he'll give you a bigger budget and will let you pick up a few top-rated players. Your ability to satisfy the goals set by the owner affects the budget you get for the following season and helps to determine whether or not your contract is renewed when it expires.
Since the GM career mode is an offshoot of the franchise mode, it's not a bad idea to play through a few seasons in the franchise mode to get the hang of setting lineups and making player transactions before you add an irate owner to the mix. The franchise mode is deep enough to satisfy even the most devoted baseball buff. You're in charge of every aspect of the team's roster. This includes drafting players, making trades, and participating in offseason signings, as well as setting lineups, managing the disabled list, performing minor-league call-ups, and deciding when to give your players some rest. Tired players don't perform as well on the field, so it's necessary to provide a day off once in a while. In addition to paying the players you sign, you also have to spend money on the managers, coaches, and scouts that support your team. This support staff isn't just window dressing either. Good coaches will keep veteran players at the top of their games longer and will help minor leaguers progress into All-Stars. Player progression is one of the better aspects of the franchise and GM modes. A young player with an A-level of potential is destined to turn into a superstar within a few years, while a rookie with a C- or D-level of potential will likely remain a journeyman player during his entire career.
The main drawbacks to the franchise and GM career modes in ESPN Major League Baseball are the same shortcomings that were true of World Series Baseball 2K3 a year ago. The minor league system still only has one level, as opposed to the multitiered systems that you'll find in other games--especially MVP Baseball 2004. One minor league roster is more than enough to hold onto draftees and second-string players, but it's easy to be envious of the actual AAA and AA teams that MVP Baseball has. The ability to participate in spring training games is also absent, which is disappointing, since every other game currently available has this feature. Besides these omissions, everything else you could want is here, including CPU-instigated trades, fictional rookies, minor league development, weekly and postseason awards, retirements, Hall of Fame inductions, historical statistics, statistical tracking in more than 80 categories, and so on.
It's a shame that the first-person and situation modes are so broken, and it's too bad that the group over at Visual Concepts didn't go further to flesh out the game's baserunning interface or minor league setup. What you need to consider, however, is that the game's other modes--exhibition, playoffs, duel, season, franchise, and GM career--are perfectly playable. Furthermore, the pitching, hitting, and fielding interfaces do a wonderful job of simulating what actually happens on a baseball field. Some aspects of ESPN Major League Baseball may look sloppy, but the game is great where it matters most.