Visual Concepts used to call its baseball franchise World Series Baseball--that is, until the company started calling itself ESPN Videogames to play up its marketing agreement with ESPN. This explains why the follow-up to World Series Baseball 2K3 is called ESPN Major League Baseball, and it's why ESPN MLB does a much better job of duplicating the sights and sounds of an actual ESPN broadcast than WSB 2K3 did. Aside from the ESPN-inspired makeover, this year's game also includes five new play modes, competitive online play, and a handful of new optional interface settings that increase the amount of control you have over players on the field. These upgrades aren't nearly as impressive as some of the things that other companies have put into their games--most notably EA Sports and its MVP Baseball 2004 (with its controlled slides, actual minor league teams, and pen-and-paper-style manager's mode)--but they do bring a little something extra to what was already a great baseball game.
It's worth mentioning from the outset that the PS2 version of ESPN Major League Baseball came out a month after the Xbox version did. Visual Concepts, the game's developer, used that time to iron out some of the bugs that were evident in the Xbox release. These bugs included such things as errors being ruled on slow throws to first, runs being awarded when runners crossed the plate during a two-out force play, and balls hitting fielders on the back and then bouncing into their gloves. These glitches don't occur in the PS2 game. The situation mode has been fixed as well. Now, when you set up a scenario in late innings, the CPU won't give out intentional walks by the handful or suddenly switch fielders on you while you're fielding the ball. Bottom line: If you have the choice, pick up the PS2 version. There are precious few reasons not to. The biggest among these is 720p high definition support. The Xbox game has it, but the PS2 game doesn't. However, the PS2 does, at least, have a 480p option. Otherwise, the graphics in the PS2 version are just as sharp, and the player animations are just as smooth as those found in the Xbox game. As for other nitpicks specific to the PS2 game, there are significant load times during bullpen changes and player replacements, and, for some bizarre reason, the option to enable automatic fielding was left out of this version.
The first thing you'll notice once you start a game is that games really do look and sound like actual ESPN TV broadcasts. The menus, pregame screens, and replay transitions all use authentic ESPN typefaces, logos, and special effects. Strike out on a particularly nasty pitch and the ESPN K-Zone display will appear showing 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. Pause the game and the ESPN SportsTicker will appear at the bottom of the screen to update you with scores from around the rest of the league. The ESPN branding also extends to the game's audio. Karl Ravech, the host of ESPN's Baseball Tonight, introduces the teams and discusses 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 or if a hitter is having a particularly good day at the plate, they'll mention it in a manner that makes you feel like you're participating in an interactive version of an ESPN baseball telecast.
There are various, other not-so-ESPN-specific improvements evident in the visuals and audio of this year's game as well. 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 livened 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, the volume level of the crowd rises accordingly. The amount of heckling has been increased as well. When visiting players come up to bat, the fans let loose with comments like, "Your commercials stink, Jeter!" or "Hey, Pokey! You're an easy out!"
The people at Visual Concepts should have gone farther with the graphical upgrades, partly because other baseball video games have had time to catch up but also because the flaws that were merely irksome last year are downright glaring this year. 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. While the number of different play animations has increased since last year, the same two or three diving stops and put-outs still seem to happen between first and second base. MVP Baseball 2004 has at least 40 different play animations for the second baseman alone.
These shortcomings, while they have to be mentioned, should be taken with a grain of salt. ESPN Major League Baseball is a beautiful game in many other equally relevant ways. The visuals are extremely sharp, 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. In many stadiums, scoreboards update to reflect the current score and scores from around the league. 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 the ones used in other baseball video games. ESPN's unique twist is the meters it uses to represent pitch effort, fielding effort, and confidence. The pitch-effort meter allows you to put more movement on the ball by holding down the button longer. For fielders, there's a turbo boost that you can activate by pressing the L1 button. This allows fielders to run faster and make stronger throws. Both of these new features have an effect on players' stamina. The more you use them, the more tired your players will be and the greater the odds that they'll be injured. This doesn't matter much in exhibition or online games, but it does come into play during the season and franchise modes, since you actually need to give players time off when they're tired. In addition to the pitching and turbo meters, each player also has a 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 X 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.
Besides 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 L1 button to make the fielder run faster, or you can press the R1 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. 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.
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 square button. To stop runners in their tracks or to send runners back, you can push the triangle or circle buttons. You can send individual runners to the next base, while the ball is in play, by simultaneously pressing the square button and tapping the appropriate direction on the control stick. This setup gets the job done, but it's a bit outdated compared to the way MLB 2005 and MVP Baseball 2004 handle baserunning. Those games let you control individual base runners by first 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, you can push the triangle button to select the runner on second. Then you can tap left on the directional pad to select third base and have him run there. The runner will take third easily, and the batter will stop at first base. In ESPN Major League Baseball, you need to push the square 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 square 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 and get tagged out at second.
Generally speaking, ESPN Major League Baseball gets more right, in terms of gameplay, than it gets wrong. The baserunning system works, even if it isn't optimal. On the pitching side of things, it would be nice if intentional walks and beanballs were available as stand-alone options on the pitching menu. Since they're not available, you have to call for a pitchout four times to put a runner on base intentionally, or you can toss a slider at a batter's chest when you want 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. The hitting physics are fine. 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 reality. The artificial intelligence is aggressive but 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 will try to steal and lay down drag bunts when you least expect it. If there's a man on first with only one out, don't be surprised to see the CPU attempt a hit-and-run to prevent a double 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.
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 choose 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 a Network Adapter installed on your PS2 and use broadband Internet service, you can play against other players in exhibition games and download roster updates throughout the season. Online play in the PS2 versions isn't as seamless as it is on the Xbox, but it suffices all the same. The lobbies take nearly 60 seconds to load, and there is no visible indicator to tell you how good your connection is to other players. When you do get a good connection, play is generally smooth and lag-free. When you don't, the frame rate chugs along like a kid's paper flipbook.
Other notable 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, while it is a good concept, the first-person setting is more of a gimmick than a playable mode. It's impossible to tell the difference between balls and strikes as a hitter and when you're out on the field, because 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. The developers tried to compensate for these shortcomings by dumbing down the CPU in this mode, but that's no solution.
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 third new play mode is the situation mode, which is basically a scenario editor. It lets you change a variety of options--such as the inning, the score, how many runners are on base, and who is at-bat--to set up your own general what-if scenarios.
The last of the new play options is an enhanced variation of the franchise mode called GM career. 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 wants to make money, he'll give you a budget cap to stick to but won't mind the standings too much. 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.
None of the new modes are exactly groundbreaking, and neither are the pitch, turbo, and confidence indicators that have been added to the control setup. Even the revamped ESPN look is simply window dressing when you get right down to it. Other games this year let you manage minor league teams, control specific base runners, or juggle the careers of individual players. These are major improvements. For ESPN Major League Baseball, Sega opted to stick with what worked last year but made a few minor tweaks and additions here and there. So, like last year, this is a great game. However, it's one that the other games have had time to catch up to and, in some areas, surpass.