When one considers the phenomenon of the yearly sports game franchise update, one has to wonder exactly how wide the audience is for such games. How many people are really desperate to replace a game they bought only a year ago with a new version that offers little more than updated player rosters and a few minor new features? Apparently, the answer is "enough to make the games worth developing," because Sony has recently brought us MLB 2003, the latest installment in its long-running and stat-heavy baseball simulation. Surprisingly, the game is being released on the flagging PlayStation, proving that even that aging system has a wide enough base of sports fans to make a new MLB game lucrative enough.
MLB 2003 carries on the tradition established by its predecessors of focusing heavily on statistics and ratings to enhance the depth and realism of the game. Fans of the series will know that they can enjoy the game without paying much attention to the reams of numbers associated with each team and player. The more you dig into the stats, though, the more you'll be able to strategize. MLB 2003 achieves a good balance of simulation and accessibility--it's certainly possible to just sit down with the game, hit the quick start option, pick your team, and play a decent game. The more hard-core baseball fans will crave the in-depth features that the game offers, however.
Of course, as with most any yearly sports update, MLB 2003 plays quite a bit like its predecessor. Fans will notice that MLB 2003's interfaces for batting, pitching, and fielding are similar to the interfaces seen last year. Batting in MLB 2003 is an ostensibly simple affair that can become substantially more complicated if the player so desires. Initially, you're faced with only a crosshair-like cursor indicating your swing area, and your ability to line up your swing with the pitch and hit the button at the right time will determine your success. If this isn't enough for you, though, you can control the power of your swing and your batter's stance. MLB 2003 also sees the return of the "total control" system, and total control batting lets you attempt to guess the way a pitch is going to come in. If you're right, you get extra power and a greater chance of connecting. If you're wrong, you're penalized. It's nice to have these extra options if you get bored with just lining up a cursor and hitting a button at the right time.
MLB 2003's pitching and fielding have also been left largely unchanged, but that's not really a problem, since they work fine as they are. Pitching is an easy enough process--you select from four pitch types and position your throw over the plate. Not too many options are available, but they get the job done. Fielding gives you a bit more to do, with the standard assortment of dives, dashes, and throws available. For those who don't want to do much work but want some panache in their fielding, you can use the total control fielding option, which simply involves holding L2 while you're going for the ball. You'll produce a variety of special moves simply by doing this.
MLB 2003 contains the expected assortment of game modes. You can hit quick start and just jump into a single game that has no bearing on any long-term records. The more obsessive player will be more interested in the various season modes, including the regular one- or two-player season and spring training modes. Strategic players will appreciate the manager mode, which places you in the role of guiding your franchise toward success while the game handles the actual grunt work of playing the games for you. Finally, the home run derby is an interesting diversion if you get sick of adhering to the rules.
The packaging for MLB 2003 bills it as "the only Major League Baseball game for the PlayStation this year." Honestly, that may be all the endorsement needed for the game's target audience. If you must have a baseball game that features the latest player rosters and you're bound to the old PlayStation, MLB 2003 is the best and only choice. It's not an ideal game--the gameplay can seem a little plodding at times thanks to the abundance of stats and options, and the AI is sometimes a little too skilled to be realistic--but overall, it's a perfectly good game of baseball.