marino's MVP Baseball 2004 (PlayStation 2) review

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Put Me In, Coach. I'm Ready to Play!

MVP has returned and quite frankly it's the best baseball game I've ever played thus far.  The amount of depth in this game borders on overwhelming.  It has all the generic stuff you expect from a baseball title (Exhibition, Create-A-Player, Home Run Derby, etc), but the franchise mode simply goes far and above anything you've ever experienced in a sports game, much less a baseball game.  New to this year's installment are AA and AAA Minor League teams for all 30 MLB clubs.  The game also features tons of new little minor details like control over your bullpen, managers visiting the mound, intentional walks, appeals to the 1B/3B umpires, and bench clearing brawls.  MVP Baseball 2004 is a must own for any sports fan.  
MVP isn't perfect graphically, but it's a step in the right direction.  Whoever is doing the face scans needs to go across the hall and ask the folks on the Bond development team how it's done.  Luckily though, the crowd has been improved somewhat.  The entire bottom tier of the stands have 3D fans instead of cardboard cutouts, which is nice.  But the biggest aspect of the graphics is the overall presentation.  Even without ESPN overlays, this game is top notch.  Each time you swing and miss there will be a pop-up window showing the swing from a top-down perspective.  This helps you perfect your swing immensely.  Most of the stadiums have a jumbotron in the background somewhere, and instead of just mirroring what you see on your screen, the jumbotron actually rotates to cameras around the field, so you can actually see other stuff going on by looking at the TV over the pitchers shoulder.  On the same note, you can hold R2 to view your Bullpen then rotate to take a look at the other team's pen or check in on how either manager's mood is.  And that's all without leaving the initial pitcher/batter screen.  It's really amazing and completely overshadows the lackluster face-maps. 
Never before have you had this much control over every aspect of a baseball game, team, and franchise.  The batting is more simplified than you might expect because there's no cursor.  You simply rely on timing and can use the left analog stick to try and place-hit the ball.  Pitching and fielding are where it gets complex, but not difficult.  After selecting a pitch type and target location, an arch meter appears (much like kicking in Madden or swing in older PGA games).  Hold down your pitch selection to fill up the strength of the throw, release at the desired strength, and tap again in the green target zone for accuracy.  It may sound complicated but it's really not.  The meter not only determines the final outcome of your pitch but it adds a sense of strategy to every pitch of the game since the strength and accuracy affect your pitcher's stamina.  Throw too hard too much and your pitcher will be dead by the 5th inning.  Your fielders use a simplified version of this same meter.  Once you pick up the ball and begin to throw the ball the meter will show up, so the longer you hold the throw button, the harder the fielder will throw it.  The catch is that each player arm statistics that determine how blue/red the meter is.  Throw it too hard and you're more likely to make an error.  In addition to all of this, the right analog stick plays a role that EA calls the Big Play Control.  If you need to dive or run up an outfield wall, the right analog stick is how to do it.  It also determines how your runner slides, so if you want to barrell over the catch you better be pushing Up on the analog stick as you approach home plate.  This may seem like a lot to take in, but in the end, it's the most complete baseball gaming experience you could hope for.     
The play-by-play is pretty good.  Some of the stuff is recycled from last year but that's expected.  The cool thing is that even though some of it is recycled, they seem to have recorded several versions of the same color commentaries, which is nice because even though you've heard it before, it sounds different.  The crowd responds precisely as you would expect if you were at a real game, by going into an uproar for every K and HR as well as booing you for an error.  On top of the booing and cheering there's usually one or two fans distinctly shouting encouragement or obscenities at your players, which is a nice touch.  The music, from the home team batter entrance music to the EA Trax soundtrack during menus, is excellent and varied.  I also like how the sound fits the atmosphere so a NLCS playoff game at Turner Field doesn't sound the same as a mid-season AA Minor League game.     
Replay Value 
In a word...astounding.  Dynasty Mode puts you at the helm of your favorite team, but not just the big league team...the entire franchise.  You will run day to day operations like checking trading blocks, checking e-mails for important league news, and of course scouting stats.  Each new day you will be shown whether or not your AA, AAA, and MLB teams have a game and be given the choice of playing each game, simulating it, or even going into a text-based sim.  Even if you choose to simply simulate the game, you can watch as it updates each inning (one every couple seconds) and stop the sim if your team falls behind, then jump into the actual game and try to bring your team back.  Like last year, your team has a Team Chemistry rating which determines the chances of you winning a simmed game.  Many things affect this rating, including each individual players mood.  Yes, each and every player has a rating now too.  So don't forget to change A-Rod's listed position to 3B, because if you just stick him at 3B even though he "wants" to play SS, he's going to get pissed off and play poorly, which affects the overall Team Chemistry.  You can easily see how deep this feature can go.  Your minor league teams have their own separate Team Chemistry as well, so you're going to be busy.  And did I mention that Dynasty Mode runs for 120 years?  Yes, I said 120.  You will be given short-term and long-term goals by the owner of the franchise which act as a means for unlocking extra features like vintage stadiums, throwback jerseys, and Hall of Fame players.  And I haven't even mentioned Online play on the PS2.  You could easily still be playing this one well into the playoff season.     
If you think baseball video games have to be slow and boring like baseball on TV, think again.  MVP is the most fun I've had in a sports game in a while.  The action is fast paced enough to keep you on your toes, and there's enough micromanagement to keep the sim fans busy for months.  The amount of time you spend as the GM is really up to you because most of the time there is an "Optimize" type option for those who want to just skip ahead to the games.  I have yet to run into anything frustrating in this game, and the online tournaments look like they could be a load of fun.  MVP Baseball 2004 is the first must-have sports title of the year, and for those who have lost their love of baseball it quite possibly could improve your view of baseball as a whole if given the chance.     
*** This review was written for shortly after the game's release. ***

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