Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Canada
Release Date: January 18, 2006
Poor Electronic Arts. Those wily guys at Take 2 Interactive penned a deal with Major League Baseball last year, essentially securing an exclusive third-party MLB license until 2012. That means no more professional baseball for EA Sports. Nothing else for EA to do but pack up their bags and forget all about America's pastime, right? With no way to use real-life teams or players, how could they possibly compete in the baseball market? MVP Baseball, R.I.P.
But wait. Unexpectedly, EA signs a deal with the NCAA and announces that their MVP Baseball franchise will indeed be returning for another year. But college baseball? How can a game of collegiate baseball possibly compete with the real thing?
As a baseball aficionado, I spend a lot of time in front of the television, in the stadiums, and on the diamond itself every summer. I'm a red-blooded American, and I cannot get enough of the sport. I still have a dynasty on EA Sports' MVP '05 from last year that I regularly play. However, most of my love of the sport comes from the professional level: the players, the teams, the white-hot rivalries. I didn't believe a game about college baseball could actually draw me in like a professional counterpart, so I went into MVP '06 NCAA Baseball foreshadowing failure.
I'm glad I didn't pursue a career in fortune-telling.
MVP '06 NCAA Baseball recreates the sport of baseball so well that it surpasses my love for last year's professional MLB games. EA Sports has incorporated enough new features into this title that it is easy to overlook the lack of a Major League Baseball license. New animations, updated graphical enhancements, and an incredibly intuitive new way to swing your bat and throw the ball are all additions to the MVP franchise that make this year's baseball simulation a surprisingly good time.
The presentation of this year's MVP game borrows heavily from last year's – meaning there still isn't much to gorge yourself on. The menus are all functional, yet lack real shine. For a game that uses the ESPN brand to help sell itself, a bit more integration of the popular sports station would have been nice. This can be forgiven by the easy-to-navigate title screen and subsequent menu options. Also, the options in the game are plentiful, from being able to view the game as you prefer while on the pitcher's mound or in the batter's box, to umpire strike zones, hot/cold areas for batters, pitching cursors, aluminum or wooden bats, and more. It's fairly easy to set up the type of baseball game you want to play by simple tweaking.
The game itself offers all of the big NCAA Division I teams and conferences you'd come to expect, putting the number of colleges you can choose from well over 100. The NCAA license only corresponds to teams and ballparks, so you won't see any real-life collegiate players here. For many people, the real draw of baseball video games is the recognition of your favorite teams and players, but after my initial grumblings, I quickly forgot about it. Besides, if you truly want to go the extra distance, you can always rename or create your own teams and players. You can also create your own ballpark, too, which is new to this year's MVP title.
Graphically, the game seems brighter and more colorful than last year, and many new animations have been thrown in to help further the realism displayed by on-screen players. There has been a fair amount of recycling from MVP '05, but most of what was retained from last year was the stuff that worked. You'll still see many of the same dives and swings, but many new stances, catches, mid-inning shows of emotions, and homerun trots have been implemented.
Stadiums now support a blooming effect that I noticed from the very first game. As the game progressed and the sun moved across the sky, the trees behind one stadium started to soften and grow fuzzy. When I paused the game the effect stopped, and I saw the ballpark as it would have appeared last year. Resuming play reinstituted the blooming, and I noticed it made for a better experience. Not everything is affected by this new technique, but the fields look remarkable as weather and time progresses. It truly felt like I was on the baseball field in the middle of summer. Also, as mentioned, game time now corresponds to realistic lighting patterns. If you start a game in the early afternoon, you can actually see the sun beginning to set and cascade warm orange light over the stadium by the game's end.
The loss of the MLB license means the hundreds of player photos from last year are gone as well. This is painful because EA's new method of character portrayal is unattractive. They've gone ahead and computer rendered faces for each of the fake players, but these faces all look eerily similar to one another and lack any real humanity. I felt I was looking at photos of mannequins when organizing my roster. While on the field, the characters don't look as horrendous, but they still lack distinguishing characteristics so as to tell one apart from the other. Sunglasses and goatees are about as far as the differences go.
The real bread and butter of MVP '06 NCAA Baseball is the new Load and Fire Batting System. In the vein of EA Sports' Fight Night franchise, you can control nearly all of MVP '06 by the analog controls. The Load and Fire system is a wondrous new feature that requires patience and timing, and offers a depth of control that hasn't been seen before in baseball games. Instead of pressing a button to swing, when a pitch is thrown, you must pull back on the right analog stick until the ball comes into the field of contact. When you want to swing, you push the analog stick forward in the direction you want the ball to travel. It sounds rather easy, but it takes a bit of practice to get it right. If you hold back too long on the analog stick, you lose power, and the result is a very weak swing that won't knock the ball out of the infield. If you don't hold it back long enough, again you generate little power. The secret to successful swings is to place yourself in the batter's shoes and imagine the moment when that front leg should lift. The shift of weight to your back leg should be when you draw back on the analog stick, and when you are ready to use that weight to create a powerful swing you thrust forward. Gamers who have spent time in the batting cages or played actual baseball will notice that the Fire and Load system corresponds nicely to real life.
Throwing can now be controlled with the analog stick as well. It works much the same as last year's throwing meter, but instead of holding down a button depending on how hard you want to throw, you now need to shift the analog stick in the base's direction. The length of time you spend holding the stick in that location will determine how accurate your throw is. Hold it too long, and you'll throw the ball into the ground; throw it too soon, and your ball will go sailing over your target's head. I found this to be harder to learn than the new batting system because there is a greater margin of error than last year. However, I found that the new Precision Throwing technique added to the gameplay; if I were really trying to hurry a ball to first base, I would sometimes mess up my throw and cause an error. The game rewards precision and level-headedness, just as baseball does in real life.
For people who are turned off by these new throwing and batting additions, they have the option to turn them off and return to classic mode, which reuses the same mechanics from last year. It's great to offer the option, but people who ignore the new analog controls will be missing out on most of what makes MVP '06 so deep and intriguing.
Pitching is exactly the same as last year, with one noteworthy exception: hitchiness. I use this word to describe how the pitching meter fills up, the meter you use for accurate pitches. Last year, it was flawless and smooth; this year, it skips and stutters noticeably. Because of this, I was constantly missing my mark, throwing horrible pitches. The pitching mode is usually the easiest for me, but this bug seems to have gone unnoticed by EA. It won't affect your game dramatically, but a few pitches are sure to go awry. This stuttering, almost a framerate issue, happened during some computer-instituted replays as well. I don't remember this from last year, but at least it didn't bother my game outside of the pitching meter.
As far as modes go, MVP's decent Dynasty mode returns along with Tournament options and Xbox Live support. The Homerun Challenge is the same from last year, but I had hoped they'd change it a bit or offer a new style of derby. The fun pitching and batting mini-games are also back for the ride, and are highly enjoyable. The batting mini-game can really help hone your batting skills since the new system is going to take some getting used to. Overall, though, the modes from this year offer nothing truly new from last.
The audio department is a slight disappointment. The announcers are sometimes out to lunch, especially the color commentary, and since these are all fake players they are seldom called by name. Instead, they are referred to by number or college class level. This makes the announcing feel very detached and the ESPN brand again refuses to make itself prominent.
The crowd cheers are great, and oftentimes I felt immersed in the college experience. Some of the greatest sports fans are at the college level, and I was reminded of my own college days while playing. Aluminum bats, which are used in NCAA rules, are truly nice. The sounds they make vary depending upon where the ball hits the bat. Ironically, the aluminum bats where one of the game's greatest additions for me. Hearing that ping! as your bat connects, sending your ball deep into the outfield, is excellent. It helps to recreate that college baseball experience, and EA definitely got the sound effects right.
If you don't mind playing baseball with no-name players and collegiate teams, MVP '06 NCAA Baseball is a game that I can't help but recommend. The new Load and Fire Batting System is an innovation in regards to how baseball games control and feel. Precision Throwing further eliminates the need for anything but the analog sticks and somehow still manages to deepen the gameplay even more. While the overall presentation is a bit minimalist, the announcers seem to be often speechless or distracted, and the ESPN brand is sorely underused, the game itself – mannequin-faced players and all – is a great recreation of the game of college baseball. Even if you are not a fan of the sport at the collegiate level, at the core of MVP '06 lies the same game of baseball, maybe in its purest and most competitive form, which we all love and enjoy. Fire up a game and see for yourself. I wouldn't be surprised if you forget that your favorite MLB teams and players are absent, and that you are strangely immersed up until the last ping! of the aluminum bats.
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