Reviewed: March 1, 2006
Released: January 18, 2006
When EA signed the controversial exclusivity deals with the NFL and ESPN, and with rumors of NBA deals in the works we well, it left Take 2 in scramble mode – frantically trying to keep their piece of the pie. In a last-ditch effort, Take 2 signed a strange exclusivity deal with Major League Baseball, which somehow only applies to third-party developers.
In an attempt to recoup the investment in their successful M.V.P series, and as a little slap in the face to 2k, EA merely veered sideways a bit and decided to use their ESPN and NCAA ties to route their game. Hence we have MVP 06 NCAA Baseball – the first collegiate hardball game ever to hit the diamond.
Baseball is baseball, no matter how you cut it – and after a dozen or more years of making hardball games, you better believe that EA has the core mechanics of the sport down pat. So I won’t waste a lot of time talking about the same old stuff we’ve been lauding over for the past decade, because I have more than enough material just covering the cool gameplay innovations that EA has introduced in this year’s version of MVP 06 NCAA Baseball.
The first would have to be the “Load and Fire” batting controls. Much like what they did for the Tiger Woods series of games, EA has taken the industry standard cursor-and-button based swinging and transferred it all onto to the right analog stick. And as with the evolution of the Woods game, it may take a bit of time to nail down the new mechanics, but once conquered you will never want to go back.
The Load and Fire batting scheme is broken down into two parts; Loading and Firing. In Loading, you draw back on the right analog stick to, in effect, set the power of the swing. Firing is the general action of then pushing the stick then forward to make contact with the ball – which can be directionally tweaked to accommodate the location of the pitch and the preferred destination of the ball.
The greatest aspect of the Load and Fire process is that it only comes together if performed in a single smooth, fluid motion; drawing back too far, or for two long, will cause the swing to become unstable or imprecise – too short or stilted, and the swing will likewise fall apart. As a consequence, this whole swinging motion needs to be accurately timed with the motion of the Pitcher, the type of pitch thrown, and the speed of the ball – which all could be somewhat difficult to gauge on a two-dimensional television screen.
To help gamers figure this all out, EA has included the “Batter’s Eye” which gives the ball a very brief, split-second flash of color as it leaves the Pitcher’s hand. The color the ball assumes corresponds to the type of pitch that is being thrown. Now, considering the stance of the Pitcher and Batter (right or left-handed) and knowing the type of pitch being thrown, gamers have some insight as to where and how fast the ball is going to travel.
It all sounds so simple, eh? Well, not really. Nailing the batting mechanic is by no means a walk in the park, and will require a lot of practice – especially on the Xbox. Why more difficult on the Xbox? Because the game definitely has that “developed for the PS2” feel, which means the controls feel optimized for Sony’s DualShock with its beautifully crafted and tuned analog sticks. The Controller-S, while a wonderful controller in its own right, has analog sticks that are a bit more sensitive and precise than the DualShock’s – they work great for FPS’s, but are almost too twitchy to allow the very fluid back-and-forth motion that this game requires. Still, practice makes perfect and within a day or so you should be hitting with the best of ‘em.
The bigger difficulty to surmount is the base running, which has now been moved to the left analog stick (or D-pad) accommodate the gamer’s new bond to the right stick. Believe me when I say that the base running is way too confusing, and many innings will be lost to the humbly-fumbly base running scheme – as players accidentally advance on fly balls and can’t be turned around in time to avoid the AI’s inevitable double and triple plays.
On the other side of the ball, EA has added a new analog throwing mechanic for the Fielders called Precision Throw Control (PTC). In PTC, the bases are mapped to the analog right analog stick as they are laid out on the field – right for first base, up for second, left for third, and down for home. Big deal, you say? Well you have not heard all of it yet. You see, PTC also includes a throwing meter with a mid-point sweet spot corresponding to an on-target throw – let go too early and you will cause a catastrophic overthrow, too late and the ball will skitch the dirt in front of the receiver.
MVP 06 NCAA Baseball features all of the regular game modes you would expect from an EA Sports game – with Exhibition, Season, Tournament, Dynasty and Homerun Derby modes. With over 125 collegiate teams to choose from, there are a ton of options at your disposal.
The AI competition is stiff – really stiff. Teams are rated on an A to E report card scheme, and even at normal difficulty levels, D- rated teams will often give C and B rated teams a run for their money if controlled by the CPU. Again, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to winning a game will be the awkward base running controls, but the AI does seem to make overly accurate and timely throws in situations where the PTC meter could not keep up.
One of the greatest additions to the game are the amazing point-based and/or time-based mini-games that EA has included to help gamers learn the mechanics of pitching and batting.
The batting mini-game is a fairly straightforward “hit the ball here, hit the ball there” affair, which rises above mediocrity as a direct result of the Load and Fire batting scheme. Te gamer is given a set number of pitches to achieve an ever-increasing number of points with varying difficulty levels.
The pitching mini-game takes the cake, with a grid-based throwing target filled with a variety of colored squares that correspond to different pitches (remember the Batter’s Eye?). You must hit the colored square with the correct pitch, at which time any adjoining same-colored blocks will disappear and blocks above will fall down to fill the void, and the whole process repeats until either the time (in the timed game) or the number of pitches (in an untimed game) runs out. Suddenly, like the toy hidden in our box of cereal, we find a game that mirrors the greats like Tetris, Meteos, and Lumines buried deep inside our hardball game.
Now, it would not be right if I did not make mention of the Xbox Live support that EA has put into MVP 06 NCAA Baseball. As the first game to feature EA’s (hopefully) new “Online Everywhere” support, Xbox Live gamers can finally have full Live support even in offline modes. For those not in the know, this has been industry-standard for most all Xbox Live games, right from day one – all except for the EA games, that is. EA games always required leaving the Xbox Live server and then joining up to an EA server just to check friends lists and the like. Maybe this is the result of the advances that EA has made with their Xbox Live 360 support, but it was definitely long awaited.
Another cool feature of “Online Everywhere” is the direct feed from ESPN Sports Radio that plays during the menus, and the real-time sports tickertape panning across the bottom of the screen at all times. I am no sports nut, but it was great to be able to play the game and follow the Pistons’ games at the same time. As for the actual gameplay through Live, well that was still the sketchy old EA stuff we have become accustomed to. But the Online Everywhere advances are more than enough to get the nod from me.
I just filed a Game Chronicles review for EA’s Arena Football, in which I was singing the praises of the game’s visual quality compared to most other EA Sports games. Sadly, I can’t say the same for MVP 06 NCAA Baseball, which is a textbook example of EA Sports’ propensity to develop with the PS2 in mind, and then simply port it all over to the Xbox.
The graphics are fuzzed and filtered – a old PS2 trick used to hide jaggy edges – and the colors are generally dull and muted, as if the game is only using about a third of the available color palette.
But EA does make up for the poor technical specs with some kick-ass animations. With the new Precision Throw Control innovation comes a whole round of extra overthrow, underthrow, and loose ball animations – and all look pretty spectacular. And yes, that also includes all of the standard batting, pitching and fielding animations as well.
The menus are fairly straightforward, but the overall presentation could have used a bit more punch to catch the eye of the gamer.
Much like MVP 06 NCAA Baseball’s visual presentation, the audio presentation is less than stellar. But where we Xbox owners are have become accustomed to hazy and muted visuals in our EA NCAA games – the mediocre sound quality does come as a surprise.
Gone are the kick-ass marching band jams of the NCAA football and basketball games, and the play-by-play (courtesy of ESPN commentator Mike Patrick) is passable at best. Still, in the end there is no mistaking that MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is a baseball game through and through, and a few rehashed lines and dull moments aside – it all gets the job done.
For a game that had me on the verge of destroying my beloved Xbox early on, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball has really grown to become a staple for my late night gaming. While it may not be the most technically advanced game on the market, it definitely brings enough new gameplay concepts to the table to warrant the serious time investment that is necessary to master the twitchy controls and absurd difficulty.
I am a real sucker for mini-games, and pitching and batting exercises that EA has included in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball are nearly worth the price of admission alone. And although the title does not even approach the overall technical supremacy of the 2K MLB series, the ability to play as your alma mater is second to none.
And finally, the spectacular Xbox Live support in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball signifies a definite turning point for the EA-Microsoft relationship, and gives gamers hope that the two gaming behemoths might just plan to play a bit more like friends during the next generation of gaming.
I cannot say that MVP 06 NCAA Baseball is the best baseball game ever, but it is definitely near the top of the list. I really could not thank EA more for the enhanced Online Everywhere Xbox Live support, and the cool control scheme really injects a big slug of coolness into the game.
Sports lovers and gamers in general cannot go wrong with MVP 06 NCAA Baseball - it is a great way to ride out the late winter doldrums while we wait for the MLB season to kick off.