MVP 06 NCAA Baseball Review (Xbox)
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
That was the credo of Gunnery Sergeant Thomas “Gunny” Highway in the Clint Eastwood classic “Heartbreak Ridge.” That’s what good Marines do in any difficult situation. There’s no surrender. You never stop fighting. You think. You act. You win.
EA Sports found themselves in an interesting situation this year; when, in a clear response to EA’s acquisition of the exclusive NFL license, Take-Two snatched up the Major League Baseball rights. EA found themselves with an evolving and improving baseball franchise in MVP and a serious set of handcuffs on what they could do with it. Instead of going the generic-team-and-player-route, the team at EA Sports learned a lesson from their success in the football world and asked, “Why not college?”
To compare college football’s popularity and college baseball’s doesn’t even really warrant a conversation in 95% of the U.S. Outside of a few die-hard college baseball schools, most people would take a pre-season football game between Northwest Arizona City College and Barb’s School of Cosmetology over the NCAA College World Series. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying it’s a fact. A college baseball game will be a risk.
The first question everyone is going to ask is, “Did EA just put new uniforms on MVP 05 and add the ping of an aluminum bat?”
It sure doesn’t feel like it to me.
I’m a fringe fan of college baseball. In Big 10 country, we don’t follow it as closely as we do the gridiron, but I’ve watched enough games and read enough box scores to know the difference.
The development team did a nice job capturing some of the more subtle nuances and differences in college ball versus the pros (or even the minors). The home run ball (no matter which side of the plate you hit from) is much more rare in the NCAA, even with the aluminum bats. Pitching is a little more suspect. Defense isn’t as solid. You’ll have starters on your team that hit in the low .200’s. Remember, college baseball is not the pipeline to the pros that college football and basketball are. A lot of NCAA baseball players, while great athletes, spend more time in beer-league softball then in the majors.
The actual mechanics of the game have changed slightly as well. The MVP series really revolutionized the baseball game market when they introduced their pitching and throwing meters. As yours truly predicted in its first season, many competitors have since released their own version of the meter. Now, in the interest of innovation, EA Sports (like so many others) is embracing the right analog stick. Throwing has now been attached to the right analog stick, adding a new learning curve to the game - and it's a refreshing change. Combine the new meter with the players' shakier defensive skills, and it adds a new level of fun to playing defense.
When you’re not in the field, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball brought out a fantastic new invention to the batting interface. Before you get your jock strap in a knot, you can still play with the old-style batting interface, but the brave will keep their settings locked on the new “Load and Fire” batting system. Like the pitch and throw meters borrowed from old-school golf games, “Load and Fire” borrows from the newer generation of golf games with an analog stick interface. Pull the right stick back to “load” (basically simulating shifting your weight backwards in the beginning of a swing) and thrust it forward to “fire” (take your swing). It’s the most realistic and hands-on batting experience I’ve ever had in a baseball title. Learning to use this system is rewarding and adds a challenge that so few sports titles offer these days.
The AI in the game is good overall. I did find opposing managers making a few questionable changes throughout the game that left me scratching my head. But, the big important things - like fielding and base running AI - worked consistently. Not overly conservative, not overly aggressive. It's a nice blend.
Off the field, I was pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of a fairly deep Dynasty mode, which includes a strong recruiting module for a first release. With the switch to NCAA hardball, I half-expected any depth to be out of the question. Kudos to EA for going above and beyond, when a lot of people would have been satisfied with a simple Season mode in this inaugural release. There are certainly room for tweaks to bring the system on par with their NCAA Football cousin, but a great foundation has been laid.
While the advancements are fantastic, and you’ll find a rock-solid gameplay experience within, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out a few negatives. The graphics and sounds in this title are not nearly as polished as one would expect from a major release. The animations seem to be improving, but the player models themselves really look no better than back in the Triple Play days. Sure, it is gameplay over graphics for me, but the hardware is there. Pretty it up a bit.
The in-game sounds are decent and provide a respectable college atmosphere, but the play-by-play left a lot to be desired. It almost felt like I was back in the Joe Montana’s Talking Football days, where the audio never quite synced with what was on the screen. EA Sports continues to struggle in this area on a lot of titles, but with the three-man booth in their NCAA Football title, we know they can do it well.
Lastly, I have to cover a great addition that has more to do with EA Sports then it does with the title MVP 06 NCAA Baseball specifically. This title is showcasing the first integration of EA’s ESPN license. Unlike the way it was utilized for mostly on-the-field presentation in the old 2K/ESPN titles, EA Sports has launched what they are calling “Online Everywhere.” As long as your system is connected and online, every time you boot the game, you will be essentially connected to the ESPN network for a live ticker, sports stories, and even ESPN radio updates. Although I have no research to back it up, I estimate that roughly…umm… 100% of sports gaming fans are also sports fans. This addition is a great glimpse at amazing things to come with online console gaming.
Oh, the actual online gaming experience is great too. I had no problem finding a game on any level and at all different times of the day. And more importantly, when playing a game that relies so much on timing and analog stick use, they were mostly lag-free experiences.
What did EA Sports and the development team at EA Canada achieve here?
They took an existing series that worked; did a 180 when they lost their MLB license - and produced a product with more features that was even better. Not only that, they were first to market in the baseball game race by weeks. As a sports gaming and baseball fan, I’m excited to think about what the team can do with a full year to prepare for next year. More teams. More stadiums. We’ll likely even see a deeper Dynasty mode like its gridiron counterpart. The sky is really the limit here.
They improvised. They adapted. They overcame.
NCAA fan or not – MVP is a great game of baseball!