Forget everything you remember about previous 989 games, MLB 2005 is a brand new bag. Sony has given the team at 989 a bigger team, more time and a bigger budget, and they are making the most of this opportunity. MLB 2005, while far from perfect is a huge step forward for not only the series, but for the group at 989 as a whole. It's got tons of gameplay modes, Eye Toy supports, rock solid online play, and while it's not the best game out there this year, it's a good, well-balanced game.
Every single aspect of the game has been re-worked, from the graphics, to the hitting and pitching interfaces, and the game is even online enabled, supporting voicechat via the USB headset. 989 has chosen to forgo the batting cursor, so now you've got three different ways to try and hit the ball. For those of you that are new to baseball, or anyone that loves high-scoring games, there's a simple, timing based option. For those people that want a little more control, there's "Zone Control" where you have four different zones to choose from, and you simply have to swing through that zone to make contact. Veterans of the series will likely want to play using MLB's "Total Control" where you are able to take things one step further and guess both the pitch type and its location. To keep things even between players of different skill levels, it's possible to have one person play on rookie mode, while the other plays on veteran or all-star. This works out great for those times where one person is trying to teach another to play. Sadly this option isn't available online, so if you're playing a buddy that sucks, he's probably not going to want to play you very often.
The most impressive thing about MLB 2005 is its totally redesigned franchise mode, which is designed to placate even the most hardcore baseball fanatic. Every decision that a real GM would have to face is now yours, and it's amazing how much control you have over your team. As soon as you take over a franchise, you are given a list of goals that you are expected to accomplish in a given amount of time. These objectives range from winning the World Series to having a 40-40 hitter, and are tailored to the specific team you have taken over. That means that the franchise goals for the Devil Rays are less lofty than they are for a team like the Yankees.
Promoting your team and making money are both crucial elements to running a successful franchise in MLB 2005, because the bottom line is that if you're not making money, you're not going to have a job. The good news is there are mind-blowing amounts of ways in which you can make your team profitable. You can upgrade your stadium (changes aren't physically shown), you can spend more money on your staff, which will in turn yield a better team, and you can control the price for everything sold in the stadium. If your team is doing well, you can raise ticket prices, parking fees, and even the price of a baseball cap in the souvenir stand. Just be aware that if you're not doing too well, you'd better be prepared to slash some prices. It's also important to promote your team via the newspaper and television. MLB gives you a staggering amount of ways in which you can promote your team, allowing you to tout a winning streak, a rival coming to town, and even an upcoming bobble head night. You can choose when, where, and how long any ad runs as well.
MLB 2005 offers a comprehensive online mode that's easy to set up, easy to play, and it plays as smooth as butter, provided you and your opponent have got a broadband connection. The game supports chat via the headset during the game, which adds a great deal to the overall experience. There are online tournaments available, a real-time ticker that shows real sports scores while you're in the lobbies, and there are even message boards where you can ask questions about the game, or talk trash about your favorite team. It would be cool if the ticker was available during the game, or at least in the pause menu because you really don't spend that much time in the game lobbies. There also seems to be a problem with people getting disconnects when they haven't disconnected from a game. I've never quit a game, yet I have seven of them, which isn't that big of a deal to me, but I can see how some people would be upset.
For those of you with an Eye Toy gathering dust, MLB 2005 allows you to take a snapshot and put your face in the game. It's very simple to do; you just snag a close up shot of your mug, and then manipulate it in real time onto a player's head. It's very easy, the whole process takes about two minutes, and the results are much better than what you were able to achieve in Tony Hawk's Underground. Once you've got yourself in the game, you can search out a team that needs someone at your position (If they don't need you, it's going to be tough to make the team) and then you can play through their spring training schedule to earn a contract. What kind of contract you get offered is a direct result of your performance on the field, and just a hint, if you're getting offered the league minimum, don't try and strong-arm the team into a better deal – they may just rescind the offer.
Since the title has been reworked from the ground up in a short amount of time, there are lots of little things that keep MLB 2005 out of the upper echelon of sports games. A key omission is that you don't have the ability to check your swing. Once you hit the swing button, you're committed to swinging at the pitch no matter how bad it is. You also can't swing at a pitch out, despite the fact that it looks like a normal pitch all the way to the catcher. There are also some iffy calls where a runner was clearly out and he's called safe. Sure it happens in real life, but the commentary gives no indication that there was a botched call. I've even had a runner tagged out while walking back to first base after he over-ran it, and there's really no excuse for that.
While the rosters are accurate as of mid-February, there is no option to update the rosters online which is odd considering the heavy focus the game puts on its ability to satisfy stat freaks. You can manually change rosters, which works for the big trades, but as far as attributes being changed you're out of luck – you can't even do it on your own. You also can't carry more than ten pitchers on a team which doesn't matter in an exhibition game, but it can really hurt you during a long season. Another small annoyance is that anytime you want to start a career, franchise, or even play online, you lose any created player data you have on that memory card. Perhaps having two sets of rosters, one that can't be changed, to be used for online play, and one that can be changed, to be used however the player sees fit would be a good idea. Speaking of rosters, the scouting reports for players are a nice addition, but many of them have such glaring errors it's hard to take them seriously. The scouting report for a DH said "he was regarded as the best fielder at his position" and another report specifically said that Greg Maddux, who won Gold Gloves from 1990-2002, "Isn't a great fielder." Again, it's neat to have them there, but if they have inaccuracies like that, how are you supposed to know what to trust and what is just wrong?
For a game that offers a large number of options and play modes, the menus are poorly designed and often times difficult to navigate. For example, in franchise mode, I traded for Ken Griffey, and wanted to put him in my lineup, but he was nowhere to be found. I learned that he was inactive, so I activated him, but still couldn't put him in my lineup. I found that he was listed as my DH for interleague play, so I had to move him to another position in that menu before I was able to go back to my other lineup and insert him. Another frustrating part, in relation to simulating a franchise is the computer's frequent resetting of your rosters. With the same team I mentioned earlier, the computer repeatedly put both Sosa AND Griffey on the bench, despite the fact they were both hitting over .300 and their replacements well under. This happened no matter what menu I switched my lineups in, and despite the fact that neither of them were hurt.
The game's graphics, while not as sharp as MVP's, are nice looking and they get the job done. Each major league park has been faithfully replicated, including animated scoreboards and flags that wave in the wind. San Diego and Philly's new ballparks are faithfully recreated, and 989 even met with the groundskeeper at PetCo Park to find out just how he is planning on cutting the grass – you can be sure you've never seen the pattern he's using before. MLB 2005 has a large number of different fielding animations, and these are smoothly integrated into the game. The first baseman will dig an errant throw out of the dirt, the second baseman can snag a grounder barehanded and flip it to the shortstop who jumps out of the way of the base runner and just gets off a throw before he tumbles to the ground – it's quite impressive looking. The amount of positions from which a player can throw also keeps the game looking fresh, as you might see someone throw from their knees, a squatting position, or even jumping as they hurry a throw. Also keeping the game looking realistic is the fact that these animations aren't overused, so they don't get old. 60 fps is standard throughout the entire game, and it really adds to the overall smoothness of the game.
Some of the throwing transitions are poor, specifically in situations where the player needs to be running or turning instead of throwing the ball. For example, playing a ball off the wall, a player collects the ball, but instead of turning, he comes up in a throwing position, facing the wall. This also happens on ground balls to first place where the obvious play is to jog a few steps and tag the base, but the first baseman collects the ball and gets ready to throw before putting his arm down to run. There is also a fair amount of clipping in the game, especially around second base when there is a close play. It's not uncommon for the second baseman to have his arm sticking through the runner's chest, and to make matters worse, the runner isn't often called out!
The game also seems to be lacking the pizzazz needed to make it as exciting as other games. Outside of the "drop your bat and watch" homerun celebration that players doe regardless of their real-life personality (Ichiro would never do this in the real world) and the second baseman shoving a base runner after the play, there's very little personality in the game. Player faces don't show emotion, and their body movements don't reflect what's happening to them or their team most of the time. Perhaps some brushback pitches, players heading back to the dugout and throwing their gloves, guys tipping their caps to the crowd after a big play, more dynamic camera angles, and just more little things you see in a real game would inject some life into MLB 2005.
The game's commentary does little to help a game that is somewhat lacking in the personality department. Vin Scully, Dave Campbell, and Matt Vascersian do a fine job of following the action, but the calls are dull and lifeless. Outside of the occasional trivia nugget, there isn't a whole lot of interesting commentary. The crowds also don't do much to add excitement to the game, as they sound like waves crashing on the beach or a heavy rainstorm, instead of 35,000 people yelling. To show excitement the crowd is simply turned up, so it sounds like it's raining harder. The music in the game's menus is varied and upbeat, but the organ tunes and the rare song that plays when a batter approaches the plate are subdued and don't get you pumped up.
If you look at where the series was the last time we saw it, the turnaround that the MLB series has experienced is amazing. It's a very solid game with the best online play out of all the baseball games released this year. There are still lots of little problems that need to be worked out, and the game really needs some more personality, but at $39.99 you can't go wrong if you're a casual fan. Hardcore fans might not be able to look past some of the gameplay issues, but stat-freaks will love the new franchise mode as it's the best out there. It's going to be interesting to see what 989 can do with another year behind them for MLB 2006.