This spring has not been kind to the sport of baseball, but it has been kind with regards to baseball videogames. Never before have there been so many good games to choose from in the same season. EA's got the slick gameplay, 2k5 has the great presentation, and then there's the deep franchise mode and well-rounded gameplay of MLB 2006 from 989. Sony's first party sports developers had a run of some pretty rough games when the PlayStation 2 came out, but like Mark McGwire, I'm not here to talk about the past, I am only here to talk about the present and future. 989 has put together a solid baseball game this year, and they've done so by listening to what gamers had to say about MLB 2005, and then making the appropriate changes.
MLB 2006 has a robust list of features including: exhibition, home run derby, online, season, franchise, and career modes. Casual players will probably want to play the game's season mode since it allows you to focus on playing a season, while not overloading you with other management tasks – though you will still perform some of the functions of the general manager.
Anyone who really enjoys the nuances of running a team, or devours every statistic thrown at them will be more than happy with the game's franchise mode. It's incredibly deep and allows you to control anything related to your team from who's going to be on the cover of a magazine, to how many bobble heads to give away on bobble head night. You can upgrade all aspects of your stadium and your staff, and each of these changes provides tangible results on the field. For example, the players might be griping about flying coach class, and you'll have to decide if breaking the bank is worth the improvement you will see from the team on the field. It's important to manage your budget and not go too crazy, which can make this mode very challenging. In addition to managing the business aspect of your team, you will also have to focus a great deal on managing the organization's talent, calling up players, signing free agents, tweaking lineups, and making trades. Should you want to focus solely on the management side of the game, you can simulate all the games and view the breakdown inning by inning, so if you just want to be the next Billy Beane you can get some practice.
The career mode is a neat option where you create a player, and play as him for his entire career. You can even use the EyeToy to add your own noggin onto your created player, thereby gracing him with your good looks which will no doubt get him far. You'll start off trying to earn a spot with the ball club, and then slowly work your way up through the minors, accruing points that can be used to improve your player's abilities. You won't immediately be a superstar, but you can play your way into the lineup by excelling in the roles you are given, and eventually you'll be a household name. Come contract time you can negotiate deal with multiple clubs and try and increase your compensation, if you've got some skills.
On the field MLB 2006 is very sharp and has improved noticeably since last year. No other game has so closely captured the feel of the bat hitting the ball, and the ball jumping off the bat – it feels dead on. The hitting interface is simple, and allows you to guess pitch type as well as location. You can also induce grounders and fly balls by pressing the analog stick, so if all you need is a fly ball to drive home a run, you've got the tools to make it happen. If this sounds complex, you can always drop the difficulty level and do the old-school timing based swing, which to be honest is what most casual gamers will do, and it works great. When you do play like this, the scores aren't horribly unrealistic, and you do still have to have a good eye, since swinging at balls in the dirt isn't going to get you positive results on any difficulty setting.
A trend with baseball games this year seems to be allowing you total control of your baserunners, but making it incredibly difficult in the process. If R.B.I. could do it with one button and the d-pad on the NES, there's no reason that you should need to use all of the face buttons, a shoulder button, and then a direction to move a runner. It's a nice thought, but I prefer that it takes me less than ten games to learn how to advance one runner while holding the other.
Pitching is quite similar to MLB 2K5, which is a perfectly good thing. You simply select your pitch, choose your location, and then press X to start the pitching meter. You'll release X when you've reached your desired power, and then tap it again at the right time to get perfect control. It manages to find just the right middle ground between being too easy and too difficult.
The game's online mode is packed with options, though it's not exactly bustling with players just yet. You can play tournaments, post messages, track your stats, and of course play a game. Setting up a game is simple, but the lack of chat in the game lobbies makes it tough to get a game, or talk about a previous game with someone. Once in a game, the experience was generally smooth, though I did have several problems with lag that I didn't have with any of the other baseball games online. I was never able to get my microphone to work, but I haven't read any reports that indicate it's a widespread problem.
Unfortunately, MLB 2006 has a few issues that keep it from being the standout baseball game this year. The first is an issue where players will throw home instead of throwing to first. This seems to happen if you hold the X button too long when making a pitch, but regardless of the cause, there's no excuse for it. If it's happening to people five or six times a game, then somebody should have caught the problem before the game shipped. The game will also freeze on occasion, which needless to say is a huge problem. Other issues include batters not running on a dropped third strike, outfielders not making simple plays (these don't look to be errors), and batters staying in the batters box waiting for another pitch after striking out.
The player models are more detailed than ever, and there are many new animations to make the game feel more lifelike, which is one area last year's title was lacking in. On the field there are new animations like when the ball bounces of the 3rd baseman's glove, and the shortstop bare hands it and fires to first, and several different routines for catching a fly ball. There are tons of unique animations for players with well-known routines, like Nomar fiddling with his batting gloves, and Sammy Sosa crossing himself as he approaches the plate. Batting stances are faithfully replicated to the point that you can often tell who is at the plate just by how they are holding the bat. There's even been improvement off the field as after the game, there's a short camera shot of the clubhouse where players are chatting and horsing around after the game. When your buddy is standing in the doorway and it takes him 30 seconds to realize that the demo running is not a broadcast game, you know the developers have done a nice job.
Every stadium in the league has been replicated faithfully, right down to how the grass is cut. The pre-game scene that shows the outside of the stadium has been improved this year, and is a lot more detailed. Inside the stadium, the crowd is now made of polygons and will react to plays in their direction. For some reason, the scoreboard will display the player's face when they are up to bat, but won't display the correct statistics, instead showing the same stats for every player. This is a minor thing, but when they've gone to the trouble of having planes landing in the background outside Shea Stadium, they might as well have the right player stats up on the scoreboard.
MLB's audio presentation isn't outstanding, but it's not bad at all. The duo of Matt Vasgersian, who does Padres' games, and Dave Campbell of ESPN fame call the action and do a fine job. They're not as interesting as Joe Morgan and Jon Miller (who is?), but they do a better job of keeping up with the action and don't seem to make any huge mistakes. There isn't any walk up music for the batters as they approach the plate, but there are plenty of other songs played during the game. Fans will cheer as a group, or even heckle or encourage players individually. Some of these are so bad that it's funny – just like what you'd hear in real life.
989 has done a tremendous job improving MLB this year, seemingly making two years worth of progress in just one. There's no question if you want to manage every aspect of a franchise, that MLB is the best game for you, and it's a great choice for someone looking for a well-rounded game too. It's a shame that there are some significant quirks with the play on the field or this would be my clear choice for baseball game of the year.