If pile-driving digitized WWF bruisers from the comfort of your own home represents the ultimate experiential difference between video gaming and the actual activity, then virtual baseball invites the opposite comparison. Between the scratching and the snacking, the experience of the couch-bound video gamer and the bleacher bum are almost the same.
Select a pitch and if you’re lucky a screaming liner will force some deft keypad work. Usually, the action on screen is more subtle; more, shall we say, cerebral. Should I shift my outfielders right? What about the hit and run? Who ate my cookies? Where is my beverage?
Spring releases like Sega's "ESPN Major League Baseball" and Electronic Arts' "MVP Baseball 2004" may not win recruits among the twitchier members of the gaming populace. But those who cherish baseball's place in the nebulous area between "zen" and "zzzzz" have a lot to look forward to.
But first, the basics. “Baseball is what we were;" a sports columnist once wrote, "football is what we have become.” The same applies in video games. While "Madden NFL" earns the press, quality baseball titles sneak onto retail shelves with all the hoopla of a Texas-Tampa Bay double header.
This despite the fact that most baseball video games boast the same dedication to deep franchise modes, up-to-date player stats and realistic animation as their football cousins. And like football, baseball titles come packaged with in-game blather by big name sports announcers and enough eye and ear candy to convince the gamer that he’s not only playing a video game, but watching a network quality telecast of said game.
Action may lack the razzle-dazzle of the wishbone offense, but video game baseball has its own rewards, such as mastering the ability to aim hits for the opposite field or executing double-plays like a couch-bound Brooks Robinson.
Now let’s take a look at a couple major leaguers (and one little leaguer) for comparison.
'MVP Baseball 2004' (Electronic Arts)
'MVP Baseball 2004' impresses almost immediately. Jumping into a quick exhibition game cues pre-game chatter from announcers Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow. As the camera pans back for that familiar wide angle shot of the stadium you can be almost convinced that you are watching Game of the Week.
But it's in on-the-field play where “MVP Baseball 2004” really shines. The pitching game features an onscreen pitching meter that requires at least a minimum of skill to release the ball at the point on the meter where accuracy is greatest. The harder the pitch or the more exhausted the pitcher, the smaller the release zone on your meter. Also new for 2004 is the ability to throw bean balls and intentional walks.
At the plate, contact is as simple as timing the swing to the incoming pitch. More advanced batsmen can change the angle and direction of their swing to send pitches toward opposite fields, aim to hit for grounders or golf low pitches for sacrificial flies.
As you'd expect from EA, the game's dynasty and general manager modes are relatively deep. In dynasty you can worry about finances and the farm system, picking up players from the double and triple-A teams. As you run through the seasons you are free to drop into any game -- Major League or minor league -- and play the nine innings.
It’s the mixture of back office fiddling and on-the-field action that makes "MVP Baseball 2004" an entertaining time-kill for those rain-outs. Bored with standard play? Populate the field with all-stars –- alive and deceased –- or sample the game's scenario editor. There you can adjust any number of variables like inning, pitch count, score to relive, say, the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
Bleacher bums will enjoy the game's TV-riffic presentation. Baseball rotisserie fans may appreciate the stats and its realism. How real is it? During my play, the Red Sox choked.
'ESPN Major League Baseball 2004' (Sega)
Game publisher Sega continues the ESPN partnership that began last fall with its football title, using ESPN infographics and stars Karl Ravech, Rex Hudler and Jon Miller to apply a layer of realism to its presentation.
Play is comparable to the Electronic Arts game. On defense you can initiate double plays and dive for those Play of the Week catches. Sega's version suffers from the comparison, however, when it comes to pitching: After selecting your pitch, a one-button click –- boop -– is all you need to send the ball down the plate. The game also lacks the ability to force intentional walks and bean balls.
New for ESPN is “confidence level.” Rip a double and the game pops up a graphic of that player's increasing confidence level. Like in real life, players on a roll can be counted on to perform better. And the opposite. If you find your pitcher’s confidence level declining, get him out of there or brace yourself for the long ball.
There’s some great animation. For example, Sega nails Pirates' great Willie Stargell's bat twirls at the plate. When a pitch comes inside below the knee, batters hop back the way you would expect them to. There’s also a nice replay feature where a particular play can be viewed from any number of camera angles.
Players in ESPN look slightly rounder than their EA counterparts, like they're still retaining a little winter break fat. And some of their faces? Ewwww! We know that Matsui has a complexion problem but stil l... Overall, however, graphics are impressive. The lights during night games have that familiar glow. In a nice touch, a flock of birds -- pigeons? -- are sometimes seen flying across the lights' path.
ESPN comes with a franchise mode with most of the same bells and whistles as EA's game. New for 2004 is the General Manager mode where you need to accomplish certain goals like trading certain players, retaining others, etc. all the while dealing with some interesting owner personalities.
ESPN also has its share of legends to play with as well as the return of first-person baseball, a mode where you view the game through the eyes of the players. First introduced with its football title, first-person play is little more than a gimmick, but it underscores the series commitment to provide the most realistic play outside of the ballpark.
Overall, "ESPN Major League Baseball 2004" is a solid, all-encompassing sim and if next year they decide to take the realism further with an Arbitration mode requiring players to dress in Armanis and hire lawyers I would not be surprised.
'Backyard Baseball' (Atari)
'Backyard Baseball' delivers the fun of sandlot baseball without any of the merciless taunts. But enough about my childhood. The game is actually the latest in a series of sports titles aimed at children and starring the same collection of 30 or so kiddie characters ranging from the class room nerd to the future cheerleader.
A positively juvenile affair, full of chirpy sound effects and 'nyah, nyah's,' Backyard Baseball nonetheless touches upon the game's complexity. At bat you can hit for power, bunt or aim for a line drive or grounder. Fielding, on consoles at least, involves both joysticks, one for directing the player and the other for directing the throw. And at any time, pages of statistics on players and teams are available for the budding baseball statistician.
As you play the game you unlock fun little tricks. A power-up called “Butter Fingers” guarantees that fielders will have a slippery time handling your hit. “Piñata Ball” causes a fly ball to multiply into several dozen baseballs.
The game is too cute by half with its kiddie announcers and the way fielders fall down when they collide. One could also rail on the washed-out graphics, the loading time between innings and how the sound bytes repeat themselves over and over again.
Nevertheless, "Backyard Baseball" provides a nice introduction to the game for grade school kids too young to watch grown millionaires scratching themselves in public.