Full Review: While the Franchise mode is ridiculously deep, there's still no steroid testing. Dumbass players union?
In 989's first baseball effort on the PlayStation 2, MLB 2004 was a decent baseball game that was a polish and a tweak away from being a top-tier PS2 hardball sim. The fundamentals were down, but in the face of competition from EA and Sega, MLB just didn't cut it, though it was a solid start for the troubled 989 Sports brand. This year, with even stiffer competition from EA, Sega, and Acclaim (though losing High Heat changes things), MLB 2005 continues to make strides, as 989 has crafted a fine baseball sim that has all the intangibles ? ridiculously deep Franchise modes, great online play, and a much more polished game engine, albeit one that still has a few strides before it can be called elite. It may not be in the class of MVP or ESPN MLB, but MLB 2005 is a vast improvement that merely needs to iron out some kinks in terms of balance and more intuitive controls?and once it does, 989 Sports won't be a mere punchline anymore.
At the top of the vast playmodes in MLB 2005 are the Franchise and Online modes. The Franchise is 989's take on Madden NFL 2004's Owner Mode ? only jacked up to levels not yet seen before. A very complicated mass occupies Franchise, with control of every possible freakin' thing you can imagine, from managing player salaries, television contracts, sponsors, and even their method of travel for helping with morale (as in, don't send the Yankees around the country in a Greyhound). This highly intimidating mode of play will not endear itself to everyone, but thankfully, you can play a regular season without it, or just do a Spring Training career (the usual Spring Training in the MLB games, where you try to earn a spot on the big club and become a Hall of Famer). Online, of course, is where many will want to play ? and why not, as 989 has one of the best online front-ends you'll find. Tracking scores, finding opponents, use of the PS2 headset, MLB 2005 uses it all, though I couldn't find any roster updates to download at the current time, which is unfortunate. Perhaps it's still too early in the season, but I'm not a big fan of having current Pirate Raul Mondesi on my Diamondbacks still. Anyhow, the Online play will surprise a great many people, as the depth and solid play will make this one a good pick for online gamers.
As usual, baseball games are split into 4 distinctive categories ? pitching, hitting, fielding, and baserunning. In many ways, MLB 2005 is completely revamped from the past MLB games, though nothing is ?revolutionary' by any means. The pitching engine is the most familiar, as it borrows from the ?choose a pitch, line it up, and throw it' path that it's been known for. This time, however, it borrows from World Series/ESPN MLB by showing hot and cold zones, to designate where to throw the ball to, depending on the hitter. If properly done, it lets you nibble corners and work counts by attacking weak spots, or throwing your best pitch into an area where you know the batter will swing ? a risk/reward kind of system. Unfortunately, one of the big problems of the game is the fact that the hot/cold zones don't seem to matter much, as even bad hitters can whack the ball around even after you throw your best pitches. There is Total Control Pitching, which lets you add something on to a pitch (like a real pitcher putting just enough extra speed, or curve, on the ball to get a tough batter out), but it's emphasized so little that it falls into gimmick range.
Hitting is totally revamped ? instead of being cursor based and having two different swings (power and contact), the system is just like High Heat was ? swing where you want the ball to head. Adding on the pitch guessing for better accuracy (if you guess a pitch, the chances of you getting better contact is higher), but again, it's not really necessary unless you're on the All-Star level. The hitting engine is exceptional, and the different amount of hits you get is astounding - a far cry from 2004, where the only hits you could get consistently were either singles or homers. This time, you can get doubles, triples, the whole works, merely by adjusting your swing, learning to be a good eye at the plate, and smart baserunning. Effectively, hitting is a blast ? but unfortunately, so good that it's still a bit easy to get lots of hits and runs, making many games shootouts, with hardly any pitching duels. When Wood goes against Clemens, it needs to be a 3-1 game, not 13-11.
Fielding and baserunning are the real weak links, however. There's 2 settings for fielding, auto and manual. Automatic is all right, but suffers from one flaw ? you can't throw the ball, as the CPU controls this aspect. Thus, manual is the only way to go, which is a bit of a struggle as well, as the action moves so fast that it takes more than a split second to make the right move between an out or a hit, or even worse a single or an inside the park home run. Of all the current generation games, only MVP and ESPN have fielding down right?this is something MLB needs to work on. As for baserunning, it's easy to advance a whole set of runners, but the combination of the D-pad and the face buttons takes a lot of time to get used to. Granted, I'm spoiled by the awesome baserunning tricks of MVP Baseball, but this here can lead to poor baserunning and mistakes until you grasp it?or just hit the left trigger buttons to advance everyone and/or return to a base.
So, all put together, a game of MLB can be a good time, if only because of the great batting engine. This means that multiplayer games are a blast, with equal skill making at-bats thrilling encounters, even if it's always high scoring. The multitude of playmodes can really extend the life of MLB 2005, as long as you can deal with and adjust to the hassles that still remain. As long as 989 Sports keeps the hitting engine intact, spends some time making pitching more intuitive (I suggest borrowing a form of the old High Heat pitching system, as it's simple yet effective), and revamping the intangibles of fielding and running bases, the next edition of this game will be as good as anything else out there.
Visually, this is 989's best-looking sports game yet. The players are a bit small and skinny, but the large stadiums, great batting stances, wind-ups, nice looking crowds, and overall solid look is a testament of hard work put in by the developers of MLB 2005. Adding to that is the best in-game presentation of baseball I've seen in a while, from the great and intuitive menu screens and the well-design stat areas. It runs solidly and flows very well, and in a baseball game, that's all you need, really.
The audio gets high marks merely because of the announcing team. With Vin Scully and Dave Campbell, you get the same announcing team since the MLB games on PlayStation, but hell, why change a good thing. I'm no Dodger fan, but I could listen to Vin Scully announce a game any day of the week. Unquestionably one of the best play-by-play announcers in the sport, and his presence is welcomed. And Campbell is just as good, and his knowledge of baseball shines through. Though many phrases are recycled from older games, the new stuff mixed in makes for a well-announced game of baseball that's as fun to listen to, as it can be to play. Mixing with that is loud crowds, a good stadium announcer, and a weird soundtrack on menus that seems a bit out of place.