Every year at about this time a 989 Sports representative calls or emails me and tells me about how this will be a rebuilding year for its franchises. This has happened for the past three years now and we’re still waiting for the results of this so-called reclamation project. It’s taken awhile but we’ve finally seen the fruits of these labors and for the first time in nearly a decade, it’s safe to call a 989 Sports game a solid effort, instead of just another work-in-progress.
After assessing which elements worked from MLB 2005, the boys in San Diego took it upon themselves to refine the rough edges and polish the good ones, leading to a game that is finally ready to compete in the big leagues. The career mode makes a fantastic return, bringing the Eye Toy functionality with it. By placing yourself into the game, you’ll start out in spring training and try to earn a spot on the big league roster. Do well and you’ll make it to the show, falter and you’re stuck in the back of a smelly bus in the Las Vegas desert. Couple this with the XX mode and you have a feature set that will hold most baseball fanatics over for a lifetime.
MLB’s on-the-field action hasn’t changed much since last year’s game and it’s a double-edged sword. It’s still the slowest game of this year’s bunch with the average 9-inning outing clocking in at about 45 minutes. To soothe the pain a little the designers have added presentation to the game, giving it that really extra bit of oomph that the franchise needed. IF you’re not a big fan of stats, pre-game introductions and that sort, you can turn on the Fast Play mode to cut down some of the waiting time.
New to MLB 2006 is a pitch meter that mimics the system first introduced with the MVP Baseball franchise. Like that franchise’s system, players select the pitch, select the location and then utilize a two-point meter, one point representing the pitch power and the other the release point, to determine the strength and accuracy of the pitch. Unlike MVP’s system, however, MLB’s is much more unforgiving. Taking a cue from real life, the designers ensured that no pitch is entirely accurate and that no pitcher has pinpoint control. So even if you do match up the meters correctly, you’ll rarely actually hit the precise target that you selected. It’s a bit odd at first, but it definitely beats the microscopic pinpoint accuracy that you can get from the other games.
On the other side of the duel, the hitting system remains virtually unchanged. Using the directional hitting system from the old RBI Baseball days, you simply push the stick in a direction and push the X button to swing. Before each pitch you can guess which pitch is coming your way; a successful guess allows for better contact and a higher probability for dingers. Overall, the batter/pitcher interface works well and is easy to get a grasp of. It’s not the most complicated one out there nor does it try to reinvent the baseball genre. It’s simply functional and is forgiving enough for new gamers to enjoy.
The action that takes place after the ball is put into play is solid and effective. MLB uses a very simple system where each of the face buttons is mapped out to the corresponding bases on the diamond and the R1 button controls the dive and the jumping functions. Although using the R1 button to snag line drives is awkward at first, it becomes second nature in the long run.
One aspect of the action that I do despise is the base running. The designers did a horrible job with the fielder’s throwing range, giving every outfielder and infielder a Howitzer for an arm. This makes the running game moot and extra base hits a premium. For instance, I had a runner on second and I spanked one to the wall at Bank One Ball Park. As Iztuiris was rounding 3rd the center fielder just picked up the ball. By the time the ball arrived to the catcher, my runner was only 3/4ths the way to plate. On that same note, double plays are far too common, even when we send the runner in advance. It’s also far too easy to get double plays on sacrifice bunts and stolen bases come at an extreme premium. To us, it seems like a matter of scaling. Perhaps this will be fixed in next year’s game.
When we looked at 989 Sports games in the past it never struck us that these visuals were being pushed out by the geniuses behind great-looking titles such as God of War and Gran Turismo 4. With MLB 2006 the quality has finally permeated to the 989 Sports branding, leading to an excellent looking baseball game that really captures the look and feel of the sport. Player models are excellent and the new branch point does an amazing job of transitioning to the action on the fly. In short, the branch point technology preloads a number of animations and branches them together based on what you’re trying to do. So if you’re looking to throw out a runner at home on a fly ball, the game will display the catching animation while pre-loading the proper throwing animation based on your position and your target.
Previously, baseball games had used generic animations that went from the catching to the throwing, but MLB 2006 takes it up a notch. Let’s say you pull off a diving stop on a hard grounder to the hole, your positioning will determine how you throw the ball. If you’re close to the bag your player might throw it from his back, if it’s a long toss from 3rd, he might get up and fire one off from his feet. There are tons of great branching animations like this that really show how far graphics in baseball games have come.
And it’s amazing just how well every single animation in the game links together. Using the aforementioned brach point technology, the designers were able to create the best looking animations ever seen in a baseball game. Everything comes together seamlessly in a package that rivals the best animations in the gaming industry. Watching the game in action really does feel like you’re watching an actual baseball game. Simply put, we’re amazed.
Another aspect that is linked to this technology is the play-by-play commentary. The game loads a variety of comments and plays them as the action is happening on the screen.
MLB 2006, by far, has the most realistic commentary track of this year’s baseball games. Not the best, just the most realistic. Matt Vasguersian’s cadence, timing, breadth of comments and all-around commentary fully replicates the feel of a Major League broadcast. Its only real shortcoming is a result of Vasguersian’s own shortcomings as a stale and boring announcer. He lacks emotion and doesn’t really enhance the onfield experience, but he does a damn fine job of complementing it. Perhaps it he could learn some emotion and personality, 989 would be able to have the most realistic and the most entertaining commentary of next year’s bunch.
Turn off the commentary and you have an equally realistic aural experience. Everything, from the crack of the bat, to that hollow noise that follows as the hitter drops the bat to the dirt, is recreated in beautiful Dolby Pro Logic II. Ambient noise is perfect and the surround channels do a really great job of encasing you in the action. The only aspect that’s really lacking is the heckling and the stadium announcer, both of which fall into pedestrian levels. Overall though, a great audio experience that really recreates the feeling of being in a ballpark.
If you tire of playing with yourself you can take your game online and challenge the rest of the world. As is the case with most PS2 online games, your experience depends on the kind of connection you have. Those with broadband connections will be treated to lag-free endeavors that are smooth and pain free. Try playing with a dial-up connection and you’ll be stuck in stutter city. Overall, playing online is an excellent way to extend the life of the game as 989 offers up enough options to make this a worthwhile component on its own. Roster updates are also available for those with network adaptors, ensuring that lineup cards are always up-to-date.
Overall 989 has done an exceptional job of stepping up to the plate and delivering a solid at-bat. The gameplay needs to be refined quite a bit and the feature set needs to be increased before we consider MLB to be the premiere franchise on the market, but with a little bit of polish, we’re certain that the boys in San Diego can deliver to expectations. Take this one off the “maybe” list and put it on your watch list for next year.
A very solid effort that seems to be a precursor to the plans that Sony has for the future of the MLB franchise. Great gameplay, realistic baseball and excellent presentation round out an excellent rebuilding year for 989 Sports.
Rating: 8 Good
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.