- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

Before the Washington Nationals moved to town, the closest thing to hometown baseball — that is, if you didn’t want to drive up Interstate 95 — was on a console. Thanks to companies like now-defunct Acclaim, it was pretty simple to correct Major League Baseball’s mistake of the past 34 years. All you had to do was turn on your PlayStation 2 or Xbox, create an expansion team and start playing in a park that had the Capitol as a backdrop.

Even though it’s no longer necessary to create your own team, you can field a roster with Livan Hernandez, Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson and the rest of the Nationals on any number of video games this year. With that in mind, The Washington Times takes a look at some of the choices.

MVP BASEBALL 2005

IF OAKLAND ATHLETICS GENERAL MANAGER BILLY BEANE HAD TO PICK ONE GAME, IT WOULD BE THIS ONE FROM EA SPORTS (XBOX/PS2/GAMECUBE, 1-4 PLAYERS, $29.99). NO GAME ON THE MARKET REQUIRES AS MUCH ATTENTION TO DETAIL, AS MUCH FOCUS ON BUILDING A TEAM.

IN BOTH THE NEW OWNER AND DYNASTY MODES, YOU CONTROL NOT JUST THE MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM BUT ALSO ITS TOP THREE AFFILIATES. FOR INSTANCE, BY CHOOSING THE NATIONALS, YOU ALSO PLAY WITH THE NEW ORLEANS ZEPHYRS, HARRISBURG SENATORS AND POTOMAC CANNONS (THE GAME WAS FINISHED BEFORE THE NAME CHANGE TO POTOMAC NATIONALS). AND BY PLAY, YES, THAT MEANS YOU COULD PLAY A FULL SEASON WITH EACH OF THOSE TEAMS, ASSUMING YOU HAVE NO LIFE.

THE DYNASTY MODE CONTAINS ALL THE USUAL FEATURES — PLAYER PROGRESSION, A DRAFT, FULL GENERAL MANAGER DUTIES — AND LASTS FOR AS LONG AS 120 SEASONS. NEW THIS YEAR IS SPRING TRAINING, WHICH ALLOWS YOU TO SPEND A LITTLE TIME IN FLORIDA PLAYING MINI-GAMES THAT CAN EARN POINTS TO IMPROVE YOUR PLAYERS’ ABILITIES AND EXHIBITIONS.

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TOTAL CONTROL, THERE’S THE OWNER MODE, WHICH ESSENTIALLY HAS BEEN PORTED OVER FROM THE MADDEN FRANCHISE. YOU SET TICKET AND CONCESSION PRICES AND MAKE PERSONNEL DECISIONS, ALL TO KEEP YOUR FAN BASE HAPPY AND MAKE MORE GREEN. A NICE PLUS: IF YOU WANT TO TRY DESIGNING THE NATIONALS’ STADIUM, THE GAME GIVES YOU SOMEWHAT LIMITED OPTIONS. THOUGH THE CITY WON’T HAVE ANY PART IN PAYING FOR IT, OF COURSE.

IN KEEPING WITH A GAME OF THIS DETAIL, PLAY ITSELF CAN BE A BIT MORE DIFFICULT THAN OTHER TITLES. BY NO MEANS DOES THAT MEAN CUMBERSOME; IT’S JUST THAT THE LEARNING CURVE CAN STRETCH A BIT LONGER. PITCHING ISN’T A SIMPLE PRESS OF THE BUTTON (NO GAME IS ANYMORE). THE BUTTON REMAINS HELD UNTIL THE TOP OF A METER TO DETERMINE EFFECTIVENESS, THEN MUST BE PRESSED AGAIN TO DETERMINE LOCATION. LUCKILY, FIELDING SEEMS PRETTY INTUITIVE.

AND WHILE THAT MIGHT SEEM HARD, BATTING CAN BE EVEN MORE FRUSTRATING, AT LEAST AT FIRST. WHEREAS YOU AREN’T REQUIRED TO MOVE THE ANALOG STICK TO MATCH A PITCH’S LOCATION JUST TO STRIKE THE BALL, IT SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASES YOUR CHANCES OF REACHING SAFELY. READING A PITCH WRONG OR NOT AT ALL OFTEN RESULTS IN A GROUND OUT OR FLY BALL.

TO ASSIST WITH THAT, EA SPORTS ADDED SOMETHING CALLED HITTER’S EYE. THE BALL’S COLOR CHANGES RIGHT AFTER RELEASE TO CORRESPOND WITH A PITCH TYPE.

IT’S POSSIBLE THIS WILL BE THE LAST NEW BASEBALL SIMULATION FROM EA SPORTS FOR A WHILE. TAKE-TWO (READ ON FOR A REVIEW OF ITS GAME) BOUGHT EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS TO THE MLB PLAYERS ASSOCIATION EARLIER THIS YEAR FOR THIRD-PARTY GAMES, MEANING SONY AND MICROSOFT USE PLAYERS’ NAMES IN THEIR TITLES BUT EA SPORTS CANNOT. IT REMAINS UNCERTAIN WHETHER EA SPORTS PLANS TO MAKE MVP BASEBALL 2006, BUT WHO WOULD BUY A GAME THESE DAYS WITH FAKE PLAYERS?

MLB 2006

If MVP Baseball 2005 revolved around building a team, this title from 989 Sports (PS2, 1-4 players, $39.99) focuses on building an organization. At the heart of what annually has been among Sony’s better first-party sports games is an enhanced franchise mode that takes ownership to a new depth. Whereas much of the team management remains the same — there are no Class A teams, but you still control Class AA and Class AAA — it’s how you go about paying for your team that’s different.

Your available cash directly reflects revenue in MLB 2006. And like many other baseball games, that revenue can come from the gate and concessions. But as owner, you control the way your team is marketed. That can mean anything from focusing TV commercials on the team’s recent winning ways to getting magazines to do features on your stars.

Moreover, you swing deals to get the team’s games on television, determined partly by your success on the field. Not only that, extra funds can be earned by selling billboard space around the stadium, anything from advertising on the scoreboard to the outfield wall.

In its effort to be all-encompassing, 989 Sports didn’t stop there. You can upgrade almost all of your facilities, from the field to transportation to training rooms that will make your players happier and more quickly healed. And if you are running short on funds, there even are opportunities to borrow money from the bank to pay for that new upper deck.

Also of interest is a career mode, which allows you to create a young player, run him through the minors and make him a star on the major league level. While it provides interesting perspective that breaks down what it is like to be a major league player, you have no control over managerial moves during games.

Once you are done messing around with TV contracts and the like, it’s time to get out on the field, where play itself seems a bit more user friendly. Pitching still relies on a meter, but hitting doesn’t always require a perfect swing.

Where this game falls short are the visuals. MLB 2006 isn’t the prettiest of games; its menu screens are frankly ugly, while the players and fields have almost a murky look. Still, if you can get past that, MLB 2006 is a solid game.

MLB 2K5

MLB 2K5 (XBOX/PS2, 1-2 PLAYERS, $19.99) FROM TAKE-TWO INTERACTIVE DELIVERS A DAZZLING ADVENTURE FOR THOSE MORE CONCERNED WITH PLAYING ON THE FIELD AND LESS WITH METICULOUSLY CHRONICLING STATISTICS AND MANAGING A DYNASTY.

FIRST, THE GAME OFFERS PLENTY OF STADIUMS, TEAMS, CLASSIC TEAMS AND PLAYERS. ADDITIONALLY, IT DOES NOT JUST SIMULATE AN ESPN BROADCAST BUT REALLY PLACES THE GAMER IN THE EVENT. CAMERA ANGLES, REPLAYS, FLUID COMMENTARY AND EVEN FANS POSTING “K” SIGNS AS MIGHTY BATTERS WHIFF MEAN AN IMMERSIVE AND PRACTICALLY PATENTED ESPN FEEL AS THE GAME PROGRESSES.

THE SOUND ALSO REALLY SHINES. I CAN’T IMAGINE THE TECH WIZARDRY INVOLVED IN PROGRAMMING THE AUDIO SNIPPETS OF ANNOUNCERS JON MILLER, JOE MORGAN AND KARL RAVECH AS THEY ANALYZE THE NUANCES OF THE GAME ON THE SCREEN WITHOUT BEING REPETITIVE.

ALSO, XBOX OWNERS CAN RIP THEIR FAVORITE MUSIC FROM THE CONSOLE’S HARD DRIVE TO PUNCTUATE 20 DIFFERENT SITUATIONS.

NEXT, THE GAME HAS A PAINLESS LEARNING CURVE SPEARHEADED BY A K-ZONE PITCHING OPTION, UTILIZING BUTTON PRESSING AND A PAIR OF CROSS-HAIR TARGETS THAT MUST BE LINED UP TO EFFECTIVELY DELIVER A WICKED PITCH.

A SMART THROW BUTTON, CONTROLLING JUMPS TO STEAL HOME RUNS AND DETAILED BASE RUNNING USING ACTIVE PICTURE-IN-PICTURE PRESENTATIONS COMPLETE THE USABILITY PACKAGE.

UNDER THE AREA OF GIMMICKS, I APPRECIATED THE SPEED VERSION OF A HOME RUN DERBY AND THE CUSTOMIZABLE SKYBOX THAT EVEN CONTAINS AN AIR HOCKEY GAME (UNLOCKED BY COLLECTING TOKENS AWARDED FOR EXCELLENCE DURING GAME PLAY AND A SOLID ONLINE COMPONENT).

2K5 DOES OFFER A VIRTUAL FRANCHISE MANAGEMENT MODE, BUT COMPARED TO OTHER TITLES, IT IS NOT AS NEARLY ROBUST.

PURELY FOR ITS MULTIMEDIA CANDY AND PRICING, 2K5 IS THE PERFECT PURCHASE FOR THE AVERAGE FAN LOOKING FOR VIRTUAL ENJOYMENT OF AMERICA’S PASTIME.

Xavix Baseball

The technological road of virtual reality now leads to a sports fans’ entertainment room by way of an expensive simulation that literally puts the bat and ball in the hands of baseball competitors.

I am all for giving the video game-addicted couch potato a reason to exercise but Xavix (Xavix Port, 1-4 players, $59.99) by SDD Company does not quite provide the goods.

Through its cartridge-based system, gamers use wireless peripherals with infrared transmitter points to mimic the movements involved in sporting events. In the case of its baseball product, that means using a 19-inch bat to swing and a tethered, almost standard-sized ball to hold and move in a pitching motion while interacting with a television screen.

The ball also contains four buttons that offer 10 types of pitches to confound batters when pressed in certain sequences.

Although the game definitely has some family fun features including nine-inning contests, batting and pitching practice, and a home run derby, the options and animations are woefully lacking.

Players get nothing in the way of MLB rosters or stadiums. Instead they are stuck with generic avatars and teams with specific attributes. This makes no sense considering that the game player already controls bat placement and speed and the type and speed of pitches.

Defensively, players get no chance to catch a ball and must rely on computer teammates to make plays — displayed as extremely repetitive animations.

In terms of graphics, gamers might recall the days of an 8-bit Nintendo, which makes even less sense in a world of high-powered, gaming excellence. For the price tag, and separate software cartridge, we expected a much better looking and sounding experience — at least one on par with a late-‘90s video game.

Xavix efforts are on the right track. However, nothing beats dad playing real catch with his son or a weekend athlete joining a softball league. Both experiences cost less and deliver a much more enjoyable time.

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