A grand slam gaming hit

Baseball: It's not perfect, but among video versions of the national pastime, Electronic Arts' 2004 offering is by far the class of the league.

March 18, 2004|By Chip Carter and Jonathan Carter | Chip Carter and Jonathan Carter,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Back in the day, we (well, at least one of us) used to haunt the arcades in and around Atlanta, banging the heck out of those old-timey baseball games you used to see everywhere.

A steel ball would shoot out from beneath the pitcher's mound, and you'd try to swat it by pressing a lever that swung a bat. The ball would rocket around the inside of the machine, falling in a hole for an out or tagging a panel for a base hit. A really sweet swing would launch the ball over the outfield wall, sending a little metal runner scurrying around the bases.

It was pretty much as lame as it sounds.

But the quest was for the perfect gaming re-creation of the sport of baseball, a search that would lead to countless more hours in arcades as games got better, thousands of dollars spent on home video gaming, and ultimately a career.

Chip got into video gaming in part because the games were cool, but mostly because he was looking for that perfect baseball game. Now, it's finally here.

OK, you can find a few faults with Electronic Arts' MVP Baseball 2004 ($50 for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube and PC). There are occasional hiccups that mar the otherwise seamless flow of the graphics and action. But this one captures the look, feel and style of real baseball, right down to the tiniest nuance.

For real baseball fans, it's the little things that matter. For the first time in video baseball, on a checked swing, the first base or third base umpires can overrule the home plate ump on appeal.

Another first: Pitchers warming up in the bullpen will get tired if you leave them there too long. It's a matter of timing, a guessing game, a fine line between when a guy's ready and when he's gone too far, and it's the same guessing game big-league managers play every day.

In fact, MVP Baseball 2004 is the same game big league managers play every day.

This is micromanagement at its finest, right down to the inclusion of every Major League team's AA and AAA affiliates as playable teams - with accurate rosters. If you need a midseason call-up, it's nice to know you can turn to that 19-year-old third baseman from the Dominican Republic who's tearing it up for the Montgomery Biscuits.

Best of all, you can decide how much or how little you want to get involved. If you just want to play ball, you can turn off all the bells and whistles and swing away. If you just want to manage, you can build a team and let the computer play for you.

And if you want to do it all, you can make all the decisions and play all the games in a dynasty mode that spans an astonishing 120 years. (We wonder how many Series the Yankees will have won by 2124.) And if you're looking for anything in between, you can do that, too.

The rating

JON SAYS: Not being a baseball fan, I've never understood my dad's obsession with finding the perfect video baseball game. But I have humored him as he's searched, playing a lot more stick-and-ball stuff than I'd have ever done on my own. So I've seen 'em all. And he's right - this one's pretty sweet. A+

CHIP SAYS: I'm still not ready to sign off on this one as the perfect baseball game, but I will say it is by far the best one to date. And by a long way. Outstanding game for seamheads and casual fans alike. A+

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