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Dogs vs. cats. Pepsi vs. Coke. Sean Connery vs. all the other Bonds… all legendary rivalries that have seen favoritism split straight down the middle and battles that will surely never see an end in the near future. Joining that elite list of no holds-barred scrapping is Sega’s ESPN Major League Baseball 2004 vs. Electronic Arts’ MVP Baseball 2004. These two have fought their way through the brackets, and the debate about the best baseball game for the Microsoft Xbox is sure to go extra innings. But this match-up and hotly contested debate isn’t comparable to Game 7 late in October, but rather a prizefight in glitzy Las Vegas.
Last year I called Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3 the best console baseball game ever made. From graphics to sound to gameplay to franchise mode, it was one hell of a game. Coming into 2004, quite a few things have changed over at Sega. For one thing, Sega Sports has become ESPN Videogames and World Series Baseball has been dubbed ESPN Major League Baseball. When EA changed the name of its beleaguered Triple Play series, it was to wipe the slate clean, to say that this was a whole new game. Ironic, then, that Sega's renamed baseball title, once again developed by Blue Shift, seems to be announcing that the critically acclaimed series has taken a step backwards.
Some aspects of ESPN Major League Baseball may look sloppy, but the game is great where it matters most. The best way to describe ESPN Major League Baseball is to say that it's an improved version of World Series Baseball 2K3 that presents a handful of new and mostly broken play modes. The pitching, hitting, and fielding interfaces have been tweaked; a new twist has been added to the franchise mode; and the ESPN branding has been made much more obvious. However, all of these changes just take a lot of what was already good about last year's game and make it a little better.
Last year at this time, Xboxers had no fewer than five ways to go deep in virtual ballparks. This year, that number is down to three with Microsoft taking the season off with its Inside Pitch and newly acquired High Heat titles. Sega's ESPN Major League Baseball is the last of the three to make it to the plate this season, and while it may fall a few RBIs short of the lofty numbers put up by EA Sports' MVP Baseball, it does more than enough to stay in the pennant race.
It may not fall under the World Series moniker anymore, but it's still a good baseball game--just not good enough to make the fall classic. ESPN Major League Baseball 2K4 is a good ballgame, but there are at least two competing games that substantially outperform it. And that puts this successor to the renowned World Series franchise in the tough spot of scrambling for a spot in the playoffs.
It’s been a while since those “old-school” baseball games on the Sega Genesis burned a hole in my pocket and my social life. I was still only in elementary school when I first played World Series Baseball; the good ‘ol times when game stability and “online play” was never an issue. Sport games have come quite a long way as far as innovating the genre to current hardware capabilities, but what’s left in the dust is that fun factor that only seems to be imitated, never duplicated. ESPN Major League Baseball in essence is World Series Baseball on the inside, but has a hard candy shell that we call the ESPN presentation.
Baseball games are unpredictable; you never really know what you’re going to next from one season to the next. One year, a game will bring all the right components together and simply smoke the competition. The next, it will develop in the wrong directions and fizzle on store shelves.
Xbox Nation (XBN)
ESPN is a solid runner-up to MVP. In some ways, it's more accessible, thanks to all the tweakable options and the fact that you don't have to be fully aware of every pitch you throw. Hitting is a little more lenient, too, and online play is most definitely a good thing.