Sports is an industry, a seemingly omnipresent fact of life – even when it comes to sports video games. After EA Sports was shut out of the Major League Baseball game market by 2K Sports, the video-game giant refused to sit out a season. Instead, EA Sports released the very first NCAA baseball game, “MVP 06 NCAA Baseball.” Gamers will have plenty of time to pave their own road to Omaha before Opening Day at the Fish.

Jessica Boullion
Is it strange that we hear R. Kelly when we see this? (Courtesy of EA Sports)

The highlights of the release are the new throwing and hitting systems introduced by EA Sports. The unique load-and-fire hitting system will likely raise the bar for baseball games. Much like the swing system in “Tiger Woods Golf,” a player must push the right analog stick down to make the batter load, then push the stick up to swing the bat. Players can also use the right analog stick for throwing the ball. All you have to do is press and hold the stick in the direction of their desired throw, and then release to let the ball fly.

Both new systems make the game much more realistic than previous baseball titles. The load-and-swing system forces players not only to time pitches like a real hitter does, but also to identify whether a pitch is going to be inside or outside. The throwing system makes players concentrate more on throws to first base than they did in the past when they only had to press a button.

The two new features are a welcome change for hardcore baseball realists, but they can be incredibly frustrating for the casual gamer. Even after a month in dynasty mode, it’s possible to be stuck in a 1-0 pitchers’ duel against the worst teams. The good news is that MVP allows you to change the settings and revert back to last season’s precision-swing system and the good old-fashioned button-pushing for all throws.

Along with the NCAA title, MVP will also feature the exhilarating chase to Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. The dynasty mode – like most college-sports titles – allows gamers to become the head coach at any of the featured colleges and guide their team through a grueling regular-season and conference-tournament schedule. Along the way you can collect upgrades for your school by completing various challenges, such as hitting over a certain batting average during a series or committing zero errors in a weekend. Upgrades like a new practice field might mean the difference between signing that blue-chip recruit and the biochem major who just happened to play ball in high school.

The in-season recruiting isn’t as in-depth as EA’s NCAA Football, but it’s very realistic. Prospects aren’t available for recruitment unless team coaches are at certain level. The more wins, the higher the coaches’ level becomes and the better recruiting classes will be.

Once again, EA came through in the actual game play. The company obviously knows a good thing when it sees it, since graphics have hardly changed since last season’s MVP title. But with plenty of new player mannerisms, from the way a hitter overzealously takes a pitch to the way a pitcher shrugs his shoulders before he sets, EA Sports is only one crotch-grab away from capturing a true ballplayer.

Among the game’s missteps is its commentary: ESPN announcer Mike Patrick and color man Kyle Peterson’s play-by-play turns into a repetitive conversation reminiscent of prolonged interaction with your grandparents. It’ll make you want to tear your eyes out.

And as anyone who’s been at a Sunday afternoon game at the Fish knows, the game’s atmosphere is often unrealistic. There’s rarely more than a couple thousand at a typical game, whereas in NCAA’s stadium, regardless of whether it’s at a cornfield or a Big 12 school, sounds like a major league stadium. Rosenblatt Stadium in June has that feel. Northwestern in February doesn’t.

Still, while MVP 06 NCAA Baseball might not be the big leagues, it plays well, just as good as last season’s MVP 05. For those who prefer the ping of an aluminum bat to the crack of wood, EA’s latest is one for the majors.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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