Baseball isn't Star Wars - when the bad guys win, no one walks away happy. And in a crappy twist of fate in this new exclusive-license world, the second-rate baseball game won the right to lock out its better competitor. That leaves EA Sports' MVP series trying to soldier on with the NCAA license for college baseball - in other words, praying fans will care about a flavor of their sport that no one watches. So the $30 question is "Does MVP 06 NCAA Baseball serve enough purely delicious baseball to make that inherent obstacle vanish?"
The short answer: not really. But that doesn't mean MVP 06 fields a weak team - in fact, it makes a remarkably intelligent stab at both representing the college ballgame and trying to reel in its former MLB-lovin' fanbase. Once you stop being surprised by the ping of aluminum bats, nameless players, and unfamiliar uniforms, you'll start feeling the love that made MVP the star of the past few seasons. Good AI and great small-picture details like quick-pick menus for warming up pitchers mesh nicely with the new Dynasty Mode, which involves an engaging quest to recruit better players and build up your school's team to College World Series caliber. There's even a live, real-life sports ticker that updates scores every 20 minutes from ESPN.com and a deep "creation zone" for crafting your own ballparks, teams, and players.
Two key missteps cool off what could have been a whole lot of baseball hotness. As part of its admirable drive to innovate, MVP 06 seems determined to make every small moment of gameplay a mini-game, which gets awfully tiresome when you'd rather just play ball, not three different mini-games involving a funky array of meters. Pitching remains fantastic, but throwing to a base now involves filling a meter by aiming the right thumbstick at the corresponding base, while batting now uses the right analog stick to charge up and release your swing. Once mastered - an effort that takes a lot of work - the batting can be pretty cool because it almost actually feels like you're swinging; if you don't take to it, you can just switch it off.
Throwing, on the other hand is just busted. Nailing the meter's timing is far too hard, and the resulting frequency of errors makes the Bad News Bears look like pros. Even worse, if you charge a ground ball like a good fielder, you'll often automatically throw to home. Throwing just isn't this hard, even for "mere" college players, and you will lose games entirely because of the accumulated errors. If you turn it off, you get a traditional throwing setup that freakishly makes it almost impossible to pre-charge throws and turn double plays. So you're hosed either way, which is exactly how most sports fans felt about last year's rash of licensing deals (Madden anyone?). If you're willing to put up with some serious weirdness, MVP 06 is worth a look for those rare college fans and series loyalists, but most eyes will remain on 2K Sports' upcoming game... and it has some big shoes to fill and a lot of expectations to live up to now that it's the main MLB game in town.