It’s that time of year again when the boys of summer are preparing for the upcoming season and the excitement of Spring Training is giving baseball fans dreams of their team finally making it to the World Series. You can practically smell the scent of victory and defeat and of men that will become legends … ah yes Spring Training is here. And the best part about all of this is that MLB 2004, Sony and 989 Sports first PS2 baseball title, will allow baseball fans to experience all of this first hand.

The game features enough game modes to really sink your teeth into such as Exhibition mode, an in-depth Home Run Derby, All-Star Game and Playoffs (where you can also skip ahead and go directly to the World Series). There’s also Manager Mode, which allows you to step into the shoes of a big league manager as you call the shots while your CPU team plays the calls you make. There is Season Mode and a Career Mode (where you can take a team or a created player and build them up through ten seasons. Yet the most creative of these modes is Spring Training where you create a top prospect and place him on a team to earn MLB Status points to take him all the way to the Hall of Fame.

These modes also allow you to realign the divisions anyway you see fit and this makes for some really interesting fantasy drafts that can change your favorite team completely. If you imagine your favorite team with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens … it can be done! You can also create your own players, deciding on everything from his pitching speed to his ideal height and weight. Taking your creation through various seasons, your player can pick up points and experience along the way and he can even be traded.

While impressive in number and in depth, the game modes share one thing in common–a fast pace. You’ll be surprised how quickly this game moves along. Pitchers toss fastballs much more quickly than you can anticipate them you’ll be astonished how an inning passes by in this game. Much of this is due to the batting/pitching interface that’s a lot like the All-Star Baseball series. While pitching, you select your pitch type and then move the ball anywhere within the cursor. While batting, you’re given a quick heads up where the pitcher is about to toss the ball. This makes it easier to take a pass on swinging at wild pitches.

On the field, though, things change … much of it not for the better. For one thing, this is where the game’s flaws become really noticeable and very disappointing. One fault that shows up rather regularly is after the CPU batter manages to hit a long ball out towards centerfield. While you’re expecting your player to scoop the ball up the ball in question hits the ground and bounces over your player who now has to scramble back to get it. If somebody hits a ball near the foul line, your player just stands over the ball as if unsure to pick it up or just leave it there until the next batter takes the plate. On the plus side, though, tossing the balls anywhere on the diamond is easy. Catching is easy too since a huge ball icon appears on the location where the ball will land, giving your player ample time to get in there and catch it.

Another disappointment comes in the form of the game’s graphics that end up being just average. The ballparks themselves–like Shea Stadium, for instance–look a lot like the real deal … only they lack those little details you see in other baseball titles like High Heat Major League Baseball 2004. In fact, the ballparks look pretty plain. The player models, though, do make up for this since their movements are wonderfully realistic whether they’re preparing to steal third base or ready to take a swing. The facial details are decent enough that you can identify your favorite diamond king, although the lighting could have been a lot better–especially when batters are walking up to the plate.

Sound-wise, the game also lacks that finesse that would have more than made up for the lackluster visuals. Strangely enough, the best ambiance sound effects are heard when you put the game on pause. You can hear the vendors selling peanuts and hotdogs, the stadium announcer’s booming voice through the PA system and the occasional heckler whose voice rises among the lively chattering of spectators. You’ll love the sound your bat makes when it rips a ball out to centerfield or hear the ball smack against your glove as you catch the ball. The play-by-play and color commentary gives the game a televised feel that sounds really authentic thanks to Vin Scully and Dave Campbell.

MLB 2004 has all the makings of a really great baseball game, but its gameplay flaws keep this game from competing with the big boys. Still, despite the many low points in the graphics and control department, this is still a pretty entertaining game that will, hopefully, show its true potential next year. Until then, I recommend this one as a rental if you want a taste of a fast-paced baseball title.