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Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D02

The Nationals had their first home game last week, but in the video-game world, their season is nearly a month old. All of Washington's games have been on television -- at least the one in my family room, anyway.

That's because for the first time, Washington has a team that not only plays on the real diamond, but the virtual one, too, as the Nationals also made their video game debut this spring.

Major League Baseball 2K5 ($19.99 for Xbox and PlayStation2) unveiled baseball's newest team as well as a pretty good rendition of RFK Stadium in what might be the most comprehensive game of its kind on the market.

The same K-Zone that ESPN broadcasts to chart the exact location of a pitch makes hitting a lot more challenging than just pressing a button.

Users must decide whether they want to make contact or swing for the fences and hope they still have enough time to catch up to blazing fastballs and curveballs that graze the outside corner of the plate.

Users can control exactly what they want to. If you think you can do a better job of stealing second base, just take control from the base runner and leave the hitting up to the computer and hope it doesn't mess up.

Major League Baseball 2K5's game play is seamless and its graphics -- down to a player's uniform remaining dirty if he slides in the first inning and the grimace on a player's face after striking out with the bases loaded -- are nearly perfect. Players can climb the outfield fence to take away home runs, and it's your decision if you want your base runner to slide head or feet first.

Or you can just watch from the owner's box in the game's Franchise Mode, as you set salaries, scout minor league talent and fire and sign players and coaches faster than George Steinbrenner.

Major League Baseball 2K5 gives the user so much control -- you can even download music so every hitter strolls to the plate with a different song playing in the background -- it takes much longer to learn to play, but it's also worth it.

-- Jon Gallo

© 2005 The Washington Post Company