A good baseball team is only as good as its grasp on the fundamentals. Often times the difference between success in October and failure are the little things that teams do right and wrong. Its fitting then, that the biggest discrepancy between the two competing baseball video game franchises comes down to all the “small ball” aspects of game design, rather than the heavy hitters. 2K cleaned the slate for their MLB series this year, attempting to put together a title worthy of its ten year anniversary. What they’ve come up with is a game that is a vast improvement over last year, but still too green to be considered a worthy competitor to Sony’s MLB: The Show.
With a built from scratch engine that revamps many aspects of the game, while keeping some of the admittedly few positive aspects of last years version, it’s hard to argue that 2K isn’t at least trying to get their game called up from the minors (forgive the cheesy baseball reference, I fear it won’t be the last). They’ve focused this year on making sure the “battle at the plate” between hitters and hurlers is as intense as the real thing. On this aspect they’ve actually hit it out of the park (I warned you). This interplay is easily the most important aspect of any baseball game and they’ve managed to make each at bat feel like a struggle between competing forces rather than the struggle against controls and framerate we’ve seen the last couple years. Pitchers will get more desperate and shaken the deeper they get into an at bat. Batters will get increasingly frustrated with changing speeds and eye levels. In addition to the standard average and power swings, you’ll also find the new defensive swing which allows you to attempt to foul balls out to prolong your plate appearance and try to shake the pitcher into giving you the pitch you want. Overall, the pitcher/batter mechanic is much improved over last year and the clear highlight of 2K10.
The controls have changed a bit from last years version, in mostly positive ways. Swings are still controlled via the right analog stick, which works mostly very well. Pitching has seen some changes to its mechanics, requiring you first to select which pitch you want to throw then completing that pitches required gesture to deliver it to the plate. This method works 100% better than last years totally gesture based selection. This feature is certainly more complicated than The Show’s point and press pitching meter method, but I found it to be very enjoyable and ultimately more satisfying due to its complexity. Fielding controls are basically unchanged, with the exception of the added ability to pre-load throws which was an unforgivable omission from previous games in the series. Unfortunately there are still some struggles with control, primarily the occasional feeling that you have to really fight to get your character to go the way you want them too. This is especially prevalent when playing as a pitcher and attempting to leave the mound area to cover first. Issues like this aren’t frequent enough to be game breaking, but they are certainly annoying when they crop up.
Not content to let The Show hog all the career mode glory, 2K10 also adds a “Road to the Show” style mode called MyPlayer. In the MyPlayer mode, you create a player at any of the 9 on field positions and guide him through his career with Cooperstown as the eventual goal. You’ll start off in the minors, although how much time you spend there will depend on your performance and the position you’ve picked. Your player will earn skill points depending on your performance in game, both by completing per appearance goals and through the normal course of each contest. This points are spent increasing attributes for your character that are split up between pitching, batting, fielding, and baserunning. The attribute interface is more simplistic than in MLB: The Show, and thus should prove less daunting for newcomers. The points you earn are specific to each aspect of your player, so you might earn 600 hitting points and 500 baserunning points that can only be spent in their respective classes. Unlike The Show, you don’t have to worry about attributes decreasing if you go too long without adding points to them, making it easier for rookies to concentrate on just making their player the best they can be.
The MyPlayer mode was an incredibly necessary addition and this first iteration lays down a solid groundwork for next years version, however it isn’t without its problems. First, in a strange design choice, the fielding controls are flipped when playing in MyPlayer. This can lead to some confusing moments and balls thrown to incorrect bases if you switch back and forth between this mode and the more standard modes. While The Show’s in game goals tend to be very intuitive, the goals that you are given mid game in MyPlayer seem to be randomly chosen with no bearing on the actual situation at hand. When playing as a pitcher I had situations where with one out and a runner on first, the logical goal would be to induce a ground ball with the intention of turning it into a double play. The game however apparently thought it more important that I strike the batter out, or induce a fly ball out that would basically serve no purpose. Batting fared no better, as several times I would come up to bat as the pitcher with a runner on first and no outs in a close game. The commentators would make the logical conclusion that a sacrifice bunt was the way to go. Not 2K’s goal department however, who apparently felt like my pitcher with a 25 contact rating and a 68 bunt rating would be better off just swinging for the fences. Situations like this remove immersion from the game by forcing you to choose between “gaming” the system for points or choosing the more realistic option and getting nothing for it.
Unfortunately this isn’t the only occasion when the ghosts of MLB 2K’s past come bubbling up. While the framerate issues that plagued the last several iterations have been eliminated, the tradeoff for this is substantially decreased visual fidelity. While many animations have been added this year (including some casual fielding animations so that every play doesn’t look like an ESPN Web Gem), many of them seem stilted and awkward. Occasionally players will slide across the field like they were playing outfield on a frozen pond. Players will slowly jog towards high fly balls, then run unnaturally fast towards the end of the animation when the game decides they won’t make it to the ball at their current pace. Players occasionally get stuck against each other, especially on foul balls where runners are walking back to first base. Strange texture pop occurs on the crowd in the stands when a ball heads towards them, popping in textures in a wave across them.
The AI also suffers from some very poor throwing, fielding and baserunning decisions, like throwing to the cut off man when they have an easy play on a baserunner. Perhaps the strangest of these glitches occurred following a pickoff attempt of a runner on second. The runner made it back to second successfully and was deemed safe by the umpire. However the runner stood up while the second baseman still had the ball and stepped off base, causing the player to tag him for the final out of the inning. Errors like that can really ruin the flow of a game and again kill the immersion.
The audio in 2K10 is mostly solid, from the sound effects to some very smooth commentary. My only complaint about the commentary is that it quickly borders on repetitive, even more so than other games in the genre.
Of course in keeping with the modern 2K tradition of seamless online play, the game features a full set of online modes as well as automatic roster updates. I had no problems with lag while playing the game online, however I did uncover one exploit. While playing the game online, the person I was playing against and I had a very evenly matched game going into the 3rd inning. At that point, he literally decided to bunt every at bat. Instead of giving me control of the player closest to the ball, it seemed to randomly decide which person (catcher, pitcher, 3rd baseman) should field it. By the time I figured out who I was controlling, and got to the ball, the runner was already at the base. I discovered on my next trip up to bat that I could do the same thing to him. Flaws like this can really ruin an experience, especially for players like myself who are more interested in a fun, competitive, and realistic game than winning or losing.
While 2K10 has made some great strides in the larger aspects of its gameplay this year, it’s still not up to par with Sony’s reigning champion. If you have a PS3, The Show is still the game to get. However the nice thing about the improvements this year is that baseball fans who are Xbox only owners will finally get a baseball game that is worth checking out, even if its not as fantastic as it could be. With a solid start for MyPlayer mode, and a strong big picture batting and pitching mechanic in place, I’m quite optimistic for the 11th iteration of MLB 2k. We’ll find out next year if 2K can finally make this series a true Major League competitor. They’ve got the foundation to make it happen, but it all comes down to fundamentals.
Review copy provided by publisher.