It’s that time of year again. Spring training is in full swing, and the MLB season is inching ever closer to beginning. This time of year also brings with it the annual parade of baseball titles, a number that has shrunk in recent years due to 2K’s acquisition of the MLB license. One of the difficulties in developing sports games is closely related to the cyclical nature of the MLB season. The game has to be developed on a very strict schedule in order to make it on to store shelves in time for opening day. Even a brief spin with MLB 2K9 makes it clear that many aspects of the game suffered from these time constraints. From the numerous bugs to the overall lack of polish, 2K9 seems like it would have done well with another couple months in the minors before stepping up to the big leagues.
2K9 includes most of the same features as last year’s version. You’ll find all the standard baseball game modes here, from Franchise to Home Run Derby. The game also features the return of the card collecting feature from last year’s game. You’ll reach these through a revamped menu system that works very well once you get the hang of it. The game also features Living Rosters, a fantastic feature that automatically updates the rosters of the game to accurately reflect any trades or free agent acquisitions during the season. You can choose to turn this off if you wish, but most baseball fans will probably choose to leave the feature active to maintain the most accurate representation of their favorite team.
Which ever mode you choose to play in, fans of 2K’s series will feel instantly familiar with the controls. The Right analog stick pitching and hitting mechanics return, although they have been simplified in the name of accessibility. Pitching is handled via a two step process, first requiring the player to pull back on the analog stick until the yellow circle that represents the speed of the pitch reaches the desired level, and then the player has to push the stick forward in a pitch specific motion. For example, fastballs only require the player to pull the stick back and push straight forward, while a curve ball may require the player to pull back and then curve the stick while pushing forward. This method of control should add a certain degree of satisfaction to well placed breaking balls; however its default mode has been oversimplified. You can switch to a more difficult timed release system, which makes each pitch feel more unique. However, whichever method you choose, you’ll find the pitching mechanic to be fairly intuitive.
Unfortunately, the batting mechanic has been oversimplified as well, and it keeps even great hits from feeling truly impressive. Hitting requires the player to pull back the stick, and then push forward to swing. Using the left stick, the player can also control the direction of the hit, pressing up for fly balls, down for grounders and left and right to go (you guessed it) left or right. It’s way too easy in my opinion to make sure the ball goes right where you want it to go, and I prefer a more realistic approach to batting that takes the bats position to the ball into account when determining where the ball ends up rather than allowing the player to control that directly. Another unfortunately problem on the offensive side of the game is that its way to easy to get base hits, and even Home runs. You’ll no doubt see a lot of incredibly high scoring games during your play through, regardless of the difficulty you choose to play on. This really hurts the realism in the game, and is something that definitely needs to be tweaked for next year’s iteration.
Fielding mechanics in the game are also handled by the right stick, flicking the stick in the direction of a base will throw to that base, and the longer you hold the stick the harder the throw will come off. Throws have a meter attached to them, and holding the stick too long could cause your players to throw the ball off course. Unfortunately, the throwing mechanics feel very inaccurate, and vary wildly between feeling sluggish and too fast. Controlling your fielders can be a pain too as several glitches result in your players committing senseless errors. These issues are even worse if you allow the AI to field for you, and you’ll witness players running into walls and staring blankly at rapidly advancing runners.
Unfortunately, the glitches aren’t reserved to fielding. Glitches pop up all over the place in MLB 2K9, from stat tracking to roster management. It’s clear that the game was rushed to production. Considering the fact that most baseball fans are huge stat heads, errors in stat calculations can destroy a season or franchise mode quick. What’s the point in investing time in creating a dynamite pitcher if you can’t even be assured he will get credit for all the strike outs he issues over the course of the season? Hopefully most of these errors will be fixed with a post release patch.
Graphically, this game is the very definition of a mixed bag. Player’s individual batting stances are very realistically animated. Some of the player’s faces look very close to the real thing, while others could pass as a stunt double for Sloth from the Goonies. Most of the environments are very well modeled, and thankfully 2K hasn’t put as much work into realistic cloth physics this year, so players don’t always look like they’re playing in a hurricane.
The audio is a mixed bag as well; the commentators have changed from Joe Morgan and Jon Miller to Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips. The new announcers do a serviceable job, however they just don’t have the same great chemistry that Morgan and Miller have. The soundtrack is a fairly eclectic mix of old and new, and ranges from bizarre to quite good. The in game sound effects are mostly very well done.
In the end, 2K9 shows some promise, but just can’t pull itself together enough to put on a big league showing. Glitches can be patched, but the bigger problem is that the overall feel of the game just doesn’t work. The batting is way too easy, even on higher difficulties. The fielding mechanics seemed tacked on to the right analog stick simply for the sake of being different. There are just too many problems here for a serious baseball fan to ignore. While the game will offer some players a quick burst of hardball heroics, more discerning fans will quickly sour on this year’s game. Luckily, 2K does have a decent base here to lay down a better version next year. With a couple more coats of polish, and a return to the drawing board on some of the gameplay elements, 2K could have a contender. As it stands now however, MLB 2K9 feels more like the gaming equivalent of a AA affiliate than a major league club.