Major League Baseball 2K10 Review (Xbox 360)
It's hard to believe that it has been 10 years since I bought World Series Baseball, the game that practically sold me on the Xbox. Features like controlling the managerial staff and a truncated minor-league system made Sega's early effort a standout (ignoring those Dreamcast versions).
Since then, the WSB/2K baseball games have made their slow descent into mediocrity, managing to outlast other titles that did not make it out of the "golden age" of console hardball. Then the 2K exclusive license effectively killed superior titles, including MVP and All-Star Baseball. And, after the dust settled, MLB 2K itself became every critic's punchline.
When taking everything into account, MLB 2K9 was the worst game in the series to date (sans pre-patch MLB 2K6). It concluded the downward spiral for a series that had been to the top of the mountain during the last generation, fallen on its face, made big promises when the "next-gen" era started, then failed to deliver. In a decade, this series went from selling consoles to rumors of it causing 2K's impending demise.
But MLB 2K10 has been talked about as the make-or-break year for the franchise. So with that in mind, has this year's version done enough to resuscitate the MLB 2K line? Well, it's still not a reason to buy an Xbox 360, but it is certainly worth purchasing if you already own one. More importantly, if you gave up on MLB 2K a long time ago (as I had), 2K10 is certainly deserving of a look.
The fielding is better, but it's far from perfect.
A Game Within a Game
A lot of the 2K pre-release press hyped the pitcher/batter interaction, aimed at establishing the developer's goal of creating tension during each pitch. This is, after all, at the heart of what makes baseball interesting and exciting. I am not sure any other team sport places as much emphasis on one recurring action as much as baseball, and those taut moments are highlighted here. Specifically, pitching with the analog stick makes each user-controlled pitch an event unto itself since your carefully planned sequence can be ruined by one botched analog-stick execution.
It all starts with pitch selection, which, thankfully, has been overhauled. No longer will the game misread one pitch command for another, leaving you to guess why you threw a curve instead of a slider. Instead, you select the pitch with a button press, leaving no room for AI or user error. Once selected, the pitch icon gets larger and the analog action is clearly displayed. I like how much information is displayed in this relatively small graphical circle: command action, "stopping zones," pitch rating, and an icon for the pitcher's signature pitch.
Once you have selected a pitch, executing the pitch becomes paramount to your success on the rubber. To throw effectively, you have to manage the accuracy of the analog action and timing. I like how this breaks the pitch into two separate aspects: speed and command.
Nail the timing portion, and you will achieve the maximum effective speed on the pitch (indicated with a bright red flashing MAX sign). Miss, and you will end up overthrowing the pitch or lobbing in a softball. Snap off the right motion and you will get pitches that break more sharply and are simply more accurate. But if you screw up the motion, you could end up with a "Mitch Williams special."
This whole system works pretty much as advertised. There is a useful feedback tool that can be used when you want to see exactly what you did wrong when you served up those back to back long balls. The feedback system borrows a bit from the MVP series, but adds a nifty tracing of your analog movement on the screen. In other words, a "here's what you did" and "here's what you should have done" look at your input.
This system actually helped me learn why a certain pitch was missing all of the time -- I should have been stopping my motion at "nine o'clock," when I was actually continuing to about 11 or 12 o'clock on the analog stick. The feedback system can also be tuned to only activate when you throw a bad pitch, and is pretty unobtrusive when it does pop up.
I am probably walking more batters in this game than in just about any other baseball game I have played, which is a good thing. For instance, when I pitched with Roy Halladay, and following the catcher's signs, I walked three batters over the course of nine innings. They were "smart" walks, where my catcher was asking me to pitch around heavy hitters, but they certainly were not intentional. The AI batters in this game really seem to walk the fine line between being aggressive and being stupid (at least on the default settings).
Pitching is not always easy: there is a definite difference between your Halladays and your Bastardos. The point being, I think this is another subtle but crucial element of this pitching system, which, in my opinion, is one of the best to grace our consoles. Strikeouts also seem to be well-earned.
Simply put, it is just a fun experience, that as of yet, has not and probably will not become stale. As good as other games have been, I have grown slightly tired of the simple meter systems for pitching and so this is a nice alternate to that style.
Beyond the pitcher, catchers do call pretty good games, and again, are not afraid to walk the big bats. I like the this pitching "sub-system," which has been a part of the 2K series for a while. I find that when I do not have the advice of a catcher, I repeat the same sequence of pitches and rely too much on the strongest pitch, which makes pitching a pretty rote and repetitive experience. Having the catcher system in place keeps it fresh, even if the catchers seem to call for a few too many breaking balls.
I do miss the critical pitches of old 2K games where key throws increased or decreased that individual pitch rating. I know that system was a bit "gamey," but I think it was a fun way to replicate a pitcher "not having" his curveball, slider, etc. As it is, the composure system works by punishing you for putting men on or getting hit around. I like that it penalizes you in a "real" sense, making the controller shake and the cursor vibrate. I am not sure this is more or less contrived than the individual pitch rating increases/decreases, but it is a nice effective way to replicate the psychological side of the game.
Pitching and hitting are the definite highlights of the game.
Hit It Here
On the other side of the plate is the batting. Here, the system is not quite as deep or as fun as the pitching, but it works.
There are three types of swings: normal, power and defensive. Normal swings are executed with a simple push up on the stick, and power is a pull back/ push up motion. These two motions feel natural, although the power swing -- with its "rock back" motion -- feels a bit more like baseball (if it's possible for a controller to feel like a bat at all). Everything is based on timing, which I prefer over zone or cursor hitting.
The third swing is what's new here. The defensive swing is used to protect the plate and prolong the at bat until you get the pitch you want. More often than not it was something I planned in advance to do -- hopefully with time it becomes somewhat instinctual.
While the defensive swing is a new addition, it is a welcome one. I like it for a couple of reasons. First, it is (mostly) effective at spoiling pitches, which creates a lot of foul balls. This raises pitch counts to more accurate numbers; though, pitch counts may end up being a bit high for AI hurlers. Second, I like that it is not always 100 percent predictable. I have gotten bloop hits when swinging defensively and nice little rainbows that hug the foul line. These do not seem to be overdone but are a nice surprise. Likewise, I have "defensively" swung into some lazy humpback outs. It is also possible to defensively swing and miss.
MLB 2K10 also borrows from past baseball games with its inclusion of a "hitter's eye," a mechanic that allows hitters with good plate vision to read the pitch as it is thrown. It is a bit more straight forward than MVP Baseball's color-coded system, but it is also not as subtle. I enjoyed the mental exercise that ensued when my mind tried to connect the color red to a fastball in MVP. By comparison, the system in 2K10 displays the name of the pitch in big letters as it is thrown. To me, this ruins a bit of the immersion.
In any case, the batting system can be punishing when battling against top-tier pitchers, which is a good thing. But either way, the batting is just not as fun or rewarding as the pitching. This could be a result of what happens after the ball is put in play.
No Field of Dreams
If there is an area of gameplay that is the weakest, it is the fielding. First, it seems like the infielders get to just about everything. Balls up the middle are about the only kind of grounder that gets through for a hit. Even when playing as the Phillies, my beloved "rock" Ryan Howard over at first base was making graceful and spectacular plays. There does not seem to be enough variety when it comes to fielding ratings/skill. Even lowly relief pitchers catch or field just about every come-backer with lighting-quick reflexes.
And, because the action in the infield happens so quickly, the computer assistance seems to handle the largest part of fielding. In most cases, you take control of the infielder just as the ball is getting to him -- just in time to throw and that is about it. The outfield is not quite as "automated" as the infield, which makes sense since you have a longer amount of time to make the play.
On top of the super-human infielders, there is also the rocket arms of the outfielders. I think part of the arm issue might be field size -- the fields feel a little small (or the players a little too big). Regardless, while I have thrown a few batters out at first on what should have been singles, the AI has not yet rung me up in that way. I also have been able to score from second on a single so the outfielders do not always gun you down when going for an extra base. I do think some of the complaints by the masses may be a bit overstated, but outfielders' arms certainly are a issue that cannot be ignored.
This perception that arms and gloves are overpowered is also supported by the statistics. There simply are not enough errors in this game, an issue that is made more apparent by defensively inferior players making spectacular plays in the field.
The graphics are much improved over 2K9's...
Looks Worse Than It Moves
Graphically, this game is a mixed bag, but the most important thing is that this game is super smooth. Everything moves and animates at a consistently fluid rate (a minor miracle after the frame-rate issues during the past few years), and, for the most part, looks great in motion.
However, the animations themselves are troublesome at times. Outfielders come up throwing to second, only to have the ball shoot out at an awkward angle on a perfect trajectory to third. I had an outfielder make a play and ease to a stop near the foul line -- only to lock into a wall-crashing animation. I suspect that the issue in both of these examples lies in the transitions between animations. There are quite a few "hiccups" as players move from one animation to another, whether between a fielding and throwing position or from a walk to a sprint.
These awkward animation transitions (found in most 2K games, it seems) seem to remove a sense of weight from objects. When a catcher is on his stomach to smother an incoming throw, then, in a flash, on his back reaching for a tag, you cannot help but sense that these are just virtual avatars and not physical bodies moving through space.
The player models also look a little strange. They are well proportioned, and the faces are pretty accurate. But, like the animations, I feel that everything does not quite mesh. For instance, Ryan Howard's face looks good, but his body just does not carry the necessary weight to suggest that he is capable of hitting 40-plus home runs. Hats also occasionally look like caps sitting on head-shaped bottles -- this is especially true for second basemen when using the "pitching view."
Uniforms do not look good and have a "painted on" look to them, especially the numbers and text on the back. Gone are the cloth physics, which may have been a casualty of the emphasis on a smooth gameplay experience. Sorry to see you go Mr. Flappy Uniform, but it was you or the iffy frame rate perhaps.
The stadiums look pretty nice, but the crowd looks a little flat. There are some noticeable "jaggies," especially in some of the atmospheric signage and shadows, and occasionally a camera angle will betray a "seam" in the architecture. The entire color palette is a little bright for my tastes, but that is not a huge deal. One cannot forget the excellent lighting, which progresses pretty naturally over the course of a game. I played an extra-inning affair and was pretty excited to see it transition from day to twilight to early evening over the course of the game.
Also on the positive side, the return of dynamic cameras and real-time broadcasting adds a tremendous "live TV" feel to the whole proceedings. This, along with some stellar commentary, great stat and score overlays and the inclusion of MLB Today make the presentation here outstanding. While it can get occasionally repetitive, the ever-changing and always relevant statistics -- both seen and reported -- make playing a franchise game seem like it is part of a real season. This system applies an enormous amount of context to each game. The only thing that is missing is a weekly recap show like the one found in NFL 2K5 or the College Hoops series.
There are some glitches, such as a player going 0-3 with a strikeout earning player of the game. I am also left scratching my head after seeing what the game considers the Top 3 plays. In addition to those oddities, your pinch hitter will automatically take the mound following the end of a half inning.
A Career Year
The MLB Today functionality along with other extras, including 2K Share, trading cards, create-a-team and living rosters, provide a strong array of supplementary features that complement the two biggest offline modes: Franchise and My Player.
Franchise has been kicked up a notch to include minor-league teams, September call-ups and an amateur draft. These welcomed additions do not quite make this mode as deep as others you can find out there (or even as deep as MVP 2005), but they still make the mode deep and engaging. The MLB.com overlay is nice but ultimately a little disorganized -- it is in no way helped by 2K's terribly awkward menu system.
Some early reported issues with the Franchise mode include a lack of trades and not enough free agents, which are problems that can hopefully be fixed with some user control and massive rosters tweaks. Time will tell whether these issues ruin this mode or are corrected in a satisfactory manner. I simulated a season, and while stats and trade offers were reasonable, there were no free agents that were rated above an 80 overall (besides those that I did not re-sign).
My Player is a strong compliment to the Franchise mode, but it will ultimately only have legs if you are interested in these modes to begin with. For those wondering, My Player is not really broken down like the similar mode found in The Bigs 2, which had a nice narrative structure to it. There is a little of that here, but not enough to make me choose to play this mode instead of Franchise games.
Regardless, My Player is centrally focused on, well, your player. You are sort of touted as the top prospect of your organization so it does not take too long to reach the majors if you do well. You are not at the mercy of your virtual GM either: If you want to be traded, just name the team (obviously, not realistic). In addition, you really only play your key moments, which makes this the perfect mode for busy people who just want a quick taste of console baseball.
MLB 2K10's Pitcher/HItter battle is indeed it's biggest bright spot.
I have spent a limited amount of time in online matches and have been left with a few impressions. First, I had a hard time finding a player to play since 2K's lobby system seems antiquated. That said, I do like that you can add a human friend pretty quickly from the team-select screen.
Secondly, my timing was way off in the online games I played. It seems you have to swing early to really time the pitches correctly. And I am not sure that this consistent "lag" is really consistent. In one game, both me and my opponent strung all of our hits together over the course of two innings. I cannot prove it, but I wonder if the timing became closer to the offline game for that brief length of time.
In the game I just mentioned, we each had a ton of strikeouts, and I ended up losing 2-1. Each run was scored on a solo home run, all which were hit in the eighth inning. The rest of the game featured only strikeouts and ground outs. I hope that this timing issue is fixable because low-scoring, strikeout laden games are not much fun.
If the gameplay online can be tightened up, leagues could be a lot of fun.
Comeback Player of the Year?
While I cannot believe that we have seen a decade of 2K baseball games, it is also hard to fathom the progress this title has made in one year. A fun pitching system and an intuitive batting interface make up the heart of the gameplay. A strong franchise mode and a slightly less engaging My Player mode are enhanced by some of the best presentation elements seen on this generation of consoles. A bevy of extras help to round out this package.
But I wonder if the perceived love for this game, both from myself and gamers, is a reaction to the improvements that have been made or the recent past of the series. As the quote goes: "without the sour, the sweet ain't as sweet." If this were a standalone effort, not a follow up to one of the worst baseball games in recent memory, would I be as excited?
The short answer is probably not. The graphical and animation issues are easy to overlook but are nonetheless existent. Some AI issues are forgivable but not entirely excusable. And fielding needs a lot of work or at least some slider or patch help. In fact, just about every aspect of this game could use a slight to moderate tweak to make it a bit more refined.
So, as it is, this is not a console seller like the original World Series games on the Xbox. However, it is probably the best "sim" baseball game on the Xbox 360 to date.
On the Field: Sweet, sweet pitching and solid batting are bothered by some fielding issues and occasional AI problems. Overall, a very fun experience between the lines.
Graphics: A truly mixed bag, with some really nice presentation elements and stadiums but troublesome and quirky animations.
Sound Design: Commentary that is always interesting and timely enhances the overall presentation, which only occasionally becomes repetitive.
Entertainment Value: Two fairly deep modes that are complemented by a number of supplemental features really make for a pretty great package. MLB Today makes it a game to visit daily.
Learning Curve: The big new features are well explained through in-game tips, but other controls may require some practice. I had issues with baserunning but with time got more familiar with the controls.
Online: Connection problems and interface issues aside, the timing was off for me. Leagues look to be a lot of fun once they get going.
Score: 7.5 (Good)