MLB 2K’s journey during this console generation has been a tumultuous one. Nonetheless, the folks working on MLB 2K did not try to start over and escape from a past defined by missteps and barrel rolls (NSFW). Instead, they have buckled down and tried to fix what was undone during the early part of the generation.
It has not been an easy fix, but the developers working on MLB 2K11 clearly feel like this is the year where they can finally start improving and adding to the game rather than just fixing it.
Opening Day Once Again
When I first took the field, the first thing that stood out to me was the improved color palette. The saturation levels have been reduced on the field, which really helps to highlight the day games. MLB 2K actually is a really good looking game, but in the past it has been hard to notice because of frame-rate issues, or an excessive blur effect or an unrealistic color scheme. This year, at least for day games, the color balance seems to lead to a more realistic tone.
The “vistas” in the game are also as beautiful as ever. In general, 2K Sports does a great job of bringing you into professional sports venues, and this year is no different. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of each ballpark, the initial flyover and look at AT&T Park in San Francisco was a good reminder of what 2K does well.
Much has been said about the new player proportions in the game, and, for the most part, it’s justified. When I played with the Pirates, there was no mistaking Chris Snyder for anyone else on the team. He had a very thick lower half and just as large an upper body. Pedro Alvarez had a relatively thick lower half but a smaller upper body.
However, I did not agree with how someone like Jose Tabata looked. He has massive legs in real life, but that did not really shine through here. Essentially, I think there are more varied body proportions present here, but it’s on the developers to select the right shape for the right player.
The player faces in the game have also been reworked, but these were less impressive, at least when it came to a couple of the teams that I saw. Basically, the player faces range from the spectacular to solid to downright bizarre. Andres Torres looked amazing. Brandon Webb looked solid. Jeremy Hellickson looked like some sort of red-haired mouth breather whose orange lips signified he had been sitting on the couch eating Cheetos all offseason.
In addition, Neil Walker had a buzzed haircut, which is just incorrect. It doesn’t seem like every young player was treated poorly because guys like Pedro Alvarez and Buster Posey looked closer to realistic, but perhaps 2K just did not have enough time to nail every player's likeness.
Swing and a Miss
First off, the new hitting camera is a brilliant tweak. It’s actually hard to explain why it’s so effective, but how the ball looks as it comes off the bat just brought me so much further into the experience. It’s like some sort of magical angle the developers found that makes you just want to hit the ball so you can watch it fly into the outfield. It has gameplay relevance as well because you immediately know where the ball is probably going, which will be very helpful if runners are on base.
If you have not played MLB 2K in a while, it will probably help you appreciate what has been done with the actual hitting engine this year. I say that because the hitting “windows” in the game are more defined, and so a bad player is more apt to see many of these new hit types -- chopper, pop out or a slicing foul ball to name a couple -- than someone who still has a rhythm for hitting. (For the unaware, a "window" is basically short for the timing of when you swing the bat in relation to the ball coming towards the plate.) For the most part, I could really understand why I hit the ball the way I did, and these windows really helped to create something that felt closer to an organic experience.
On the negative side of things, I still saw some questionable things, which hopefully will not crop up too much in the final game. For starters, Sean Rodriguez took Scott Olsen deep to the opposite field. Now, I am a huge Sean Rod fan, and he does mash left-handed pitching, but he does not hit for a ton of power from the left side. Even with the short porch in right field at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, I felt it was a bit peculiar that Rodriguez hit a no doubter that way. That being said, the guy I was playing against was only power swinging, and the pitch was on the low and outside corner, so at least Rodriguez just went with the pitch.
Beyond that, the only major beef I had was when one Pirates batter swung at a very high pitch, and it somehow was a high chopper off the bat. (People who watched the gameplay video probably noticed something similar happened in it.) Again, though, I suppose that type of thing does happen from time to time in real life.
Bring the Heat
While the pitching mechanic itself seems relatively unchanged, the surrounding elements certainly seem different. First off, yes, not every pitch on the corner is called a strike anymore. This was immediately noticeable and immediately appreciated.
Beyond that, emotions do run high on the mound. After Olsen gave up the aforementioned home run to Rodriguez, he was immediately flustered. This, to me, was awesome to see. Anyone who knows Scott Olsen’s past knows he’s not the most well-balanced player.
After the home run, there was a cut scene that showed a visibly upset Olsen on the mound, and while trying to pitch to the next hitter my pitching cursor went haywire. Obviously, not every pitcher will respond this way after giving up just a single home run early in the game, but Scott Olsen probably would on most days. Hopefully, the addition of the new “pitcher control” slider (controls accuracy of pitchers) and “pitcher composure” slider (controls emotions) will only further highlight the differences in control and fortitude of the pitchers in the game.
Lastly, the pitching just seemed smoother. However, I also readily admit there may be a bit of a placebo effect going on here because, in general, the game looks smoother in action. Regardless, the feeling of more fluid gameplay probably has something to do with the addition of more transitional animations that help to tie together various animations in the game.
In short, pitching has become the strongest part of MLB 2K's gameplay in recent years, and it seems to be getting stronger this year.
Gunned at the Plate
Much of the focus was on fielding this year, and the early returns are very exciting. I feel that the ultimate goal of a fielding engine that works is one that includes danger and definition. The game has to have a clearly defined and understandable fielding mechanic; the game has to define and identify who is or is not a good fielder; and the game has to promote an uneasy feeling in your gut in certain situations.
The two fielders I saw in MLB 2K11 that I want to highlight here are Adrian Beltre and Neil Walker. While watching Adrian Beltre in the field, it’s immediately noticeable that he is a good fielder capable of amazing things. When he cleanly picks up the ball in his mitt on a routine grounder, his massive green bar immediately tells you he is pretty decent in the field. The tweaked fielding mechanic allows you to easily plant your bar in the green zone to make a good throw. And Beltre nonchalantly guns the ball to first just to make sure you know he has a cannon as well.
Neil Walker, on the other hand, just learned the second base position last year. On a somewhat routine play, he had trouble gathering the ball into his mitt as it bounced more towards his chest. This meant the play at first would now be closer than necessary, and his shorter green bar made it doubly clear that he was not on Beltre’s level.
Visually, a lot of what goes on helps to promote a fielding “caste” system as well. Last year, someone like Neil Walker would have just hustled after a grounder in the hole before pulling up short and staring at it once he had no shot at the ball. This year, someone like Walker lunges for the ball and tries to at least get a glove on it. On the other hand, someone like Beltre dives and tries to make a throw from his knees to save the day.
Fielding is not a glamorous aspect of baseball in video games, but it has certainly been overlooked over the years. If what I saw was any indication, it seems like that is finally starting to change.
I wanted to save this example for the final portion of the preview because I think it helps to highlight some of the biggest improvements in MLB 2K11.
At the plate, a Texas Rangers batter pulled the ball down the line at AT&T Park. Off the bat, I thought the ball was gone, but the new camera angle, and the fact that the game did not give away whether the ball would get out or not, helped to build the suspense. My first instinct ended up being wrong, and the ball ended up bouncing just short of the wall.
At this point, Pat Burrell came into play. The lumbering left fielder had done just an awful job of tracking the ball, and he had misread how the ball would bounce off the wall -- the AI Burrell must have thought the ball was going to bounce further off the wall than it did. He didn’t sprint towards the wall to get the ball on the warning track, but rather sort of trotted at a leisurely pace.
Now, the above example might be too subtle for some to appreciate, but others probably realize how important a play like that is to a baseball game. It’s plays like the above that make you want to keep playing. It’s plays like the above that make you want to build your team a certain way. It’s plays like the above that capture that moment of suspense that defines baseball.
Here’s to hoping there is plenty more of that in MLB 2K11 when it hits store shelves on March 8.