Major League Baseball 2K6 Review (Xbox)
If we’ve learned nothing else over the years it’s that the multi-million dollar business of sports gaming is a cutthroat one. The battle to make the best game for each sport has been raging since the days of RBI Baseball, Blades of Steel and Double Dribble. Long before the days of the exclusivity agreement, developers battled to be the top release. In this new era of exclusive rights, the battlefield has obviously changed a bit. The NFL lives at EA with NASCAR and FIFA, while the MLB license, at least for cross platform releases, lives with 2K Games.
The fear of the sports gamer since the first press release is always the same. What happens when there is no competition? Who wins? Who loses? What’s the motivation to go the extra mile when you’ve crippled the competition?
So far, we’ve remained pretty luck in the new world of sports gaming. Even with the lawyers working feverishly to carve out the biggest piece of the pie, we’ve still been able to maintain some amount of choice. Blitz: The League gave us an alternative to Madden in the football gaming realm. Soccer titles like the Winning Eleven series use creativity to work around their limited license ownership. But baseball is going to be a different animal.
2K Games purchased the exclusive rights to Major League Baseball. Kind of. They bought the rights to release the only multi-platform titles with the MLB teams and players. That left the door open for the release of MLB ’06: The Show on PS2 only and forced EA to go the college route for their multi-platform release. So that left 2K with the only game in town available on all of the current generation consoles, and it would also be the only baseball option on the Xbox 360.
Needless to say, when the Major League Baseball 2K6 showed up ready to go in my Xbox, I was starting out with some expectations. As a Reviewer, I try to give a level playing field to each game and judge it solely on it’s own merit or lack thereof. I’d seen what the other Developers did with the cards they were dealt. The baseball season, to me, had been a damn impressive one so far. The releases from EA Sports and SCEA were each very impressive. However, Major League Baseball held the trump card for all Xbox lovers.
Modes of play are, for the most part what you’d expect from a baseball title with a few pleasant additions. You have your basic "Play Now" style Exhibition Mode to jump right into the action out of the box. You can also head straight to a playoff style Tournament. "Situation Mode" is just like you would think. Done in the same concept as you find in most current football titles, you customize everything and create a fun scenario for you to play through. "Home Run Derby" is in there as well. Plus, for you folks that enjoy the strategy more than the joystick jockeying, "Manager Showdown" brings a pretty basic simulation spin.
The World Baseball Classic was a nice addition regardless of what you thought about the real tournament. There’s not a ton of additional substance to it over a standard mode with custom rosters, but it was a nice touch to have it in there.
Like we all know, Season and Franchise modes are the bread and butter of modern sports gaming. Major League Baseball 2K6 offers that up with three different options. Season Mode will take you through a simple one year run for the pennant. Franchise Mode adds a little more depth as you move your club from year to year looking for sustained success. No more mortgaging the future for that one-year plan.
The deepest mode, however, is the "GM Career" Mode. Like the career modes in some other 2K releases, it starts at the top and the owners of each club have very different personalities and expectations. Some are penny pinchers that will be looking at you to dump large contracts before you even get out of Spring Training. Others are more fans of the game and will give you a little more rope. This mode is deep to say the least. Not only are you managing day-to-day decisions for your professional and minor league on-field product, you’re hiring scouts, coaches, upgrading the stadium, running promotions, selling stadium ad space and taking out loans from the bank. If you like that style of play, you can literally spend two to three hours on off the field decisions for every hour you spend on the field. You can really dedicate as much or as little time as you want to it.
Before we move away from the modes of play, I have to throw an additional thumbs up to the online play in Major League Baseball 2K6. You have your online VIP, Leaderboards, Tournaments and the things you’ve come to expect from Xbox Live and 2K, but I have to tip my cap to the Online Leagues in this years release. While it’s still too early for anyone to have completed a full plate, this year you can actually do a full 162 game schedule in your league. Very aggressive. Very impressive. Hopefully you can all find a dedicated group of players to make that happen.
In a standard review format, we’d move along to Gameplay next, followed by Graphics and Audio, maybe Presentation, before tying it up with a neat little bow at the end. I don’t want to do that this time because of a very interesting experience I had when playing this game. All those other areas that are usually discussed, when I played this game, I found myself either loving it or hating it. There was no middle ground for me. I was both smiling and saying, “Yes, that’s the way it should be.” Or I was shaking my head at some really sloppy, frustrating, and plain lazy parts of the game.
Let’s start with what I loved.
I always love when you find something in a game that you play it and say, “This is it.” You know you’re playing with what will soon be the standard in that sport. Like the pitching/throwing meter when it made its debut in the MVP series, there are two in Major League Baseball 2K6 that I saw and immediately know that the competition will be “borrowing” it for next year’s games.
The first is the Pitching Interface. I’ve always thought that the VC baseball releases had the best handle on this. They were the best on the console, trailing perhaps only High Heat on the PC. This year they have taken it to a new level and it is an absolute blast. Pitching use to be simple; pick a pitch to throw, where you wanted to throw it, and let it rip. The pitching meters added a degree of challenge, but it was easily countered by simply having good timing. In Major League Baseball 2K6, pitching is more about making good pitches through the proper mixture of location, movement, and velocity. This method actually makes the interface mean more than it does in other titles. You make mistakes and leave balls hanging in the strike zone. Too much movement and the ball can skirt away from the catcher. You’ll even see the effects of critical situations or blown confidence when the pitching icon starts to jump around like a 3 year old after a case of Red Bull. That’s a good time for the Manager and catcher to come out for a little chat.
Speaking of the catchers, this interface actually uses the catcher like to add to the experience like no other game. Catchers can setup in a zone and call for the pitch. Even more impressively, if you have purchased "Inside Edge" (which we’ll get to in a moment) the catcher will throw up a target and suggest a pitch to go after the current hitter with. This is a really, really solid implementation of the real workings of a good battery in baseball.
"Inside Edge", as I mentioned before, is one of the other grand slams in Major League Baseball 2K6. "Inside Edge" is, essentially, a scouting tool. It can be purchased on individual players (hitters and pitchers), entire teams, just the power hitters, just the superstars, or various other combinations. "Inside Edge" was put together by actual Major League scouts based on the last three baseball season’s statistics and tendencies. Buy a hitter’s report and your defense will position itself accordingly and you’ll find out what zones are in the player’s wheelhouse. Do your homework on the opposing pitchers and you’ll have an inside track on where that payoff pitch may be coming.
The beauty of "Inside Edge" is that, besides adding depth and strategy to the game, it’s not like a cheat code. Just because a pitcher is likely to go down and away with two strikes, it doesn’t mean he will. If you put the Bonds Shift on for that left-handed dead pull hitter, that doesn’t mean they won’t spray a “Texas Leaguer” to shallow left. It’s not cheese. It’s not a crystal ball. It’s about tendencies. It’s baseball.
While not revolutionary another aspect that falls squarely in my "Pros" column is the visual presentation. Not the graphics per se, but the way the visual TV style presentation is laid out. It’s very realistic and situational. A great example. I’m the Detroit Tigers and I am holding a one run lead on the Indians in the bottom of the 9th. I bring in Todd Jones with two outs and the tieing run on first base. The game moves to a split screen of Jones and the Indians hitter before transitioning to the runner at first, then back to Jones. A simple little cutscene transition, but it’s things like that that suck you into the atmosphere of watching baseball on TV.
Pitching Interface, "Inside Edge", and the visual presentation deserve huge marks. I was very impressed, even blown away at times. Kudos to the team and the Developers involved. Unfortunately, I have to do my due diligence and talk about the bad as well. Sadly, most of the rest of the game falls into that category.
We all know that Right Analog use is becoming the go-to interface in sports gaming this year. We’ve seen a lot of strong usage including 2K’s shot stick in their NBA franchise. We’ve seen it already in baseball gaming this year with EA’s NCAA release, unfortunately, it’s not done as well in Major League Baseball 2K6.
The concept is basically the same, but it just doesn’t feel right in this game. The timing always felt off to me even when the on-screen cues were telling me differently. I always felt like I had to pull back too early, and push forward too soon. Eventually the timing came to me, but it was a learned control, not a natural feeling swing.
Once I put the ball in play and hit the base paths, I found more things I didn’t like. The speed burst out of the box is there and I don’t hate that. You would assume all players are running at their top speed any time the ball is in play, but the button-mashing element does not detract too much from the experience. Where the holes came in base running was how the AI handled your base running from a defensive side. The last thing I want to do is cheese or become a budget beta tester instead of a reviewer (other people on the net have already taken that crown). But, for the sake of the review, I decided to try just running. No matter who had the ball, I’d just keep running. Sadly, it resulted in multiple “inside the park” homeruns on what should have been routine singles. The ball was thrown to the wrong base or simply held once it got to a base I was already on.
The defensive issues don’t end when you make it into the field either. In an attempt to add a new animation physics engine, playing the field has been severely crippled. Players go into long, drawn out animations on routine plays that cause a mass of infield singles, misplayed balls, and render even routine double plays almost impossible to turn. You’ll also find a hesitation in initiating dives and jumps that are not at all in sequence with the controls. I love physics and I am a sucker for slick animations, but not if they take away from the gameplay. I should mention, if you move up to the highest difficulty level, for whatever reason, the animations don’t seem to affect you as much.
From a graphics standpoint, the best word I can use is "lazy". There are stadiums that are horribly dated still in this game. Upgrades that haven’t been made that actually took place in 2002 or earlier. The player models are no better than they were two years ago and in perhaps the ultimate showing of “mailing it in” that I found, instead of taking the 2005 All-Star Game patch off of the Tiger’s uniforms for this year’s release, they simply colored them in the same color as the rest of the sleeve. They left the 3-D texture there, but they colored it in. Come on!
The Commentary is another area that is sorely lacking in Major League Baseball 2K6. While I love the team of Miller and Morgan, the commentary comes out of sequence and just plain wrong on occasion. I’ve heard 3-0 pitches called as “a great choice with two strike.” I’ve had the announcers tell me that the player “went deep his last time up” when he actually struck out. And, in Season and Franchise modes, whenever they announce a player’s stats from the year before, they call them as a zero. “No homeruns and no RBIs last year.” These weren’t issues that I had to dig for; I was getting them out of the box.
As bad as this sounds, I hope that they were dedicating the bulk of their attention to the 360 release, because corners appear to have been cut on this release. Even the improvements like "Inside Edge" were not enough to allow me to enjoy this game. In fact, the parts that I really liked only frustrated me because of the wasted potential.
Major League Baseball 2K6 is chock full of issues. For every good thing that I found, I found three things that hurt the game. If this is their best effort, it’s not good enough. Gamers deserve better. Baseball fans deserve better. Baseball deserves better.