Major League Baseball 2K8 Fantasy All-Stars Review (NDS)
Much like The Bigs or Backyard Baseball, Major League Baseball 2K8 Fantasy All-Stars uses a distinct art style to plainly show that it isn’t a baseball simulation. In fact, I believe in my preview I said the art style was “acid induced madness” which is actually a compliment. The game needs some way to stand out and the Team Fortress 2-like art style circa the Super Nintendo-era is a very distinct way to do that.
The crazy graphics also work on two other levels: they fit right in with the rest of the game which is all about zany power-ups (like freezing hitters or summoning brick walls from the ground to stop fly balls in their tracks); and the second level being whether you hate or love the graphics, they’re unique enough to make you do a double-take the first time you see a screen, video or the game itself in-action.
How Does It Play Though?
After being sucked in by the visuals, the controls are the next hook to keep gamers interested. But in this department, development studio Deep Fried Entertainment falters at points. The controls are heavily stylus based and because of that design choice some of the controls inevitably feel shoehorned into the game.
However, I’ll start off with the positive and that is the pitching-based controls. Basically the touch screen becomes an artist’s palette because there’s a ball and a plate and you have to mix motions to create the pitches you want. The pitching controls work because at a core level it’s easy to do most of the pitches intuitively. So drag the ball in a straight line down towards the plate to do a fastball; drag the ball upwards at an angle and then straight down to do a change-up; or draw a circle and then send the ball towards the plate to do a screwball. \
So it succeeds at being easy to pick-up-and-play, but then it also rewards high-level players because soon enough you realize to really succeed at pitching you need to use an earned powerup at the right time and really paint the corners with the ball -- the CPU will own you if you don’t paint the outside of the plate on the higher difficulty levels.
To offset the pitching’s success is the batting control's failure though. It seems no matter how much I play, there is no payoff. I still hit way too many swinging bunts, lazy flies, and little dribblers. I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so hard to hit and I think it’s because of how the batting mechanic is set-up: all the in-game action takes place on the top screen, and on the bottom screen you try to swing the stylus through an old-school style golf meter as fast as possible, which is supposed to imitate a batter’s swing. You want to focus on the bottom screen because you need to swing the stylus through the middle of the meter, otherwise you might swing too far inside or outside the meter which will result in a grounder or pop-fly; however, that’s hard to do because you need to watch the top screen to time the swing. Therefore, if your muscle memory and peripheral vision are above average maybe this won’t be an issue, but for many others it will be.
Fielding is the one portion of the game that isn’t completely tied to the stylus controls -- and is the major reason your hands begin to hate you while playing. Holding any handheld can be a pain at times, but usually you can hold a handheld various ways to prevent cramping while still playing the game to its fullest. Not so in Fantasy All-Stars. To explain, while fielding you use the d-pad to move your player and the triggers to change players. Sounds simple enough, but you also need to hold the stylus in the other hand to possibly select a powerup or jump (upward swipe on the touch screen) or dive (downward swipe on the touch screen). Therefore you have to essentially hold and balance the DS in one hand and hold the stylus in the other while fielding and pitching. What results is a war of hand envy as one 5-digit body part takes the brunt of the abuse while the other is relaxing in the afternoon sun.
Why Keep Playing?
The major mode in single-player is a Fantasy Pennant mode. You go through tournaments and beat the CPU, and as you do you get little rewards and the chance to steal players from squads you’ve just beaten. It’s a simple concept and it works fine. There are only four tournaments but since I still can’t beat the CPU in certain games that seems to be plenty. In fact the difficulty is so high in these tournaments that I’m confused by the reasoning for such impenetrability.
The game is definitely geared more towards the “casual” audience -- though any gamer can get behind the art style and core gameplay I think -- but the gameplay during these tournaments is decidedly “hardcore” in difficulty. It’s especially pronounced because during regular games you can change the difficulty level to suit your skill, but during these tournaments the AI difficulty is locked, so you’re at the mercy of the developer. The fact that I would consider myself “hardcore” and even I don’t even get enjoyment out the later stages of tournaments makes me believe there is a balancing issue.
But essentially any “arcade” style sports game is always at its peak enjoyment level in head-to-head matches and Fantasy All-Stars is no exception. There is a Wi-Fi component to the game -- as well as local -- and if you get lucky enough to connect to someone online (it’s all matchmaking based, no lobbies) you’ll find that the lag is minimal and the games quick and fun. Of course like I said, you need to be lucky to find someone because I’ve waited for extended periods of time before another human came online; and it’s even more telling that after only a few games I was ranked 10th in the world.
Wrapping It Up
At any rate, Deep Fried Entertainment has attempted to create a game that utilizes the DS’s unique capabilities, succeeding with the pitching controls, and failing when it comes to the hitting controls. The fact that the controls are a mixed bag though shouldn’t be totally surprising because many other developers have tried too hard to make a game specifically for the DS control scheme, even when more “classic” controls would probably be more effective. But if you’re a fan of a sports game that is heavily stylus based (where are the Smackdown vs. Raw DS fans at?) then give this game a try. Most others though will probably want to steer clear because the gameplay on the diamond is just too hit-or-miss.
On The Diamond: Pitching is a blast, but I don’t get much enjoyment out of the other components. My hands usually cramp up rather quickly and far too often I am frustrated at the plate.
Graphics: The art style is the best initial hook the game has due to the embellished body parts and cartoon-like graphics. Also you get to play in whacky places such as Alcatraz.
Sound: Some of the sound effects are great and fit right in in with the clowning of the sport that occurs, but the music will quite quickly become tiresome no matter “stadium” you play in.
Entertainment Value: There’s a Fantasy Pennant mode which will keep you busy and reward you with little nuggets (hats, gloves, bats, balls) which are more for collectors since the rewards don’t seem to change the experience in any way other than visually. There’s also a Create-A-Team mode where you can select any combination of players for your squad and use a limited number of jerseys and logos to make your team unique.
Learning Curve: It’s mostly intuitive from the get-go but the stylus-based controls do require some memorization. I personally needed to memorize how to do the 1 or 2 more complicated pitches and also how to call all runners back instead of just one because it’s all based on where you tap on the DS touch screen.
Online: The game runs quite well online, have fun trying to find someone to play though. Perhaps in the coming weeks and months more people will start to come online, but as it stands only play online if you know a friend who will also be playing online.