MLB Stickball Review (Xbox 360)
A few years ago, while browsing through clearance items at a sporting goods store, I came across a stickball set. It was a good price and it was decorated with my favorite team’s logo, so it was an easy purchase; I was excited by my seemingly thrifty and unique purchase.
The next day, I got a group of my friends together for an old-fashioned stickball game. After a few innings of struggling to hit, we tossed the Phillies-red stick and rubber ball to the side, opting instead for traditional bats and a softball. Since then, the stickball set hasn’t left my garage.
I mention this story, not only because this is a review of MLB Stickball, but because it somewhat mirrors my initial experience with this new XBLA game. On the surface, this game offers the excitement of a non-traditional MLB-affiliated baseball game that can be purchased at a reasonable price. However, I think those who play the game may quickly become bored with it and return to their favorite "regular" baseball games.
Basically, MLB Stickball is four-on-four baseball played in a variety of locales. The game uses rules that should be familiar to many Wiffleball fans: grounders not past the pitcher are outs, other hits not caught are singles, hitting certain buildings or targets equals extra bases, some areas are automatic outs, everyone bats, and everyone has to pitch.
Playing Stickball in Brooklyn, there's something right about this.
At the start, each MLB team features one pro (for example the Phillies start with Jimmy Rollins) and a host of generic players with specific roles: power pitcher, control pitcher, star fielder, power hitter, contact hitter, and "all-rounder." Each are rated in pitching power, pitching aim, fielding, contact hitting, and power hitting.
All of these rules and ratings make for an interesting form of baseball. There’s also some strategy involved when setting a lineup: do you favor pitching or hitting? Will your power hitter kill you on the mound? Will going with two pitchers spell disaster at the plate? What about fielding?
Speaking of fielding, it’s all automatic, which is slightly disappointing. Similar games -- like Backyard Baseball -- have included manual fielding, which adds another element to the gameplay. That said, you can adjust the three fielders before the pitch.
Also automatic is the baserunning -- a single moves everyone up one base, a double two bases, etc. This is yet another area where added control would have equaled additional fun.
So, with no fielding or running, the gameplay is essentially left to the batter/pitcher matchup. You can throw four pitches: the standard fastball, a "bounce" pitch that hits the ground before crossing the plate, a sweeping curve, and a slow-pitch softball-like lob. Pitching is done through a simplistic power meter and analog-aiming system. During a batter-hitter duel, it's more fun to be the hitter than the pitcher.
Hitting is more interesting, only because it’s fairly difficult at first. A bounce pitch looks a bit like a fastball, so I found myself often swinging very early. The lob is a challenge since you wait -- and wait -- until the precise moment to swing. More than likely you’ll swing way too soon, or you'll swing just a pinch late. Overall, I found hitting against the CPU to be enough of a challenge to be fun, even though the controls are simplistic. You can rotate your batter in the box, but there’s no other aiming; only power or contact swings.
Once you’ve got the controls down (they should take you no more than five minutes), you can play exhibition games, local or online multiplayer, and a Tour mode. The Tour mode takes you through multiple cities and multiple teams. It’s a good way to explore the various locales (some of which look better than others) and get a feel for the "hometown" rules. For instance, in San Francisco, hitting a trolley or the base of the Golden Gate Bridge gives you extra bases. Put one in the Bay, though, and it’s an automatic out. This environmental variety adds some replay value, as do the points you earn when you play each game.
The points can be used in the "card shop" to buy packs of cards, which add the players pictured to their teams. Eventually, you may be fortunate enough to collect all 120 professional players, and fill out the teams with real people instead of the generic players. The generic players would be more palatable if there was any level of customization, but you cannot create or edit any of them.
Like a ball careening off multiple brownstones, the graphics in this game are all over the place. Some of the fields look pretty good: The Golden Gate looks majestic as it fades away in the horizon. Underneath it though, are poorly drawn, relatively low-res vehicles. Some small details, such as chalk outlined batter boxes, are well done and add to the overall experience. Then there are the players...
If you remember the faces on the guards from Goldeneye on the N64, you have an idea of what these players look like. While each player does resemble his counterpart, each player also looks like he was stretched over a balloon stuck on an undersized body. I understand that 2K was going for a bobble-head look, but instead the figures look like bizarre mutants with gigantic heads.
I go back to my story about buying a real stickball and bat. Like that cheap discovery, MLB Stickball won’t cost you a ton of cash. At 800 points ($10) there’s enough to collect and fool around with to maybe make you feel like you got your money’s worth. And like my officially licensed Phillies stickball bat, MLB Stickball lures you in with real teams and players.
But when you finally play, you might be like my friends and turn back to traditional baseball games pretty quickly. This game is different and has its moments, but overall it just lacks a sense of "fun." It’s slow moving, without much personality, and gets repetitive pretty quickly. It’s not a horrible game, but once you play it a few times, it might not come out of the Xbox Live Arcade "garage" for a long time.
On the Street: Simple and repetitive gameplay is at times challenging and at times boring, yet always different from traditional baseball games. Some mild strategy elements might keep you coming back. The game plays much slower than it should.
Graphics: Environments are not bad for a downloadable game, and small touches add to the overall atmosphere. Player models look bad, especially the faces.
Sound: Not much to mention. Hitting the rubber ball sounds like hitting a rubber ball. Music is terribly mundane; put on your own music.
Entertainment Value: One of the few sports games available on XBLA, it has at least as much replay value as some similarly priced games. I can see 2K releasing this game on disc for the Wii and charging twice as much. Collecting players and a variety of fields adds replayability.
Learning Curve: The controls are easy enough to master (especially with no fielding or baserunning to grasp), but timing your swings may prove to be a tougher challenge.
Online: Four players on one team means you wait for your turn to hit. Head to head is more fun.
Score: 6.5 (Competent)