If you listen to our Podcast, the Rad Cast Audio Blast (which you should, and it’s available both here at MyGamer and on iTunes), then you know that I pegged MLB 2k9 as one of my top games to play in 2009 (what was the other? Tune in and find out!). I mean, I adored MLB 2k8, despite some pretty obvious flaws in the graphics department. I figured “well, if they just take 2k8 and fix those problems, they will have one of the best baseball games ever!” Well, it’s a year later and they’ve fixed some of the problems. Too bad the problems with 2k’s baseball titles are apparently hydras (cuz…you know…if you cut off a hydra’s head, two will pop out).
All four aspects of baseball, between 2k8 and 2k9 have been improved. Pitching uses the same basic system from last year, but with a few key differences. While last year, you had to do two motions with precise timing in order to both locate and put motion on the pitch, 2k9 only requires you to do one; just start press the first direction (up, down, left or right, depending on the pitch) and then, once the meter is as charged as you can get it, start the second motion. Batting uses the same basic method, where you press down, and then up on the right stick to swing, but requires more-precise timing than it used to (that is, you can’t step, wait, and then swing as you used to). There is no shortage of ease in giving out souvenirs, though, considering how simple home runs are to smash (though this can be adjusted using some of the difficulty sliders). The fielding is easier, mainly because they got rid of the slowdown from fly outs. And the base running has been refined to simply using the A button and the triggers, with all vital information consolidated to the bottom-right of the screen.
Great! Too bad the improvements are overshadowed by bigger problems that have popped up. The biggest issue is the huge number of problems associated with fielding. While the frame rate problems from last year should be gone, they’ve literally been moved from after the ball begins its descent to the moment it comes off the bat. What’s more, there are an impressive number of bugs, glitches and AI hiccups that come into play. The biggest problem in the game is how 40% of all fly balls end up drifting over the head of fielders, who actually don’t lift their arms to try and catch the ball. Similar issues occur with tags, as oftentimes a player carrying the ball will keep their arms at their sides as a baserunner scrapes past them. Equally annoying is how the first baseman occasionally steps off the base to make a catch during what should be a double play, even with a perfect throw (they will just be standing off to the side of the bag, not even attempting to make an out). Players remain unable to comprehend the concept of cutting off a throw, unless it’s to a pre-scripted base (yes, base, singular) the players dash to. And past all these, there’s no shortage of other stupid things ruining your good time. I’m yet to have a game where there aren’t runs scored against me because of these glitches.
Naturally, there are other play modes. The core of the game lies in Franchise Mode which, not surprisingly, remains largely the same, but has somehow managed to take several steps back in terms of being fun. There is no “Potential” stat, so judging prospects is a crapshoot. The menus are impressively unintuitive. You can’t play as AA or A teams. The player priorities are generally unimportant. You can’t edit existing players (I couldn’t put Gil Meche’s goatee back on). Most of the prospects lack a profile picture, don’t have correct names, don’t look at all like their real-life counterparts and have inaccurate vital statistics (which remains from 2k8, but is still annoying). And peppered into all this are random annoying glitches, from players coming off the disabled list and disappearing off your team to misappropriated statistics. Just like the rest of the game, there are marked improvements all over the place undone by developer laze and/or publisher scrimping. And the card collecting? Not even fun anymore. I loved the feature in 2k8, but it has been made completely pointless. Collecting cards isn’t even collecting cards…it’s “unlocking” them. You don’t buy packs, you don’t trade and you get doubles. What was an exciting addition to the series is completely unimpressive now.
Graphics are just about the only thing that netted positively between the last two titles. MLB 2k8 had some serious issues with a graphics engine held over from the past console generation, and 2k9 did a generally good job of actually making players look like their real life counterparts. However, many still don’t look much like their real life counterparts. While some look absolutely perfect (such as cover player Tim Lincecum, Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake and Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano), others don’t really look human (like Royals outfielder Jose Guillen, Mariners starter Felix Hernandez and Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins). There are several other issues, too, like serious skin tone disparities (Royals outfielder Coco Crisp’s skin is too dark, while Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano looks white) as well as some odd tone issues (the Mariners’ Dolphin Stadium and BoSox’s Fenway Park are the same shade of green). However, these issues do not really ruin the big strides forward the series has made. As an amusing aside, the billowy jersey issue from last year is gone…but has been replaced by a strange problem with puffs of dirt popping up with every step a player on the baseline takes. That’s a small thing, though.
Accompanying the totally-redone graphics is totally rerecorded commentary. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan are gone, and replaced by another pair of professional commentators, Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips. The all-new commentary is very nice, but has some problems with accuracy, slim pickings for color commentary on star players and what seem to be recycled lines from their predecessors. The game also has a very strange soundtrack made up of C-list songs from the 1970s through today, including “Final Countdown” by Europe, “Hello There” by Cheap Trick and something from some group about boys and girls or something. I don’t know. Either way, it’s a strange mishmash of music.
I really wanted to love MLB 2k9. I really did. But it embodies everything wrong with the sports genre. It is rife with stupid bugs from the tight development schedule. Bugs that would have been fixed if there was another serious baseball game on the Wii or the 360. Confusing license and union agreements make it so half of Major League Baseball is represented through red silhouettes and computer-generated renders. Innovation from 2k8 was halfheartedly built upon, and then watered down. And with that, I will finish with a joke. “So, Bill, how are the achievements coming on MLB 2k9?” “Well, Jim, I can’t get that one where you beat a member of the 2k Sports staff!” “Why’s that, Bill?” “Well, Jim, all of them are playing The Show.”