Pretty Gameplay, Plain Presentation

It has been a long time since I played a baseball game.  Not since way back when I reviewed MLB 2k5 have I even touched a game, outside of curiously downloading the demos for games like The Bigs and clocking in a couple hours into Wii Sports’ version of baseball.  If you’ve been keeping up with the 2k baseball games, they’ve undergone a serious change in direction since the latest console generation kicked off, which has garnered mixed enthusiasm.  Ultimately, though, the execution on the concept fell short, resulting in a notable absence of a great baseball game on current-gen consoles.  Until this year, that is, with two great baseball games in MLB 08: The Show and MLB2k8.  2k8 is quite possibly the best game in the series, offering a massive amount of quality gameplay and addicting unlockables that will entertain any baseball fan or gamer. 

2k8 takes baseball in the newer direction of the two, with a fairly modern approach to the sport, putting a significantly heavier emphasis on the analog sticks of the , rather than the normal point-and-click style used in The Show, requiring a higher degree of precision and timing for success.  Pitching is the paramount example of this: Rather than simply pressing a button to select a pitch, then getting the ball close to center on a cross or getting the cursor close to the middle or silly things like that, the game takes more of a Street Fighter approach.  First, the catcher goes into position and signals for a specific pitch in a particular location, while it’s a nice feature, it’s not a good idea to consistently follow the game’s advice, as it will often call for inside changeups and high sliders (note for the non-baseball savvy: those pitches are easy to hit).  But pressing A lets you adjust the location, which is a must to prevent pitches from hitting the backstop.  Once the catcher is set up, the actual throw is divided into two parts.  The “first motion” is simple – press the right control stick in a specific direction, which will bring up three circles, and then hold it until the pitch is “charged” to the outer edge of the larger circle.  From there, the second motion starts. This motion, which mimics the actual movement the pitcher puts on the ball, can be one of several things, from simply moving the stick to a different direction to rotating it 270 degrees, and is then released once the circles realign.  For example, a cut fastball calls for the player to press down on the right stick, hold it, press diagonally up-and-right, hold it, and release.  It sounds more complex than it is, and is easy to get the hang of, but challenging to master. 

Hitting has significantly easier controls, but is truly the harder part of the game.  After the batter takes the plate, the “batter’s eye” initiates, allowing the hitter to try and identify where the pitch is going by tilting the left control stick.  If correct, a colored circle will appear, indicating the speed and location of the pitch.  As the pitch is coming, pressing down the right stick makes the batter take his step forward, and then press up to swing.  Batting is, in most ways, significantly more difficult than pitching.  As is obvious, the vast majority of at-bats will end with an out, which can get incredibly frustrating, but it’s a part of the game that just requires patience.

Fielding still has a few lingering issues.  The most annoying of which is if a grounder gets hit in such a way that it is going between two players at an equal distance, control of the two fielders will rapidly fluctuate as the ball moves towards them, which typically results in accidentally pulling one, or both, players off their pursuit of the ball. This can lead to an occasional base hit that shouldn’t have happened.  Also, the computer’s control over players moving for the ball seems to be terribly inconsistent.  Automated moves by the players seem to cut out at the most inappropriate times, resulting in players stopping in their tracks when moving to field a grounder or catch a fly ball.  Similarly, it is commonplace that outfielders will bowl into each other while pursuing a ball hit to center-left or center-right field, and since the computer has trouble actually keeping on a ball, it can become insanely frustrating when a simple out becomes a base-clearing triple with an injured right fielder.  When your players actually do get the ball, throwing it is done simply by pressing the direction of the corresponding base on the right stick (down is home, up is second, etc.) and holding it until the meter is filled to a certain degree.  Too little or too much will result in a weak or inaccurate throw, an effective, efficient setup.

Base-running was made quite easy, on the other hand, and very simple.  After a batter makes contact, the players on-base are displayed on the bottom of the screen, and to push them further or hold them back, you simply highlight them using the left analog stick, then press the triggers (left to advance, right to retreat) to select how far you want your runners to go.  Additionally, all runners can be called to move by pressing the left or right bumpers.  Stealing is also quite simple.  While at the plate, simply press the base’s direction on the left stick, then press Y, and the runner will steal after that pitch.  This, for a long time, was a serious problem with baseball games, and 2k8 has done a great job simplifying this. 

Franchise mode is fairly typical, with no especially lacking or exemplary features.  There’s a fantasy draft option, some stadium features, a draft, and a fairly deep minor league system, which can be appealing for its opportunity to develop three full teams of players. But it isn’t maximized to its full potential.   There aren’t any especially distinctive aspects, like the sheer sloth from the recent Madden games or the quality of the NBA 2k games.  It’s just a typical franchise mode with all the bells and whistles to keep you fairly entertained, but not enough flashing lights to be especially memorable.  There is also an online mode…but it tends to have lag issues that can hamper the experience, which is disappointing.  The lag isn’t crippling, so if you can play local competition, it will run smoothly, but other than that, it is tough to adjust to hitting and pitching with significant delay. 

One of the best additions to MLB 2k8 is the return of card-collecting.  Lots of sports games had this from 2000-2004, but it seemed to die out in the last few years.  Well, 2k8 has brought it back, and it is probably the most addicting take on the popular mini-game yet.  Cards of players are earned and re-earned by completing certain objectives with certain players.  Some are utterly simple and some intensely difficult.  For example, on the simple end of the spectrum is to get two hits with Dustin Pedroia  or hit a home run with Jason Giambi.  On the difficult side is to hit two homers with Ken Griffey Jr., and to get eight Ks and a win with Curt Schilling.  Then there’s the intensely difficult: Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki call for you to get four hits in a game; Johan Santana requires you to get seventeen Ks in one game; Phil Hughes, requires you to pitch a no-hitter.  Past that, there are a bunch of others that require serious accomplishments in the Franchise Mode, like having certain players win the Player’s Choice Award, or leading the league in a specific stat.  The cards themselves also look quite nice on their own, featuring an original template that  contains action shots using in-game graphics of the players.  Additionally, there are special cards of legendary Hall of Famers like Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and Ozzie Smith that are available for special feats, like hitting a walk-off homerun or pitching a certain number of innings.  To top it all off, you can trade cards with other players online, and create a team.  Honestly, this is easily one of the best features I’ve come across in a sports game.  And what else?  2k actually released patches for players who got dealt away.  For example, there is an Eric Bedard card with him as an Oriole AND him as a Mariner.  Absolutely excellent work.

I was tempted to simply copy and paste my paragraph on the graphics and sound from my review of MLB 2k5, because all the problems are exactly the same.  All the players look lanky.  Nobody looks fat, muscular or bulky, so it ends up with Bronson Arroyo and Bartolo Colon both having similar body types.  The faces are incredibly hit-or-miss in terms of actually looking like their real life counterparts.  Lots of the Japanese players don’t even look remotely correct, Daisuke Matsuzaka , in particular.  And even so, very few of them look correct from the neck down, anyway.  The commentary, if I recall correctly, was in no small part taken directly from past 2k baseball games, and is still frequently inaccurate, and horribly repetitive.  Once again, considering how they must have put up a ridiculous amount of money for two high-profile commentators, they should have had a much more diverse number of comments that could’ve been used.  But hey, the gameplay’s still great.  And that’s more important.

So indeed, there are some aesthetic shortcomings with MLB 2k8, but everything else in the game is absolutely excellent.  With controls that make things challenging but rewarding, the game is just what baseball fans have been waiting for.  And despite some tweaks that need to be made with some terribly overrated players (Nomar Garciaparra with an 82 OVR stat) and some terribly underrated players (Russell Martin, anyone?), and some problems with Curt Schilling (I love ya, Curt, but you just can’t hit a 90 mph fastball anymore), the game will satisfy almost any fan.  Not to mention how the card collecting adds an incredible amount of value to the game.  This is definitely worth getting for any baseball fan, and should be checked out by any casual sports fan with a 360.

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