I’ve recently come to the realization that my review niche at Gaming Nexus is so small that it’s dwindled to gaming headphones and exactly 2 games; the NHL titles by EA and 2K Sports. This probably isn’t terribly conducive to my game reviewing career, especially if someday I want to step away from systems analysis as a full time gig, and consider some game-related career path. So when a 2K rep recently asked if I wanted to take a crack at MLB 2K10, I thought it might be a good idea to branch back out into reviewing some other sports titles.
I love baseball, and have previously reviewed MLB 2K7
, giving it high marks
(which might explain why they contacted me specifically to review the game). It’s always interesting to see how a game changes from year to year and to see how it fits into your idea of a quality title both against it’s own past, and in terms of your knowledge and experience as a gamer. While there are a lot of positive changes to talk about, there are also a few less than positive things I didn’t see as part of my previous review as well.
Visual Concepts is the primary development house for 2K Sports/Take Two, developing the 2K10 (and most of the prior) editions of the baseball, basketball, and hockey titles. They have a pretty good reputation of developing generally good and occasionally great sports titles. This year’s baseball edition is no exception.
One of the things that first appealed to me about this game, having not played it for a few years, was the new MLB Today, which presents the games as they happen with the results of the real games, updating the standings and stats of the season as it progresses. It also allows you as the player to jump in and play that days game with the lineup exactly as it is or was for the game that really happened. I did this on opening day playing as my beloved Detroit Tigers, winning, but barely; my pitching was less than optimal.
In fact, pitching is really the focus of this game, much more than anything else. The mechanic for pitching actually varies by the pitch, just as it does when you’re throwing a real ball. There doesn’t seem to be any tie to the actual movement of the ball itself in terms of what the motion represents, but they are certainly distinct enough to know when you’re throwing a fastball versus when you’re throwing a curveball.
On top of the motion, getting the best possible pitch also takes timing, as there is a certain length of time each pitch should take to set. The ability to set the pitch is also reliant on your pitchers frame of mind at the time of the pitch. If you’re rattled, the cursor bounces around and makes it difficult to be accurate with your throw. You can settle your pitcher down with a trip to the mound, but you can only do this so often. Plus, your pitchers stamina wanes as his pitch count rises, making pitches more difficult to pinpoint and visits to the mound less effective. So complex is pitching that 2K Sports is offering a $1,000,000 dollar bounty to the first person to pitch a perfect game. There are specific settings you have to follow that make it difficult, but not impossible so I imagine someone will get it done.
Hitting is as simple as swinging your stick; literally. You push forward on the right analog stick for a contact swing and push back and then forwards for a power swing. You bunt via a button press. You can also direct the ball left or right using the left analog to pull the ball or go the opposite way while swinging, or lay down the appropriate bunt to advance the runner. The difficult part of hitting is timing the pitches and differentiating balls from strikes. You have just a couple seconds to identify a pitch and figure out if it’s a strike. From there, it’s all about timing it to get the ball in play. The action of hitting very much has the feel of being in a game.
There are a lot of great display features that add to the feel of watching the game while hitting. When you’re hitting there are feeds in the top corners of the screens when there are base runners. When you swing and miss, there’s a video replay in the bottom right that shows how far off you were and where the ball was in the strike zone, just as you’d see from any TV broadcast.
The rest of the game is fairly graphically appealing as well. The uniforms look realistic with close ups showing the patterns of the stitches. The animations are generally correct for the motion in question. Many of the animations actually tie very crisply together; I still can’t get over how sharp the action of scooping up a ball on the run from short and gunning over to first for the out looks. It’s so fluid and seamless that for a moment you actually think you’ve seen a live event.
Unfortunately, the graphics and animations are where the game also falls down the most. There are multiple times throughout the game that your player will suddenly go into an animation that doesn’t fit with the rest of the play. For example, if you’re off by just a small amount to catch a pop-up, instead of adjusting a bit, your player will make a sudden jump move to catch the ball. Even worse, if you call for the ball as the cutoff man, the outfielder will still follow through with an animation pointing towards another player, but the ball will come to you. It was jarring to see, because it looked so unnatural.
Base stealing is an area where the game does a nice job. Stealing a base is hard, and unless you have a very fast player, you’re going to fail most of the time. Even with a big lead-off and timing your jump perfectly with the start of the pitchers motion still doesn’t guarantee a steal. You need to be fast.
When you jump in and play a game from the MLB Today option, you don’t have control over the stats of your players. To really get into the game, you need to choose the My Player option and start your own custom player. As has become typical for these modes across the spectrum of sports games, you can customize your player down to the moustache, but what matters most are the position you play and the stats.
My favorite position is shortstop and my favorite team is the Tigers, so I created a player and chose for him to be drafted by Detroit. When you start the My Player mode, you join a AA level club mid season, not long after the draft. You start with a generally lower level player, but one with lots of potential. The game gives you some points to customize your skills initially and you earn more through making plays during the game.
There are different skills that make up hitting, fielding, and running with the overall skill affected by the makeup of the others. You increase the skills by earning points during game play. Doubles are worth more than singles, triples more than doubles, etc. Knocking in a run or bunting successfully provides hitting points as well. Scoring a run increases your base running points. The same applies to fielding where recording a putout or throwing out a runner provides fielding points. Based on the number of fielding opportunities per game, fielding generally provides more points per game, but hitting in the right situations can yield much larger point bounties. The game winning grand slam I hit provided about 10 games worth of points in one swing. In addition, there are situation specific goals that come up with each at bat that allow you to gain some additional points by getting ahead in the count, bunting to advance a runner or just reaching base.
To make it so that a game doesn’t take several hours, the game simulates through to moments where your player has an action, whether at the plate or in the field. While you can fast forward to each action, it actually makes the game feel more like a series of moments as opposed to an actual game.
The disassociation between moments in the game was the hardest part to overcome. It didn’t feel much like a ballgame when you’re playing only your at bats or fielding attempts. I recognize that baseball and football are unlike hockey which is a more fluid game that provides a more immersive experience while playing as a custom player. However, showing some of the game highlights between your characters plays would provide a better overall experience. I played nearly 200 games as a shortstop and really enjoyed it, but found the 8 minutes games to sometimes be unsatisfying.
One of the parts that I liked best about this game is that having not played a baseball game in several years I was able to pick it up quickly, in part because the menu system works very much like every other 2K Sports game. That simplicity and standardization has real value when you’re trying to learn a new game.
In the end, while MLB 2K10 isn’t perfect, it’s fun, and can be a lot better mostly through changes that amount to giving the existing product a good polish. It’s come a long way from what I understand was a very buggy 2K9 but still has some ground to cover.