Poor XBox owners. That's not a term you hear from the competition very often, but you have to sympathize with baseball fans that only own an XBox. EA left the baseball market following MVP Baseball 2005, and since when 2K Sports offered up MLB 2K6 as their first exclusive, you knew you were in for trouble. Music and layouts redundant with the NHL series, graphics that made 4D Boxing look like Picasso, and few redeeming qualities overall. But you could see the seeds growing. That year, Jeanne Zelasko, Jon Morgan and Joe Miller put together a fantastic commentary track, and...well, that was about it. 2K didn't get much revenge on EA for stealing their football license that year.
Fast forward 5 years. 2K has continued to try to improve their MLB franchise year after year, while putting out 2 editions of "The Bigs" on the side with the help of their former development studio Blue Castle (now owned by Capcom and producing the Dead Rising series.) The Bigs threw simulation baseball out the window and focused on recreating something you would play at your local arcade in an elongated form. It worked. The Bigs 2 was probably my favorite baseball game since Base Wars for the NES, and I still hold it in the highest regard as one of my favorite games on the 360. I put down my simulation hat, however, picked it up again for a small test drive of MLB 2K10 and firmly planted it back on my head for MLB 2K11. It didn't hurt that the graphics didn't look like an Apogee Shareware game, however, I admit it stung slightly that Little Joe was no longer riding shotgun with Jon Miller. Still, with that being no reason at all to dismiss a game, it was time to get going.
The first thing you'll be hit with is the option to use "Living Rosters," which, if you have never come across them are basically the coolest feature in a sports game. Essentially, if rosters change in real life, they change in your game too. If a player is injured for real, he is in your game as well. Adding to the fun aspect of Living Rosters is "MLB Today" which allows you to play the games on that actual day in-game. Make sure to mark your calendars for July 12th, as one of the achievements require you to play the All Star Game on its actual date, meaning this achievement only comes once a year. Since 2K reserves the right to discontinue the MLB Today feature at any time, this means you may only have one chance.
2K has decided in their recent sporting games that they would make it as confusing as possible to navigate their menus. The menus are fully hidden every time you load up the game, and are accessed by (of all things) the right stick. With a large variety of gaming modes, the game appears on the surface to be an absolute gem. The graphics and menus are gorgeous, and upon first glance, there is so much to take in that this game could take an entire baseball sked to unravel. You've got your normal mix of exhibitions, season modes, tournaments and mini games. The 2K mini games have come a long way since NHL 2K5 pond hockey with pudgy stick figures, and these will provide a couple extra hours of fun.
The game itself is very intrinsic and intimately involved with statistics, just like the real game of baseball. You will feel the effects of the new Dynamic Player Rating, which will analyze the player's usefulness over the last 4 weeks, and push him into hot or cold streaks respectively. Unfortunately, you can't turn this feature off if you really don't like it, so you will have to deal with it no matter what. In trade, the online experience has been enhanced. 2K is innovating the next chapter in sports gaming, allowing you to have up to 64 players in one online game - with one person representing every possible member of both rosters. If that isn't the sports gaming idea of the year, I don't know what is. I expect both 2K and EA's sports franchises to follow suit. It won't be long until you are seated on the bench waiting for the coach to sub you in within every game.
Once the manager gets you out there, you're faced with similar gameplay mechanics in previous versions. Batting is done on a contact or power basis, and all through the right stick. You simply swing the stick forward to bat for contact, or hold it back and swing forward for power. You will be given ratings for your batter's contact and power stats, along with his stats against that type of pitcher to determine what you'd like to do. The game measures your swing to the split second, and it is amazing how badly you bat when the game measures you that closely. This is definitely an early highlight of the gameplay engine.
Visually, the game is nothing special. In fact, I would go so far as to say the graphics of the Blue Castle games are superior to the graphics here. The Bigs 2 featured cavernous yet lively looking stadiums. While the game looked like one giant Saturday morning cartoon, at least it never looked like an empty lifeless painting, which is what some of the backdrops in MLB 2K11 look like At times, it feels like you're playing a game with a superimposed green screen image that comes to life only occasionally. Camera angles are very strange in the sense that you never quite get a feel of how far your ball is capable of traveling outside the confines of the baseball field. Though the game will attempt to have you pitch single player with the standard over-the-shoulder view, it may be worth looking into the home plate cam for both batting and pitching. If a home run is a sure thing, the camera never changes to let you feel the impact of the home run. You just see a top down view of the field as the camera swings to the same angle near the stands to show there was a homerun. Given how punishing a homerun is supposed to look, this is a bit of a letdown in comparison. The same can be said for much of the graphics in this game. Player models are very sound, and well done, but the fields feel uninspired, and crowd seemingly needs to be rescanned into your picture every time they're shown in-game (which is usually just foul balls) and don't add much life to the whole experience.
Announcing your game this year are Steve Phillips, Gary Thorne and the 6-pack summer diet himself, John Kruk. For what it's worth, they do a great job, poring over and providing stats few commentators this side of Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez provide you with. Thorne, who pulls double duty with EA's NHL series is still an odd choice coming from someone who has never listened to his baseball broadcasts, though I understand now he's no longer that involved with pro hockey, so this is actually the sport that got it right.
Anyway, once you have popped out for your third out and take the mound, this is where the "fun" begins. Putting fun is quotations is accurate because at times, there is none. This is where all of the frustration of this gameplay engine shines through. Pitching is done by selecting a pitch and mimicking the pattern onscreen. The crazier the pitch, the harder it is to do successfully. An onscreen guide shows you where the best place to aim for would be, and on your first few tries, you best assume you've aimed for the stands, because that's where your pitches will end up. The pitching engine makes you long for the simpler days when all you had to do was hold the button down to select power and then guide the pitch into the strike zone. Here, it's all left up to the way you do your pattern, and if you mess it up somehow (which happens more often than not,) you'll find the pitch landing at your catcher's knees, or worse, making a beeline for the peanut salesman.
If your opponent hits the ball, however, the fielding system is interesting. Your fielder will get the ball with a meter above his head. This meter will help you dictate how hard and how accurate the throw will be. Mess it up one way or another, and you get an easy error, however, get it straight on and you can get that much-needed out. Repeat this for 9 innings for the course of an entire season, and, well, that's your season in a nutshell. Let's take a look at the box score and bring this night to a close.
Graphics: 6/10. Graphics are never 2K Sports' games strong suit, and this is no exception. Hi-Def menus aside, player details are about the only "pretty" in-game feature of this game, and they're done extremely well. Uniforms look crisp, and players look like they should. Otherwise, the rest of the graphics are almost PS1-ish in their execution. Stadium backdrops look almost green screen-flat at times, and the crowd panning and animations are no better. Granted, the graphics have gotten better year after year, but in this generation of gaming, they just can't look like they came hopping out of Ken Griffey Jr's Winning Run. It's a small price to pay for an attempt at a more mechanically sound game, but The Bigs 2 had more personable and engaging graphics, and that game was put together in a tiny Burnaby, British Columbia gaming studio without the mass amount of resources this game must have had. Thankfully they have the grass palettes right. Nothing says realistic baseball like an aquamarine outfield that rivals an indoor tennis court.
Sound: 7/10. The Gary Thorne train appears to be rolling itself into sports gaming with the force of a thousand ball park hotdogs in your stomach. Will next year's NBA Elite game be called by Thorne and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? I realize Thorne's left hockey and is now doing baseball fulltime, but it's still strange to hear him calling the shots since I'm not a Baltimorean. As previously mentioned, the Play by Play and color is very well done. You really feel like you're listening in on a baseball broadcast, though it misfires once in a while and you will hear the odd duplicate line. It's to be expected though since every game does it. 2K has clearly taken the time to have facts and figures about almost every player. At some point, you can all but expect to know what college a player went to, what his batting average is against right handers on a Sunday, and how many servings of Hamburger Helper he eats before a game. Outside of that, there isn't much here that makes you feel at any point that you're not just playing a baseball video game. Something EA and THQ have done well with their sports games is attempt to perfect in-game ambience. I never once felt that connection while playing MLB 2K11. It would be nice if the trains whistled over top of the fans at Safeco, or if you could hear the frustration of 20 years of mediocrity in the chants of Toronto Blue Jays fans. The baseball sounds are crisp enough, but I'm just not wowed like I was with the Bigs 2. On second thought, the game has my boy John Kruk. Best baseball game ever.
Controls: 5/10. Look, this stick pattern pitching just doesn't work. I don't want to feel like I'm playing with an etch a sketch every time I'm about to throw a pitch. The frustrating thing about this above all is that the pitching engine almost gives you no incentive to use anything but all star pitchers, for fear of throwing 12 wild pitches an inning. The system has to be followed so perfectly, and the degree of difficulty is so far between 90-rank pitches and 60-rank pitches that the slightest hiccup results in you throwing into the 4th row of seats. Batting controls are fine. Fielding controls are great. I may complain about the pitching, but I do appreciate the fact that fielding and throwing to bases can vary by how hard and accurate you've chosen to throw the ball, and you only have that same split second real baseball players to do aim and position the throw. However, one real problem with this feature is that the base you've chosen to throw to isn't always the one thrown to, even when you have pressed the right button. You don't often run into the dreaded cut off man ruining your attempt at a defensive gem, but when it happens, it happens on a grandiose scale. Nothing beats 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th with the tying runner on second base where an off kilter throw from the outfield to home plate ends up in the hands of the first baseman somehow, even after you've pressed the A button and positioned your throw perfectly. No wonder they're offering you a million bucks to throw a perfect game.
Gameplay: 7/10. The real fun in this game lays in multiplayer. The option to play a 64 man roster online is genre-defining, and tossing wild pitches all night isn't so bad when your friend is just as bad as you are. 14 inning pitchers duals can be sickeningly fun when you have somebody with you to enjoy the experience, but assuming you will be playing the majority of the game alone, be ready to experience a lot of frustration out of the gate if you have not played the previous games and accustomed yourself to the pitching engine. The MLB Today mode is one of the coolest in all professional sports games, and allows you to live out a season of sorts even if you don't want to play the actual season mode. Again, remember - July 12th. All Star Game. 40 achievement points.
Regardless of whether this game is a must purchase or not, you've got to admit one thing - You don't have a lot of options. If you want something that's going to put you as close as possible to a simulation baseball gaming experience, Major League Baseball 2K11 is your go-to. This is the rotation ace that will give you some solid innings every time out. It will throw the odd stinker, but hopefully by now, you have your ace reliever in the Bigs 2 sitting in your bullpen ready to clean up and close out. This is not a bad game despite my gripes. There are some very key saving graces.
As I mentioned before, the Play by Play is second to none. The mini games are agonizing at first, but fun once you get the hang. This is a very serviceable game in a whole. If I had to name it after a baseball player, this would probably be Jesse Orosco. You're going to get a lot of mileage out of Orosco 2K11 and it'll get the job done. It will remain consistent well after it has worn out its welcome. It will just never be spectacular. It will always just be there. If you have MLB 2K10, I don't feel there's any need to upgrade unless the new features catch your fancy so much that you need to have this game. In playing with a group of MLB2K10 vets, all said the game was barely an upgrade from last year. That about told me all I needed to know.
For a $5 monthly fee or $30 annual fee, EA plans to provide Xbox One owners with free access to games in their catalogue, significant discounts and early access to future games among other benefits. This could be a game changer for Xbox One.