Once the calendar hits March every year, that familiar feeling in the air invades your senses. The smell of fresh cut grass. The sunlight shining longer into the evening, and the sound and sight of baseball. As Spring Training continues and works its way into opening day, it brings with it baseball gaming season. MLB 2K12 is out now, looking to capitalize on the lacklustre offering last year. To be quite honest, it shouldn't be too difficult.
On a side note, I don't often acknowledge the other side of the console gaming spectrum, but it's believed this may be the last new title to be released for the Playstation 2 in North America. A moment of silence for a system wore out its welcome midway through the last decade, yet continued to anyway, last year's game was a disappointing cocktail of bland and monotone. A well presented series of ideas gave way to a poorly rendered game where you had to create your own excitement, as there was little generated for you. Even modes that exist for pure fun (like the Home Run Derby) didn't provide much.
Out of the box, what's interesting to me, and will probably get MLB diehards going is the Perfect Game Challenge. Rather than the offered challenge where the first one out of the gate wins a million, players now get the chance to compete in a pool, where the highest voted perfect games will show off in a tournament, where the winner gets the money. That's a nicer touch for those late to the party, and fixes last year's problem where former WWE wrestler Stevie Richards completed the task first, but lost out on his money because he uploaded the video before the contest started.
There is also the MLB Today Season Mode. This is a true hardcore baseball fan's dream. In this mode, you play your team's game the same day it happens. In essence, you are committing yourself to 162 9 inning games of MLB 2K12, which you play alongside your chosen team. I like the idea, and hope this becomes a "thing" in more sports games. I believe 2K implemented this into the NBA series as well last year, or some form of it. I wouldn't mind that EA "borrows" this idea for their sports titles as well. Tiger Woods 14 might be nice if you get to play as a pro and do a season that way, or Madden has you sit down for 16 Sundays and hammer out the regular season.
As a lifelong fan of the broadcast box, the most exciting feature for me is the intelligent commentary track. More than EIGHTY new hours of commentary happened to get recorded for this game alone by the broadcast team (same gang as last year) and the game has been tweaked to play off previous pitches, or previous motions and evolutions within the game perfectly. The commentary is so intricate and so well integrated that you would be led to believe that 2K sat the commentary team down and had them record an at-bat between every possible pitcher-batter combination in the game. It's just that well done. You can literally go hours without hearing repetition in commentary sequencing, which is otherwise non-existent in the sports gaming market today.
The two best enhancements to this game over last year come in the batter's box. Batters are properly affected, and their skills tuned to how they handle the pitcher's pitches. While you were told about stylistic matches and mismatches last year, you didn't quite have to pay as much attention to them as this year. This is great, as is the fact that batters are a tad more intelligent than last year. If you wanted to, you could still throw the same heat over and over again to different parts of the strike zone last year, and the batters would still fall for them. You can't do that this year. CPU batsmen will figure it out and chase you out of the game right quick. Swing timing is much better tuned now, and you pay the price if your swings are early or late more than ever. That alone basically takes last year's medicre controls and makes them a bit more believable.
There's not much else I can say in the way of major game enhancements. Outside of those significant tweaks in gameplay, and a few other minor additions, it still feels like I'm playing the same game as last year.
Sure, you know you're playing a different game. Those Miami Marlins unis weren't in last year's game. The Home Run Derby has been trimmed a little bit to where you know quicker than ever that your swing was a bust (what little fun that mode still had last year is pretty much zapped because of it) and the majority of the game looks as gorgeous as ever (I'll touch on things a bit more in the graphical breakdown.) Outside of that, if you stuck MLB 2K11 and 2K12 in front of me with the same graphics, same commentary track, same rosters and had me play a game on both with the different engines, it'd be like taking a Coke/Pepsi taste test as a 7 year old -- Wouldn't know the difference to be honest.
If you considered last year to be a dusty mirror, it really just feels like they've taken a feather duster to it, and put a little bit of touch up varnish around the trim. This game gets the consumer's choice "Caveat Emptor" award, because you should be aware you're just getting a better MLB 2K11. This is a no brainer purchase if you want baseball, because it's the only thing out there.
Graphics: 7/10. So much of this is right, and yet so much is wrong. On one hand, you have great looking ballparks, cleaned up fans, and great looking background visuals. On the other, the players look so out of place, and so crudely animated at times that it almost wrecks the picture they've painted. Recall back to the movie Space Jam, and how out of place Michael Jordan looked mixed into the Looney Tunes world? Now reverse that effect to where the players look out of place on nice looking backgrounds. This is slowly improving, and I'm such next year's title will feature better player rendering and animation, but everything just looks so out of place right now.
Sound: 9/10. Credit where credit is due. 80 hours of game-based commentary is nothing to sneeze at, and this is probably one of the best sports games on the market for that exact thing. You feel a better sense of interaction between game and commentator, and you don't feel as much that there are bits of commentary spliced for specific moments and specific instances, which sports games suffer from right now. The crowd still isn't very good, and I still don't quite feel audibly that I'm at the ballpark as much as this sort of title should. The menu music sucks too. That, and the fact that the music makes me feel like I'm attending an underground Grade 10 rave is all I want to say about it. However, that aside, the commentary track coming out of this game is the true stunner, and sadly may get overlooked when this game is looked back upon.
Controls: 7/10. The controls are virtually the same as last year, however, the gameplay tweaks toward them mean they make more sense. Pitching is still too difficult to care about mastering, but the swing timing, and learning how and when to control yourself does the trick in shoring up the control system. This is so far backwards to what I would have expected 2K to have done over the last year, but it works. To their credit, it does work.
Gameplay: 4/10. This game just doesn't have the pizzazz to interest me. Last year's game played average at best, and this year is almost the same. The Home Run Derby, which has been fun since every baseball game since the dawn of time, just isn't any longer. You either know you're hitting one right away, or not. Last year's was pretty similar, but this year doesn't even try to hide suspense. The improved interaction between batter and pitcher, and the ridiculously positive changes to the batting impact bring this gameplay mark up, but the fact that it's just an average title otherwise does little else for me.
Presentation: 7/10. As always, presentation in-game is pretty well done. It's not those levels of breathtaking perfection between takes that the NBA team have achieved, but it's good enough to get you into the game. Presentation outside, just like any 2K sports title is plentiful, yet messy. The menus, color schemes and their simultaneous interaction on the screen is headache inducing with the amount of colors and contrasts throughout. As I mentioned previously, the music is out of place, and may be one of the worst soundtracks to ever grace a sports game in recent memory, and it does more harm to the overall face of this game than good.
MLB 2K12 is the poster child for a video game work in progress. It's proof that you can clean up 95% of the problems with your last title, and still end up with an average game because the 5% you missed was what should've taken priority. If the game still looked like it came from a 1st year college project, but they put out the best playing baseball game in the history, people may have cut them some slack. As it stands, there isn't much waiting for you if you have MLB 2K11, and it's hard to justify paying another $60 for this if you did it last year. On the other hand, if you didn't buy the NBA title, and didn't buy MLB 2K11, well, there's a good looking combo pack out there with your name on it that has both these games. Otherwise, it's a judgment call. This game's better than last year's, but it's not necessarily worth going out and getting if you have the last couple outings.