Ah yes, the smell of popcorn and roasted peanuts is in the air. Crowd chants such as Yankees Suck begin to fill the bowels of cities like Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay. Its that time of the year. Baseball season is back and of course we have an all new baseball game to play in the form of Major League Baseball 2k9 by 2K Sports.
So lets start off with a little history on the MLB 2K series. MLB made the jump to the 360 with MLB 2k6 which ended up being a disaster for the most part due to all kinds of issues with the game from minute visuals to game breaking bugs. Kush Games was the developer in charge and with Ben Brinkman, lead designer on MVP 2005, things looked to be headed in the right direction. 2K7 rolled around and while the game looked visually stunning there were still technical issues that hindered the game all around. Many folks still live by the notion that 2k7 is one of the best baseball games to date, while others continue to wait for that best baseball game to come along. 2K8 introduced new pitching and hitting mechanics and while innovative and interesting, the game lacked a lot of polish especially online. The game was practically unplayable when online and once again this was a game killer for most. So near the end of the real life baseball season, Kush Games was fired and Visual Concepts was given the reigns to take the title in a new positive direction.
So here we are. Its spring 2009 and MLB 2k9 is now on store shelves. The game looks quite stunning and while some will still argue that 2k7 was more of a visual masterpiece I am one to disagree. 2K7 is great and a beauty of a game, but 2k9 has so much more in other detail. Yes, it has some graphical issues as well, but so has every other game that has come along in the history of videogames. Visual Concepts only had a limited amount of development time to work on this game and quite frankly did an exceptional job with what limited resources they had available. Visually the game looks great, the new batting and pitching mechanics are very well done and headed in the right direction. And most of all online play is smooth as silk compared to the past renditions of the game. With all that said, there are quite a few issues that hinder 2k9 from being the cream of the crop this year and we'll get into that as this review progresses.
So lets discuss the game graphically first. Visual Concepts has always been known for their stunning graphical accomplishments in sports games. And they continue to step up the bar in 2k9. Many folks will faithfully argue that 2k9 took steps backward, but I truthfully disagree. Yes, there are a few head scratchers here and there but overall the game looks fabulous. Player models look great and there are plenty of signature style pitching deliveries as well as batting stances and swings to keep the diehard fans content. There are also plenty of generic stances and deliveries as well which will tend to upset those same diehard fans. Especially fans of say the younger up and coming players. The old saying you can't please everyone comes into play heavily here. Stadium renditions look fantastic and once again you'll have those season ticket holders whom will notice immediately if something is out of place or missing, but overall the game accomplishes a lot in the stadium department. Smooth animation, especially online, is the key to this game. At the time of this review patches are still in development to fix a few hiccups that occur such as slowdown in the outfield possibly along with a few other glaring gameplay issues.
The dynamic lighting in the game is done quite well. Afternoon games will progress through the early evening into the night seamlessly and it carries a very natural feel. There are plenty of shadows to represent the height of the sun and day games are very representative of their real life counterpart. Night games look great as well and give a feel of playing under the lights. The only downside is that the sky when cloudy seems very pixelated at times and can get rather ugly.
On a down side graphically are those head scratchers I mentioned. The first time I played the game I immediately noticed the dust clouds that floated off the infield dirt when players ran up the basepath. Sound like a great thing, but not every field is a dust bowl, and quite honestly it looks as though the dust clouds were created using MS paint. While its not a gameplay issue it really does detract from that visual masterpiece I discussed earlier and is laughable if not aggravating. The game could do without the dust clouds as its just plain ugly. Great concept, just poorly executed. Another downside to the game graphically is the blank out of town scoreboards. It just does not make any sense as to why these are blank and contain no information at all. The least they could have done is put up static numbers just for appearance purposes. I am truly hoping its blank for a future update that brings in real time scoring or something, but I am not holding my breath either.
The game has a great TV style presentation with overlays, fading black screens to represent commercial breaks, and plenty of replays. Paired with the new seamless commentary by Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips this game is top notch in the presentation aspect but falls short in a few areas in the game itself. While playing a game you no longer get any information displayed on screen as to who is batting when you are the pitcher. A name and possibly their game stats would be a great plus. Heck I would even take something in the way of career or season stats in franchise mode. Online it makes it impossible to know who you are pitching too and can be quite deadly if you don't stay on top of it. As the batter you have no idea whom is pitching to you or what his stamina is like, pitch count, or even again any kind of career stat or season stat. How about his game totals thus far? This is an extremely glaring issue and makes for a nightmare when playing against a live opponent online. I hate to call anyone stupid, but who the heck is the moron that thought it was a good idea to take away information like this.
One other glaring visual that is worth mentioning is the in game advertising for Pepsi and State Farm companies. I realize that these folks pay the bills in a lot of ways, but the display of the logos throughout the stadiums is frankly disturbing and gaudy to say the least. Of course real life stadiums are full of advertisements and may have even more signage in place than the game does, but due to variety of sponsors it does not detract from the stadium in anyway. I would have liked to seen the development team get a little creative and make some of their own silly billboard ads to replace the repetitive nature of the main sponsors. Another unforgivable trend in this game is to create fake billboards and erect them in the oddest places just to house a sponsor logo such as the State Farm sign in Wrigley. In the end, you kind of get immune to the signage and tend to not even see it anymore but in the end its just about the ethics or the lack of for that matter.
As stated earlier 2k9 was pretty much built from scratch by Visual Concepts and many things that folks have come to know and love in the past iterations have been dropped for the time being in order to just create a solid foundation to build upon. Depth in the form of editing player stances, pitcher repertoires, ability to change rosters on the fly in quick games are all missing in the game along with some other potentially important aspects. Many folks find this unforgivable and immediately denounce this game without truly getting into the game itself. I for one have played the game with an open mind and have overlooked many of the gameplay bugs that I will mention and find that this game is truly top notch when it comes to solid gameplay.
First up lets talk a little about the new batting interface. In last years game there was a timing step that had folks pulling back on the stick to replicate a loading of the swing and then following through with the swing once the pitch is thrown. This year its only a 2 step process. You will load you swing by pulling back at anytime prior to the pitch being thrown. No timing issue is involved. When the pitch is released you will then make a decision to push the stick forward to swing or hold off and take th pitch. The pitches are so much easier to read this year and you won't have to be guessing and predetermine if you are going to swing or not prior to the pitch, especially online. You can actually watch a pitch and hold off if it looks to be a ball with ease. Along with the right stick movement, there is a left stick called Influence. You push this stick up or down and any direction to influence the hit. In other words, if you push up and to the right, you will most likely influence the hit to be a fly ball to right field. Unfortunately, pushing up with the default difficulties results in homeruns more times than not. At the time I am writing this there is a supposed patch on the way to limit the homerun fest. Lets hope so.
The pitching interface is also now a 2 step process rather than a 3 step process that was introduced in 2k8. You will still use the right stick to perform the pitch, such as a fastball is straight down followed by an upward movement of the stick. The difference is now that you are trying to fill the yellow pitching cursor to its fullest point as it expands rather than waiting for it to retract and hitting a small pinpoint circle. The key to pitching is mixing up your pitches, speeds and locations. Do not throw things right over the plate on a regular basis or your are going to get rocked. Both the pitching and batting are much easier methods and really streamline the online play which is hugely important to many folks.
Fielding is fairly similar to last year with throwing that can be accomplished with either a button press or a right stick movement. Timing your throw inside the blue area on the throwing meter is key and crucial to making plays in the field. At times there are some issues such as slow release times from infielders when trying to throw out a runner or turn a double play, or choppy animation in the outfield that will cause you to miss a flyball or line drive altogether. There are also instances of players going through foul territory and outfield walls and getting stuck unable to make any kind of play. It does not happen often, but it is there and quite frustrating when it happens. Another glaring problem is the fact that at this point there is no collision detection in the field of play. Players can run through other players without worry and the Call off button is pretty much rendered useless. Again, hopefully this is fixed in an upcoming patch, but currently is a bit unacceptable and the QA guy that passed this as okay should be out of a job.
Many find that the AI is overly aggressive and they swing at every first pitch on a regular basis. Yes, this is true so you really shouldn't throw into the strike zone on your first pitch knowing this information. Instead throw an outside unhittable pitch and then begin mixing it up with different pitches and speeds and you'll see the strikeouts pile up. As stated earlier if you choose to throw in the zone constantly then just prepare to give up a lot of runs. While the AI is extremely aggressive its not to the point that you cannot play realistic baseball as some would like to suggest. Again this is something that is to be addressed in a patch so at this point in time it may not have even been worth mentioning.
Overall the gameplay is solid and a lot of fun to play if you overlook the few things that I mentioned. I am not going to go into all the glitches and inexcusable flaws because it is my understanding that many will be fixed in the upcoming title updates/patches. So need to even harp on these. Plus you can read several reviews and compile your own list or check out 2K's forums to get the lowdown on what is the latest grudge being held against 2K and Visual Concepts. A few of these problems though would include easy 2nd base pickoffs, 1st baseman not aligning properly wiht the bag on force plays, wall detections issues, and some issues of honeruns going into no mans land and not actually counting.
So lets talk a bit about the options included in this years game. One of the new features is the Living Roster updates. As big moves are made and players are called up and sent down throughout the season the living roster is to reflect those movements on a fairly regular basis. Each time you load up 2k9 a check will be made to see if there is a new update available, if you have Living Rosters turned on. Now for those wondering, these rosters are only for exhibition, online and starting a franchise. Once you begin a franchise your franchise roster is locked into that franchise and will not update which really should be a no brainer but it seems there are quite a few that can't understand this. I am not going to explain it for those folks because frankly its not that difficult to understand. A Playoff mode is included in the offline play that allows you to jump right into the playoffs and make your way to the world series. Many people have asked and I just want to make this clear. There is no WBC mode or teams in the game upon release. Maybe it will come as DLC later on but I would not count on it personally.
At this time online play is a homerun fest for a lot of folks, especially the ones that really don't know how to pitch. Regardless though, even well thrown pitches anywhere close to the zone can be roped over the fence just by the simple action of pushing up on the hit influence left stick. 2K made an announcement that this would be addressed in the upcoming patch so lets hope thats the case. Online play also includes the team 2K options as well as online leagues which are extremely in depth and well done. You can view your leagues on the console as well as on 2K Sports as well. The stat tracking is amazing and will make a lot of baseball enthusiasts happy. You'll also have an online homerun derby which can be played offline as well versus the AI.
Baseball is full of so many details. Each detail has a certain importance that can be larger or smaller for each and every individual. Some folks will be upset about no homerun stadium celebrations or that the crowd does not get excited at the right times. While others could care less. Just because someone has more passion than another or vice versa does not make either fan any less of a baseball fan. Each person has their wants and desires to be in the game but not all will be fully content once its all said and done. If you seriously play this game with an open mind you will see that it has a lot of potential to be one of the best baseball games ever next year. Sure this year lacks some polish and options. And yes, there are some glaring defects in the game but 2K seems to be addressing those as they come and is really trying to please the masses. My hats off to them in that respect. My thumbs down also goes to them in some of the flaws that were let into the game for the public to experience. It truly is the best of both worlds in this situation and while many reviewers have been ripping this game apart and praising the competition all in all 2K stands ready to challenge the competition with this solid foundation of a game in 2k10.
Do not miss out on this title. Despite the things you see and hear, one should really give the game a try for themselves and come to their own conclusion. As I stated, play with an open mind and you'll find that you really can have an enjoyable experience with this game and that the defects and issues really do not detract completely from the game in the end.
Suggestions: Continue support of this title through patches. Please find a way to lessen the Pepsi and State Farm advertisements with generic comedic relief. Light the scoreboards. Please include player information overlays especially for online play. Tweak the difficulty of this game to lessen the homeruns.