[15 April 2008]
The sports sim is a unique genre, in that companies have to release an installment annually, somehow making consumers buy it year after year. A roster update and a fresh coat of paint simply isn’t enough to justify spending $59.99.
Furthering this issue is the recent activity of a certain developer (cough EA cough) buying up competition in an attempt to become the sports game version of the Rockefellers. This de facto monopoly has stifled creativity in the football realm, as Madden has become the only game in town.
Still, competition remains in baseball. 2K Sports’ MLB 2K8 and SCEA’s MLB 08: The Show are vying for the attention of baseball fans everywhere. MLB 2K8 has gone the innovation route, overhauling many standards of the baseball sim, making it an interesting experiment in what baseball games can be.
The biggest change to 2K8 is the use of the analog stick. The analog stick controls pitching, hitting and fielding, removing the “push X to swing” control scheme that has remained almost totally static since Baseball for the NES.
Hitting is simple enough. When the pitcher is about to release his pitch, the player pulls back on the right stick to step. Pull back too early or late and the batter won’t get enough power on his swing, hitting a weak grounder or fly ball. As the pitch nears the plate, the player can either release the stick for a contact swing or push it forward for a power swing.
As expected, this takes quite a bit of getting used to. It took me four games of scoring almost no runs before I got the hang of timing the step and the swing. Despite a somewhat steep learning curve, this is a rewarding system. It forces the player to actually think like a baseball player. Different pitchers have different deliveries and release points, and getting used to them and adjusting (especially when pitchers switch up their delivery with men on base) is key to being a successful hitter.
Pitching with the analog stick is even deeper than the hitting system. Each pitch has a different, two-step motion—a fastball is down, then up. A curve is diagonal down, then three-quarter circle to the left or right, depending on handedness. Once the first motion is initiated, a ring appears. As your ring approaches the outer ring, you want to begin the second motion of the pitch, ending it in a tiny inner circle located centrally. The more accurate the motion and proximity to the target rings, the better your pitch will be. As your pitcher tires, the rings shrink, making delivering quality pitches harder and harder.
It sounds confusing and, at first, it is. Your accuracy is rated on a scale of 1-100, and anything below about 70 is probably going to be hit hard. You will think you performed a motion perfectly, only to throw a meatball. But when you throw a perfectly located, 99-score curveball for a strikeout, it is a rewarding feeling.
Some motions blend together and become hard to differentiate. A slider, for example, is left/right, then half circle in the other direction. A pitcher may have that pitch and a curve (diagonal down, then three-quarter circle left/right) and the margin between those two pitches is very slim. This results in undesired pitches and can become frustrating.
All in all, the pitching is quite enjoyable, even more so than hitting. Old-school fighting game veterans or those who played the recent title Skate will have no problem getting the system down quickly. It is much more realistic and rewarding than pressing a button for a pitch and then stopping a meter for speed with another button press. There is actually an element of skill involved.
The final aspect of stick control is with fielding. As a ground ball approaches a fielder, his meter comes up. The player pulls back on the right stick (right for first, up for second, etc.) and must release it in the fielders sweet spot (a green zone in the middle of the meter) to make an accurate throw. Release too early and the throw will sail; too late and the throw will bounce.
The pitching and hitting stick control could be called a mixed bag, but fielding is near-perfect. Making accurate throws is easy, but rushing throws due to a speedy base runner or turning a double play can be difficult. It is a great system and should be adopted by all baseball games.
MLB 2K8 is much more difficult initially than other baseball titles. You won’t be winning games 15-2. If it is a close game late and you’re pitching against a good hitter, the controller vibrates, your pitch reticule shakes all over the place, and it becomes nigh-impossible to aim your pitch. While it’s an accurate representation of a pressure situation, it feels unfair. Opposing pitchers also pound the strike zone on the default difficulty, making walking and working counts an after thought. Through 15+ franchise games I have yet to draw an unintentional walk.
There aren’t a lot of modes in MLB 2K8—it’s basically Franchise, Exhibition and Home Run Derby. This is a huge blow, when MLB 08: The Show has arguably one of the best modes around in “Road to the Show”. Franchise mode is deep, though, with control over every minor league-level team and aspect of your team (finances, trades, etc.), tons of stats and a bevy of things only the most obsessive gamer will utilize.
What 2K8 lacks in modes, it makes up for in interesting extras. There are trading cards you can acquire by performing certain feats with certain players—hitting a home run with Ken Griffey Jr., for example. Players can also purchase the “Inside Edge” on opposing players, offering insight on their tendencies and hot/cold zones for hitters.
Graphically, the game is hit or miss. Player models are pretty accurate, complete with unique batting/pitching stances and home run celebrations. There are more generic models used than I would have liked and some name rights are missing –- the Cubs’ new Japanese right fielder, Kosuke Fukudome, has some strange replacement name, for example. So do some high-profile AAA players. Player jerseys also flap in the wind in an attempt to simiulate realism; sadly, this just comes off as cartoonish and odd.
Stadiums are very accurate, right down to the Coke bottles in Fenway to the “Throw it Back!” chant at Wrigley after an opposing home run. Little things like stained uniforms, visible breath on cold days and dirt kicking up on ground balls are all nice additions.
A major selling point for MLB 2K8 is the soundtrack. Backed by indie music web site Pitchfork, the game’s soundtrack features indie bands like LCD Soundsystem, Battles, The Cool Kids and The Flaming Lips. As good as many of these bands are, the songs are wholly inappropriate, not only for the intended audience, but the pace and action of a baseball title. Also, at 17 tracks long, the songs quickly wear on even the biggest indie music fan.
Along with the soundtrack is the announcing, something that every sports gamer begrudgingly deals with. John Miller and Joe Morgan deliver, at most, five different lines during the course of the game. While it may not be that few, it feels like it. Asides from Jeanne Zelasko and Steve Physioc are slightly better, but still repetitive. One funny commentator fluke I experienced was that whenever I hit a home run, at the end of game wrap-up, Physioc would say I hit an in-the-park home run. Needless to say, the game becomes better when the announcing is turned off.
MLB 2K8 has to be commended for re-inventing the wheel. Its new control system is deep and rewarding, if a bit difficult to get used to. I would take this scheme over the traditional “press X to swing” any day. With a few tweaks, the system could become the standard for baseball games. This creativity exists because 2K Sports realized they have to do something different to compete, and that’s what great about competition, it pushes creativity.
Where the game gets points for innovation, however, it loses some for just about everything else. The graphics are nothing special, and the lack of modes makes it a hard sell. Couple this with poor announcing, inappropriate music and some frame rate issues and you get a game that becomes difficult to recommend. If you’re tired of the same old controls and want something new and challenging in your baseball game, then by all means give this game a try. When push comes to shove, though, MLB 2K8 is ultimately a mediocre game.