"In short, your hopes are strung along at first by a satisfactory visual presentation, with the telecast handled by two well-known baseball buffoons. It feels reasonably similar to a day at the park."
Someone sitting on the outside looking in might find the typical behavior of the typical sports game fan irrational at best. Dedicated fans of a particular sport or franchise spend 60 bucks, every year like clockwork, for the privilege of playing what is, quite often, a roster update accompanied by some minor tweaks in gameplay.
This does not mean that sports gamers are any easier to please than fans of other genres--to the contrary, a yearly entry into the series creates a detailed backlog of the triumphs and blunders of a long-running sports series, and the target audience is always quick to recognize improvements and regressions over time. Among the Madden football series’ most ardent supporters are many who can tell you that not every yearly edition is impressive, or even an improvement over earlier years.
I tire, however, of always using last year’s sports game as a frame of reference for this year’s sports game. However appropriate such an approach might seem, the writer gets bogged down in the minutiae of year-to-year comparison, and the reader who is switching brands of a particular sports game or is otherwise unfamiliar with last year’s edition is largely left high and dry.
I will avoid that habit and keep it simple. Major League Baseball 2K9 purports to be a simulation baseball game. It is not a simulation baseball game. More often than is healthy, it’s not a baseball game. When it is acting like a baseball game, I merely regret that, most of the time, it’s insulting my intelligence. Perhaps the overarching lesson is that a handful of missteps in execution can add up to an avalanche in a hurry.
The disappointments of an unfortunate 360-owning baseball fan will begin accumulating early on. A bizarrely mapped menu of options reveal (or hide, depending on your perspective) a paltry handful of modes of play--single game, franchise, playoffs, homerun derby, or practice. A knock-off of MLB: The Show’s enjoyable “Road to the Show” mode, which allows you to create a player and guide him through their minor and major league career, would have been appreciated; lacking that, most fans will likely spend their time in the franchise mode. Additional trappings, functionally useless, include collecting trading cards of many players through arbitrary in-game achievements. Whatever misgivings one may have with the game’s layout and content in terms of play modes will pale in comparison to the experience of attempting to actually play a fluid game of baseball.
Things appear promising enough from the outset: players are treated to their team warming up while introductory commentary is provided by Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips. The reliably ineloquent Jon Miller/Joe Morgan duo has been retired, but readers familiar with Firejoemorgan.com or, more generally, the sport of baseball, will understand in short order this new team is not necessarily an improvement. The stadiums are bright to the point of appearing somewhat cartoonish, but they do sport the trademark features of their real-life counterparts and feel appropriately vast in dimension. Particular players are hit-and-miss in terms of their likeness to their real-life counterparts. I was able to recognize Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez without much difficulty; the crater-faced Manny Ramirez is not so fortunate, apparently having served as a sparring partner for Apollo Creed over the winter. In short, your hopes are strung along at first by a satisfactory visual presentation, with the telecast handled by two well-known baseball buffoons. It feels reasonably similar to a day at the park. Let’s ignore the laughable statistical overlays that pop up when a batter comes to the plate, or when you check the “news” page in your franchise, which provide blatantly false information. As Rays catcher Dioner Navarro comes up to the plate, I’m fairly certain he was not 6th in steals in the American League last year, or whatever ridiculous information the game is telling me. The boxscore from the game I just played also lists Joe Blanton as my losing pitcher, despite the fact that Joe Blanton is not on my team.
Once things get moving, more substantial problems pile up. Offensively, the game is an arcade-like slugfest--the one thing real baseball usually isn’t. On day one, my Yankees piled up 8 runs on 19 hits. By week 2 of the season schedule, I was tallying 7-15 runs and 15-30 hits a game. The computer opponent rarely fails to rack up 10 hits, leading to astronomical totals from game to game. In most innings on the mound, my hurlers threw between 5 and 12 pitches, even when they allowed runners on base. There is hardly a pitch that an AI opponent will not (a) swing at and (b) make contact with. Your opponents will be absurdly aggressive at the plate, and successful in connecting far too often. This will remain true no matter which difficulty setting you choose--offensive is just too easy to come by for everyone. Correspondingly, your pitchers become fatigued after hurling 40-50 pitches, or about half way through a standard major league pitch start.
Your own offensive prowess will be fueled by an insultingly dumbed-down batting interface. Sports games are increasingly relying on the right analog stick as a mechanism for replicating real-life motion, and for a game like EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour ‘09 and its golf-swing motion, the choice seems logical. The swing of a baseball player relative to a baseball approaching at 70-100 MPH and at varying arcs and angles would suggest the need for a more nuanced approach, but not in the eyes of Take Two. As the pitcher winds up, hold down on the right analog stick to ready your hitter’s swing, and press up as the ball approaches to take a rip. Worry not whether the pitch is high and in or low and away--if it is physically within reach and your timing is even reasonably close, contact will be made, and often for a hit. If nothing else, this broken system is perhaps the biggest advocate for the old-fashioned push-button swing with careful timing and an emphasis on guessing where in the strike zone the ball is going. To say that such an alternative is provided in the “classic” batting mode would be preposterous. With that control scheme, a bright red outline of a bat, replete with a big “X” on the sweet spot, clutters up the strike zone, leaving you to move the bat around and attempt to line up the neon bat with the pitch as it comes in. The scheme is obtrusive and peculiar.
The uncanny ability of your hitters goes a step further. Not only is it far too simple a task to make contact with most pitches, but it is also much too easy to direct the ball with the left analog stick. Point it up or down for fly balls or grounders, respectively, or left or right to aim for that area of the field. The success rate of the tactic is far too high. The Yankees wield a mighty middle-of-the-order when healthy, but Mark Texiera should not be launching opposite-field homeruns into the second deck on pitches very low and very away.
Pitching is slightly more complicated an affair, but generally involves shaking off the idiotic suggestions of pitch type and location offered by your catcher. While Jorge Posada suggested I throw a fastball about 80% of the time, I knew I was much better off sticking to curveballs, sliders and changeups. Throwing a pitch consists of executing specific motions with the right analog. A fastball is thrown by holding ‘down’ and then pressing ‘up,’ and a curve ball is thrown by performing a half-circle motion with the appropriate timing of an on-screen power indicator. There is less to complain about with regards to the pitching than there was with the batting interface, except to say that there is little risk or reward in choosing to throw particularly strenuous pitches as the game progresses. It becomes no more difficult to throw an arm-snapping breaking ball in the 8th inning with a tired pitcher than it was in the opening frame, and, really, the game does not care whether you complete the full pitch motion correctly, so long as you start off right with the first motion.
As stated, whether you hit your spots on the mound or not, you are not likely to tally a high strike-out total, as opposing hitters are superhumanly talented at making contact, and relentlessly aggressive. On the higher difficulty levels, the computer generates offense by turning around the first pitch to consecutive batters, until the bases are getting crowded. There is no physical logic to much of the action--pitches at shin level and outside can still be crushed into the stands, sinker-ball pitchers somehow give up just as many fly balls and line-drives as anybody else, and batters can catch up on anything high and inside, seemingly no matter how high or how inside. The semi-slick presentation is hiding what feels like a very rudimentary, almost pre-determined, game of pitch, hit and catch.
Except for the catch part. Forget the detail that my 3-4 hitters, A-Rod and Tex, routinely combine for 3-5 homers a night and are both hitting in the neighborhood of .450. My club was a mess when it came to actually fielding the ball. This is so for several reasons.
MLB 2K9 gives priority to its strange, jerky fielding animations. It is not at all unusual for your player to jog toward a pop fly at an uncomfortably slow speed, despite the fact that you’re telling him to sprint there. Apparently the game wants the fielder to move at a certain speed so that the jog can transition into a catch in a smooth animation. All this really means is that, often, you are not really in control of your fielders. On shorter flares to the outfield that seem reachable if you direct your fielder to hustle, you are not even permitted to attempt to make the play--the computer has already pre-determined the path of least resistance for your fielder, and has him lazily jog to play the ball on a bounce. It is infuriating to feel like you have no control over your outfielders, on plays you believe you can make.
Playing the infield is equally excruciating, but for different reasons. One of 2K9’s single biggest flaws will be one experienced early and often. Your opponent hits a groundball to the shortstop (or second baseman, or third baseman). You pick it up, and, using either the face buttons or the right analog stick, direct a throw to first. While it would appear that your throw arrived in plenty of time, the first baseman failed to keep his foot on the bag, and the runner is called safe. This “glitch” will happen, no matter how on-target your throw (which is guided by a meter which measures the throw’s accuracy). This leads me to believe that this occurrence is more an animation/programming glitch, but it is one that fundamentally paralyzes the gameplay. If it’s not this problem interfering with your efforts, it’s another--your infielders are very deliberate in scooping up the ball and double-pumping before actually throwing. This will not be the issue in standard groundouts to first base, but turning a double play is an extreme rarity because of your infielders’ slow reaction time.
The whole experience is made even more frustrating, especially on the higher difficulty levels, when it becomes evident that the same rules of poor programming do not apply to your computer-controlled opponents. Outfielders sprint at lightning speed to make catches on balls headed for the gaps. Shortstops routinely make diving stops, laser-throws to first, or even begin double plays. Such feats are rendered impossible for the player when the he or she hardly gets to field on his own.
Numerous other shortcomings reveal themselves from game to game, piling on top of an already broken system. I figured my inning was over when Johnny Damon popped up harmlessly to Carl Crawford, but the fielder overran the fly, it went over his head and rolled all the way to the wall. Crawford would have his revenge later on when his own fly ball would bounce off my outfielder’s chest. It is impossibly easy to pick off runners who take a lead off the base--luckily, the threat of Crawford and teammate B.J. Upton were largely eliminated when they couldn’t get back to the bag in time to beat my throws. Human players can even use this glitch against each other, especially with leads off second base. Outfielders run through outfield walls and disappear. In franchise mode, computer-controlled teams accept ludicrously one-sided trade offers, and the only control you have over signing free agents is to alter either the total contract value or the number of years.
Some of the problems discussed could conceivably be reduced in their pervasiveness by experimentation with the extensive set of sliders in the options menu. Sliders, now a mainstay in team sports gaming, purport to allow the player to alter the frequency and difficulty of dozens of different aspects of gameplay, from batting power to fielding speed. To ask the player to attempt to apply a band-aid to a hemorrhaging play system by toiling away at slider settings is, I submit, asking too much. The reason that such experimentation is acceptable in the context of say, the Madden football games, is because those games are fundamentally sound to begin with.
Take Two has also said that they will release patches to fix particular game flaws (indeed, at the time of this writing, one such patch has already been released, supposedly addressing an issue of the game freezing). While they may help improve the experience for some, it is doubtful that patch downloads can fix the deeply rooted problems present here. Regardless, the buyer’s expectation is that the game will be largely complete out of the box, and this should not be seen as an unrealistic expectation.
Other implementations which would serve as nice touches in a fully functional sports game are nullified here. The Living Rosters feature keeps a player who is connected to the Live network up-to-date regarding player movement through trades and free agency. The online mode allows players to partake in single games and leagues, but significant slowdown can hamper the flow when the ball is put in play. In franchise mode, the player has access to a wide range of statistical information concerning the subtle tendencies of his entire roster, including an assortment of Sabremetric statistics. Unfortunately, that kind of attention to detail is made to feel like an entirely cosmetic gloss, below which is a very unpolished game of baseball.
The continuous march of the year-to-year line-up of sports games always plants the same hope in the disappointed gamer: “there’s always next year.” MLB 2K9 can be a soothing experience 20% of the time for an Xbox owner with no other options for a baseball simulation. Unfortunately, there’s a shortcoming around every corner, waiting to pounce.
Freelance review by K T (March 18, 2009)
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