"When batting, you will have to be patient in identifying pitches, rather than taking a rip at everything thrown. Pitchers often straddle the outer-edge of the strikezone, and a batter caught trying to pull a ball way out there will often tap weak grounders to the pitcher and second baseman."
Of Major League Baseball 2K9, last year’s comparative trainwreck of a baseball simulation, I summarily complained:
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 trauma exacted by Visual Concepts upon the national pastime has been mended to a degree in Major League Baseball 2K10, resulting in, occasionally, recognizable baseball. In some areas of play, the underlying mechanics have been revitalized; in others, baffling programming glitches persist. As all annual sports games should, this newest edition to the franchise represents a step forward. That being said, there is a long way to go.
The single-greatest improvement comes in the form of a balanced, challenging, and generally satisfying batter-pitcher interface. Here, as in real baseball, every pitch thrown is a small battle and of potentially great consequence to the bigger picture of the game as whole. 2K9 was not just artificially offense-oriented; it felt like the hitting had no basis in physical reality, as batters could take pitches thrown high and away and pull them for 500-foot homeruns.
Wherever those games were taking place, the baseball of 2K10 usually appears to be unfolding here on planet Earth. When batting, you will have to be patient in identifying pitches, rather than taking a rip at everything thrown. Pitchers often straddle the outer-edge of the strikezone, and a batter caught trying to pull a ball way out there will often tap weak grounders to the pitcher and second baseman. Derek Jeter’s most enviable quality--the ability to sit back on a pitch and go with it to opposite field--is rewarded here. Pitches low in the zone can no longer be piledrived for stratospheric homeruns; seeing-eye singles are of a surprisingly realistic frequency. The usual gimmicks of control-stick maneuvering, now a mainstay in sports video games, are available here: swings with a higher contact rate, more powerful rips with a lower likelihood of success but packing a greater punch, and attempting to direct the ball to right field or left, on the ground or in the air, are all viable options. Pitchers throw a much higher (and again, more realistic) number of balls, and patient hitters are more often rewarded with walks. All that being said, a lazy, hanging curveball or flat slider is still going to be punished by most major league hitters. Batter-pitcher battles are even extended by defensive check-swings, which are surprisingly effective (flick the control stick left or right) for a batter fouling off borderline strikes and trying to stay alive against a tough hurler. Hitting is challenging and rewarding.
The mechanics of pitching, dictated by Street Fighter-like manipulations of the right control stick, add a layer of nuance but are not quite as clean as the batting controls. For example, to throw a curveball, the player must perform a well-timed, smooth, half-circle motion with the right control stick. It is the same setup as last year, and, as last year, it often feels like a bit of an irritating gimmick; the mechanism is picky, and too often the message “BAD GESTURE” pops up to precede a poorly-thrown pitch. While the setup does attempt to replicate the real-life consequences of poor pitch mechanics, the translation to the videogame controller is not a smooth one. The game is by no means ruined, but until a more refined mechanism is introduced, the tried-and-true push-button and meter system remains superior. A clunky and imprecise version of that system is thrown in here as an afterthought under the heading of “classic” interface.
Another subtlety of the pitching game is likewise intriguing but only mediocre in execution. Should he get into trouble, your pitcher’s stress level on the mound will increase, the on-screen manifestation being a jittery pitching cursor and harder-to-target pitches. The idea is a good one, but the effect is exaggerated beyond all reason. With my Yankees up a run, C.C. Sabathia should not be going into hysterics simply because a pair of hitters have strung together a couple singles in the fourth inning. If so little causes an elite pitcher to unravel mentally, he’s not making it to the majors. Had it been a playoff game, my pitching coach likely would have been talking him off a ledge.
Everything feels like a reasonable simulation of a game of baseball up to this point, though, and 2K10 is a mile ahead of last year’s effort. That is, until the batter makes contact and the fielders swing into action. While the batting-pitching dynamics are generally impressive, fielding the ball still involves some odd, jumpy animation and strange pacing in comparison to the smooth and methodical showdowns at homeplate. Sometimes, fielders fly to sharply hit groundballs and send frozen-rope throws across the diamond to nail runners. Other times, a fielder will inexplicably take his time in scooping up a grounder, double-pump, and toss it over to first--after the runner has hustled out a single. Things too often feel pre-scripted in this sense, as if a particular animation sequence has kicked in, and the play is either going to be made by the fielder (no matter how difficult) or going to be dogged and the runner allowed to reach base (no matter how easy the play would have been). In short, on the default slider settings, the action in the field is often jerky and unnatural compared to the batting and pitching sequences. Whether extensive tinkering with the settings would help remedy the issue, I know not; as I have expressed elsewhere, the idea that it is the player’s job to remedy poor in-game mechanics by toying with sliders for the better part of an hour is ludicrous to me.
In what I can only deem to have been a smart move, 2K10 helps itself to the Road to the Show Mode of the MLB: The Show series, dubbing it My Player. Finally, the 2K series has, in addition to the usual trifecta (online/single player exhibition, season, franchise, all present in standard form), a career-oriented mode in which the goal is to create a player and work your way from AA ball to the MLB Hall of Fame. Rather than playing through a full 9-inning outing with an entire team, you will take control of your player only in games in which he plays, and only in plays that involve him (meaning at-bats and fielding duties specifically implicating him). The result is that the experience will be somewhat more involved if you create a starting pitcher, responsible for pitching whole innings and better parts of games. Otherwise, a game will consist of 4 or 5 at-bats and 4 to 7 plays in the field, all of virtually the same type. My shortstop fields the same routine ground ball and line-drive 3 times a game, and it’s very hard not to make the play after you have done it once or twice.
This is not to say the mode is boring; quite the contrary, focusing on the development of one player will likely be the most appealing mode for many players. Accruing hits, making plays in the field, and successfully completing specified in-game and long-term “goals” (some more mundane and less logical than others) will earn you attribute points, to be spent in improving various skills of the player, from batting power to baserunning speed to arm strength. With more success comes stronger attributes, resulting in greater offensive output, and the circle goes ‘round until you’re filling out a roster spot on a major league club.
Unfortunately, My Player is also hampered by bizarre mechanics and behavior on the part of computer-controlled teammates, managers, and opponents which needlessly limit the enjoyabilty of the mode. Some examples will demonstrate the point.
1) Should you reach base with your player, the batters following you will play like bumbling little leaguers; far more often than not, my reaching base usually just provides occasion for the next man in the order strike out looking. The statistics bear this out. While you may be succeeding with your created player, it may also be that no one else in your lineup is hitting above the .280 mark. Your team will become offensively anemic.
2) Pitchers (including your created player, if you choose to make a pitcher) are used as if we were playing baseball in the 1890s. Starting pitchers are left out there after they have thrown 120 pitches and given up 5 runs. If a closer is working in a tie game in the 9th, you may still see him in there in the 12th after having thrown 40 pitches. You can intentionally plunk batter after batter, with no repercussions from the umps and no relief from your skipper.
3) When my player is batting with runners on, it is far too frequent that the computer-controlled pitcher is able to pick-off my teammates before dealing with me at the dish. On numerous occasions, the CPU’s pitcher simply makes 3 or 4 attempts to pick off my on-base teammate until he’s called out.
4) Statistics are not even always correctly attributed to the proper player. Earned runs may go to the wrong pitcher, runs batted in to the wrong hitter, and so on. While I can understand the occasional oddity in complex, fast-paced action, I do not know what to make of error-laden stat tracking.
In general, though, the mode is a positive, indeed necessary, addition. That it feels more sloppily slapped together than the other modes is insulting to players who were waiting for the franchise to adopt such a mode.
Baseball is not a sport particularly conducive to online play, depending as it does so much on timing the swing to the pitch. That being said, 2K10 runs about as smoothly as one could hope online--my experiences were fairly similar to a game offline, with little noticeable lag. Single games and online franchise modes are available, but a more air-tight record keeping system needs to be developed. In my last game, the poor sport I defeated logged off in the few second s between my making the final out and the game registering my win. The win did not show up on my record, and I am guessing he escaped without receiving a loss.
There is little need to expound on the visual appeal of the game--we are at a point that, if baseball stadiums cannot be accurately portrayed on the next-generation systems, something is wrong. The ballparks are here, and are vast and generally detailed. I will only say that the players look less like the bizarre Claymation simulacra of last season and more like human ballplayers.
Worth noting and likely to be lost in the mix of improvements and setbacks is a particularly startling one, however: the play-by-play and color commentary is generally superb. It seems somewhat unavoidable that much of the commentary of sports video games is going to become repetitive after a small handful of games involving the same players and situations. What is accomplished in 2K10 is the most realistic, broadcast-quality presentation I have ever heard in a sports game. Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips, hardly my choices for insightful baseball analysis, provide a running commentary on the action that is tolerable and hardly feels recycled from inning to inning or game to game. Certainly standard phrases are repeated, but these guys comment on what my players did in last night’s game, and usually with accuracy. Statistical overlays, for individual players and league-wide production, are provided and commented on. The unholy duo is made a trio with the occasional chip-in of the odiferous John Kruk. Some senility is unavoidable (in one game Phillips pontificated that the opposing pitcher might want to start trading outs for runs, when the pitcher’s team was up by 1 run and no one was on base), but the gamecasts are shockingly competent.
It is clear that Major League Baseball 2K10 has made strides over the off-season. The batter-pitcher interface is unexpectedly well-executed, and the presentation is likely the most sophisticated yet developed for a sports game. The glitchy, awkwardly-paced fielding and baserunning, however, feel like the stuff of an inferior homebrew. After having seen the improvements made here, there will be no excuse if even greater leaps are not made by next year.
Freelance review by K T (April 12, 2010)
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