The MLB 2K franchise has had its share of ups and downs over the years. The series was once great, then went through some odd redesigns that nearly killed it, then it hit its stride and pumped out several titles that while not amazing, have managed to satiate baseball fans on the Xbox 360. When compared with the PS3 exclusive, MLB 11 The Show, they were not able to top that franchise, but for Xbox 360 users that want a baseball title, the MLB 2K series has offered solid games. It has never been a franchise that would convert people that weren’t baseball fans, but it was still a solid offering.
2K Games have been on a bit of a roll recently. They took a slumping basketball genre and reinvigorated it with NBA 2K11–arguably one of the best sports games ever made–so the expectations were high 2K’s newest take on baseball.
The result is a mixed bag. Some things work very well—well enough that you can overlook most of the minor things—but there are some glitches that make the game feel unpolished. As for the gameplay, the batting is a lot of fun, but the pitching is going to be divisive. Some will enjoy the new take on the old pastime, others will hate it passionately.
Warm Up the Bullpen
Let’s start with the analog pitching which will be familiar to fans from last year’s edition (although with a few more pitches to choose from), but might alienate players that aren’t passionate about the sport to begin with. Pitching has always been something of a sore point for baseball games. For years the best pitching simulators were a matter of choosing your pitch, placing where you wanted it to go, then powering up a bar of some sort. It was fairly rudimentary and was more like tactical pitching where you tried to out guess the batter, than a fluid gameplay mechanic.
These days, however, seem to be the time of the analog as far as pitching goes, and MLB 2K11 uses an interesting method of crossing pitching with throwing fireballs, Street Fighter-style.
When you take the mound you are given a selection of pitches to choose from. The catcher recommends one, and each pitcher has his own specialty, but you can choose whatever pitch you like. Once you make your selection, the pitch is controlled entirely through the analog movement. For a fastball, you pull back on the stick, then push it forward when the pitcher moves forward (there is also an expanding circle that helps you with your timing). For a curveball you push the stick forward, then rotate it clockwise from 12 to 3. A two seam pitch begins forward and then rotates clockwise from 6 to 9, and so on. Each pitch has two movements, one to begin the windup, and one to control the pitch.
If you haven’t seen it before, it is definitely an interesting style of pitching, and if you are a fan of games like Street Fighter that use the same analog-style commands, you might be a natural-born pitcher. For new or lapsed fans of the series, the learning curve is steep and unforgiving, and it isn’t helped by the fact that your pitcher can seemingly lose their mind. To simulate what it would be like for a pitcher that has just given up a few hits, or walked multiple batters, the target will begin to shake violently, as will your controller. It is a neat idea, and one that made me very, very angry.
The concept of making it tough on a pitcher that is behind in the count sounds good on paper, but if you are already losing, if runners are already on base, making it even harder to throw a strike is not the bestest fun ever. And on top of that, it is a mechanic that effects every pitcher without pity. So say you are playing as two-time Cy Young award winner, Tim Lincecum. After giving up two hits and a walk, Lincecum–who is absolutely ice cold during a game–will begin to shake like a drunk with the tremors. Again, it is a good mechanic for players that are seasoned vets of the franchise (that can pick up the pitching quickly), but it will further scare away new players to the game.
The Smooth Swing and the Poetry of the Game, Etc., Etc.,
Baseball can be a game of poetry. Each movement is a subtle sonnet of motion, and the actions of a team can be like a ballet. Or at least that is what they argue when people claim that baseball is boring. While the pitching and hitting aspects of the game will keep you moving at all times, the fielding has traditionally been something of a dead zone in baseball games. You either let the fielders automatically do their jobs—which is more believable, but not that much fun—or you take full control of them and need to run to areas that may be just out of sight. MLB 2K11 opts to make you control the fielder, and it is a good choice on the developer’s part.
When a ball is popped up, you take control of the nearest fielder. As you close in on the ball, a circle appears around where the ball will land. The better the fielder, the bigger the circle, and once you are close enough the fielder will automatically make the catch. Many times though you will find yourself racing to beat the ball to the ground causing you to make a spectacular diving catch, which is somewhat awesome, even if it is kinda choreographed. You can also climb the fence to rob people of homeruns, and while both scenarios are rare in real life, you will pull them off frequently—and that is a good thing.
As for the hitting, the analog is king, and the swinging motion is controlled through the movement of the right stick. If you push it forward, you will swing a contact swing, but if you move it back and then forward, you will pull off a power swing. It takes a bit of getting used to, especially the depth which can be frustrating until you understand it, but it does make for some awesome at-bats. Again though, for new players, be prepared to experience a Green Monster-sized learning curve.
The Bells and Whistles
No baseball game would be complete without the little details based around stats, and this is where MLB 2K11 not just shines, it positively blinds you. The amount of stat tracking is utterly staggering, and there is even more this year than previous entries, which is saying an awful lot. The best use of the stats comes when you are pitching. The game will pull from real life data, and show the projections for each pitch you might throw–including where the batter is weakest–and give you recommendations based on actual statistical probabilities. It is overwhelming and amazing.
The same is true for batting, and while predicting a pitch based on stats is not quite as useful as a pitcher seeing where batters are weakest, it is still a useful tool for fans of the game. At times the stats are so insanely detailed that it feels more accurate to call this game a baseball simulator rather than a baseball video game. It’s positively Gran Turismo-ish.
But while the stats can be useful and keep longtime fans entertained, most new fans will be drawn to the other additions to the game, like the create-a-player feature, the real life stat tracker, or–ya know–the chance to win a million dollars. The million dollar contest is back, and the first person to pitch a perfect game will win a mil.
The online of MLB 2K11 is a vital component, and not just the leagues and the ability to play against your friends online—that is pretty common stuff these days. The MLB Today feature is an intriguing game mode, not just for what it is, but for what it could one day become. MLB Today will offer you a look at the real scores and games being played in real time, and you can jump into any game you want and play it yourself. It isn’t all that revolutionary, but it is a nice touch on the “play now” game. But more importantly is the Dynamic Player Rating System (DRPS), where the real life players’ stats for the day will actually effect how their digital counterparts play in the game.
If Prince Fielder is in a slump in real-life, he will be in a slump in the game. If he is injured, he will be listed as unavailable. On the same note, if Albert Pujols is killing it in real life and on a hot streak, you may want to consider walking him, or you risk watching the ball sail over the fence. It is a way for fans of the game to feel closer to the game and it works. There is a downside though–you can’t turn it off, so if you aren’t following baseball you might turn on your games and find your favorite player isn’t available.
NBA 2K11 and other games have done similar things with real life stats and games, but MLB 2K11 manges to combine the real and video game world exceedingly well, and it makes you wonder what they will do next. Maybe real life games being recreated with the real plays but presented as a demo game you can watch? Maybe someday.
Make-a-player is back, and after creating your baller, you start off in the minors. With each at-bat, or each moment in the field where you see action, you are given a goal—sometimes just get a hit, other times don’t swing at pitches that would be strikes, sometimes just catch the ball—and with the points you earn for completing those challenges and for just playing well, you can upgrade certain stats, like power against right handers and the like. Once you prove your worth, you will get called up to the majors. There are some new tweaks, but it is about what you would expect.
There are some notable and somewhat serious glitches in MLB 2K11, which make it feel like the title could have used another few months of polish. While you are playing, the game will occasionally freeze for a split second, which might sound like a minor complaint, but when it does it often enough you might wonder if your console is dying. The graphics are also suspect at times, and more than once a homerun will pan the camera into the area behind the stadium, which will be a broken graphic.
As for the game graphics themselves, they are hit or miss, and when they miss, they miss big. The character animations all look great, so the facial animations, parks and smaller graphical details aren’t that important, but some players look like themselves while others look like they were called up from the last generation of consoles. The lighting effects are stellar at times, but that only highlights the poor shadows and bizarre looking crowd sections that don’t match the ambient lighting. Again, these are all minor things that don’t affect the gameplay (with the exception of the micro-freezing which is annoying but not really detrimental), but when you add them all up they make the game feel rough.
But perhaps the biggest shame is relatively minor thing, and it is akin to when your parents would say that they are not mad at you, but they are disappointed. That’s how I felt about the NL and AL Greats. When you play an exhibition game, you have the option of playing as National or American League all-time greats. That sounds like an amazing feature, but there are only a handful of players on each team, and the “greats” are all Hall of Famers but not the Hall of Famers you would want. The biggest names are possibly Nolan Ryan and Yogi Berra, and only the most dedicated fans will recognize all all the names without a little googling. Mantle, Mays, Ruth, and all the biggest names in baseball history are noticeably absent, and it is disappointing. And while it is hard not to take a touch of perverse pleasure in taking control of Nolan Ryan and brushing back Robin Yount–just so he knows–these aren’t the legends and heroes that people want. Ralph Kiner is the starting left fielder for the National League. Bobby Doerr is the American League’s second baseman. There is likely a reason behind the scenes for this—licensing and legal issues probably—but it feels half done. If you can’t offer the biggest names, it should have been left out of the game. Also, because the characters are not current players, the faces are somewhat more generic, and because of it, the graphics are awful.
If you own an Xbox 360, and you are a huge baseball fan, then you will find a lot to like in MLB 2K11. If you own a PS3, MLB 11 The Show is just a better game–and before anyone calls me a PS3 fanboy, that isn’t due to the hardware, just the games themselves–but MLB 2K11 is no slouch. There are also a ton of minor tweaks and additions that fans of the series will love, and the ridiculous amount of stats in this game will appeal to baseball fans everywhere.
For new fans of the series, the pitching will either win them over or push them away, but it is a matter of opinion, not a matter of broken gameplay. Some people will love it, others will hate it. I personally hate the pitching, but I recognize that as a personal opinion, not a reflection of the gameplay. Given time, lots and lots of time, I would likely come to really enjoy the variety. On the other hand, the batting will probably win people over, plus the fielding can be fun in situations that would otherwise be boring. The connectivity options are also fairly robust, and fans of the sport will love the updated scores and stats that can actually affect the gameplay.
All in all, MLB 2K11 is a good game, but rushed graphics, and a handful of technical glitches prevent it from being a great game. Still, it is a fun game that most will find a lot to enjoy.
Also check out our review of MLB 11 The Show.
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by 2K Sports)
[Updated to correct a typo regarding last year’s edition. Thanks to our reader Brad for the heads up]