Sports simulations are never a single game. They are compendiums, a collage of various disciplines: they’re management games, turn-based strategy games, and action role-playing games. 2K Games’ MLB 2K12 is no different.
It follows EA, Sony, 2K Games, and all the other standard model of pro sports simulations in that it is an amalgamation of multiple games folded into a cohesive package, but unlike other team sport games, 2K12 captures something fundamental that does indeed feel like you’re an athlete playing baseball. The core—fielding, batting, and pitching—that anchors the array of games in the package is patient, visceral and rewarding in its challenge. Where it falters is in how it captures the other tactile pleasures of the sport.
Here’s how it works on the field: Most gross motor activity is triggered with the right stick on your controller, with secondary actions mapped to other buttons (the exception is in fielding.) Pitching, for example, has you wind up by holding the stick in one direction while an onscreen reticule fills to gauge power, then sliding the stick in a second motion. Pull back and to the left then sling the stick right and under in a swooping motion—You just threw your first low sinker. The left stick meanwhile handles aim before release. The physicality is reinforced by your pitcher’s stats and fatigue. If you’re fresh on the mound, the reticule fills up fast and you can throw hot, but halfway through inning five, the aim begins to shake and the reticule fills slow, at which point it’s time to either bring in relief or send the manager to the mound for a pep talk to boost morale.
Of course hidden inside the game’s menus are options to turn the simulation math off. If you want to just play a fantasy version of the game, you can turn off fatigue stats entirely, or make it easier to connect with the ball when you’re at bat. Batting too uses the right stick with simple pushes in cardinal directions to make your hit—right or left for defensive hits, tilted forward for a pop, or pulling back then forward for a power hit. The miniature ecosystem of learning proper timing for all these skills and the natural feel of movement coupled with the evolving care players require as well as the ability to tweak how realistic the game plays out (statistical performance, health, etc.) creates a pliable connection with the game. Fielding and base running feel just as natural. This connection is MLB 2K12’s greatest asset.
It gives you plenty of different games in which to explore that connection too. Franchise mode is also malleable, letting you choose options as deep as observing trade deadlines or as shallow as setting everything to automatically simulate itself so you just play the games, or just manage the team. My Player is the role-playing game, letting you create a player from scratch and follow his career from free agent to superstar. Improving your player’s individual skills through training exercises—score on a base hit, for example, earns you points that are then applied to stats like endurance or power—and in games it is fun, but it’s not an ideal way to learn to play the game. You need to already be familiar with how everything works before properly growing your character, or their minor league career will be as long and wearying as an actual mediocre player’s.
There is also MLB Today, a mode that lets you download live roster information and play games that are taking place in the real world that day. For anyone playing the game as of this writing, you can actually play out preseason games as they happen, making for some spectacularly ridiculous blowouts if you choose. MLB Today may satisfy the diehard major league baseball fan even more than Franchise mode. Fantasy Baseball players can even use it to vent frustration over brutal losses. It’s another solid way that 2K12 creates a connection to the actual sport.
Where MLB 2K12 suffers most though is how it represents the sport. MLB 2K12is an ugly game and baseball is a beautiful sport. Half the pleasure of going to a pro game or playing baseball is the park itself—the grass, the sky, the players. MLB 2K12 is sterile though, with dull-eyed players and washed out stadiums that capture none of their real world counterparts’ magic. If I get to be Shane Victorino, I want to look like the man standing in Citizens Bank Park, not a mannequin with vaguely Victorino-ish features. It would almost be worth sacrificing some of the statistical realism of the game to devote more processing power to something that was more pleasing to the senses. The game’s audio on the other hand is very good, including solid commentating and ambient chatter from the crowd. A deserved nod to the soundtrack as well: A little My Morning Jacket during the seventh inning stretch is always appreciated.
MLB 2K12 feels good it’s true, and for some that might be enough. Where some sports sims lose the feeling of actually playing the game, 2K has bottled some of that illusive lightning here. For anyone deeply romantic about baseball though, 2K’s game is a strong tin man missing his heart.
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by 2K Sports)