Baseball games were once the pride of sport simulations. Back in the day, franchises such as Hardball and High Heat offered amazing recreations of America's pastime. More recently, EA's MVP and Visual Concept's World Series Baseball served to satiate demanding fans. But over the past few years, with 2K Games holding onto third-party baseball exclusivity, many fans have had to suffer with an inferior product. Let's be honest: 2K has dropped a lot of fly balls, failing to deliver a great baseball game this generation. And that trend, unfortunately, continues with MLB 2K9, a game that shows some nice improvements over last year's console iteration, but suffers too many AI issues and bugs to be considered a step forward.
To its credit, 2K Sports realized that its baseball series was headed in the wrong direction and brought development of MLB 2K9 in-house (and brought the game to PC). The core gameplay is better than last year's console version and provides a strong base on which to build a great franchise. The problem is that baseball games must come out every year and the short development cycle didn't give 2K enough time to tune 2K9 or fix some glaring AI issues.
Casual baseball fans may not notice some of the problems with MLB 2K9, but those who dedicate themselves to the franchise mode and playing dozens if not hundreds of games will find the AI issues and bugs mounting up to unacceptable levels. The most egregious happens on occasion with balls that hit the outfield fence and die near the warning track. I've witnessed a few occasions where the outfielder continually runs in place against the fence as the batter is able to trot around the bases for an inside-the-park homer. One time the left fielder clipped through the fence and disappeared for a few seconds, only to reappear and make a throw to home.
These types of odd anomalies occur too often to be ignored. Just last night, Ichiro managed a triple against my A's squad. However, the cut-off man overthrew third base and the ball went into the dugout, giving Ichiro a free pass to home plate. Only, Ichiro was never credited with a run (or an out). He was no longer on third, but not technically safe at home.
Along with these, and other bugs, the AI has some problems. No matter the difficulty level, the AI is often slow to recognize and react to improvisational baserunning. Let's say you have a runner on second and the batter slaps the ball towards the second baseman. This advances the runner to third, no problem, but if that runner rounds third and continues home, there are many times where the first baseman stands dumbfounded after recording the out at first and doesn't throw towards home for several seconds, giving even slow runners a chance to score. The bugs and AI glitches aren't so readily common as to ruin each game, but they pop up frequently enough that anyone playing the franchise mode will start to grow weary of them over time. MLB 2K9 just isn't the type of polished title we used to expect from 2K Sports.
Despite the AI issues and bugs in MLB 2K9, I do think that there is the foundation for a great game here. The framerate, which was a major issue in the past few years, is fairly consistent throughout. Though there are some hitches at times on infield grounders and foul balls, the minor framerate hiccups are never enough to hinder the gameplay. The presentation, while having its own bugs (Dustin Pedroia was Rookie of the Year in 216
?!), does a great job of recreating a TV broadcast. And most importantly, the batting and hitting interfaces are solid.
Pitching is handled with the Right Thumbstick if you're using a controller, with each pitch having its own movements. The movements feel artificial, since it doesn't really synch with how a pitcher throws a pitch, but it is fun. And if you switch on the pitcher timing option there's an added level of challenge. By default, the catcher will attempt to call the game for you, suggesting pitch type and location. You can shake off a call or simply throw what you want, ignoring your mate. But do this with caution. The catcher is expecting the ball to show up somewhere near his mitt. If he asks for a high and tight heater and you throw a curveball down and away, there's a good chance the pitch will get past him. It's these nice little details that make up for some of MLB 2K9's issues and lend some hope that next year's offering can be something special.
Hitting is based primarily on timing, though you can influence the direction of the ball as you swing, to either pull it, hit opposite field, hit a grounder, a liner, or launch something in the air. While this makes for a more accessible game, it's far too easy to influence the ball. The timing of your hit should determine if you pull it or not, but with your input, you can force your batter to pull it regardless of timing. That doesn't mean that the direction you aim is going to guarantee success. Try and pull a ball outside and you're more likely to hit it weakly, aim to hit a ball high and you have a greater chance for a pop up.
Should you choose the default difficulty you may find MLB 2K9 far too easy to be satisfying over the long haul. Any player with decent power can easily rock home runs on the normal difficulty. In fact, my first game included 15 home runs. Harder difficulties speed up the pitches and close the timing windows, making it much tougher to get away with bad swings on even worse pitches. None of the difficulty settings lead to a truly satisfying level of play, but if you tweak with the numerous sliders, you can find the proper balance of challenge and fun.
On a whole, MLB 2K9's gameplay has been refined from last year's model, but isn't radically different. That's perfectly fine, because the pitching and hitting controls are among 2K9's strongest elements. It's nice to know that 2K has finally abandoned the gimmicky gameplay additions it attempted to cram into its baseball sim in the past and that there's an attempt to make a more pure baseball experience.
Also gone is the misguided attempt to create realistic cloth physics for player unis. The result was a horror show of flapping polyester last year. This has been replaced with dust sprites that spring up whenever anyone moves on dirt. It looks really silly. If only 2K spent the time wasted on these bad visual extras on player faces instead. Though some players hold a close resemblance to their real-life counterparts, the majority look like wax representations sculpted with bleary eyes. But at least 2K nailed the batting stances and mannerisms of many of the game's biggest stars. There are a number of nice little touches this time around, such as fan animations when balls are hit into the stands and active dugouts, but I wish there were live scoreboards. There's something a little cold about seeing a scoreboard on an outfield fence that's completely blacked out.
Perhaps the biggest presentation change is the exit of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Taking their places are Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips. While Thorne and Phillips lack the chemistry of Miller and Morgan, both do a solid job. And I have to say that Phillips has some surprisingly insightful comments. As with just about every sports game ever made, there are audio miscues where Thorne and Phillips offer inaccurate commentary, but most of the time they are spot on. It's not an easy task to replace a duo as good as Miller and Morgan, but they do a commendable job.
For baseball geeks, 2K has brought back Inside Edge, providing detailed reports on player tendencies. You'll also fight a heaping amount of stats, including numerous Sabremetric stats for those who want to play Moneyball with their franchise.
And yes, you do get to be your own version of Billy Beane in 2K9. The franchise mode is essentially the same as what we saw in NBA 2K9, which means it's a marked improvement over past iterations. There are plenty of options in franchise mode from both the GM and manager levels, including a full minor league system to cherry pick (or use as trade bait). Each franchise has its own budget limits, which factor in the Major League player salaries, the cost of the minors and money spent scouting with Inside Edge. Perform well in a season and attendance will climb, putting some extra cash in the budget for the next year.
Negotiating trades and signing free agents can be a little tricky. Teams give a value to every player on the roster as well as to the players you wish to trade. Find the players valued most to a specific team and you'll have to give up less to get some of their talent. This is a great idea, but it is a bit wonky. The Yankee's interest in keeping Derek Jeter is about 60%, which is ridiculous. I got Jeter for Justin Duchscherer, Mark Ellis, and an aging minor leaguer. There are some players that will not be traded in real life -- at least. And Derek Jeter is one such player. Certainly the Yankees would never even entertain this type of offer from the A's.
Free agents are actually handled a little more wisely. Each player has a set of priorities, from financial security to a team's success. If you are playing as a lower-tier team and want to sign someone who values a Championship ring above all else, then you are going to have to spend a lot of cash to compensate. The only issues I have with free agency are that the AI never seems to sign anyone (Manny was a free agent for all of '09 in my franchise) and that you can incrementally increase your offer a dozen times until you get a signing. There's no waiting time to hear back from a free agent (and thus no counter-offers), making the whole experience feel artificial.
Though I found 2K's franchise mode -- its inclusion of All-Star events, and the year-to-year progression -- enjoyable, I must offer a word of caution. I hit a horrid bug in franchise mode that made me quit. After removing my created pitcher, Nuke LaLoosh, off the DL, I changed the order of my pitching rotation. On my team's calendar, LaLoosh would show as a probable starter, but whenever I would sim, he would be skipped over. Odder still is that I played a game with LaLoosh, pitched eight shutout innings and should have received a win. But somehow Chan Ho Park got the win. Here's the oddest part: Chan Ho Park is not on my team. No matter what I try, Nuke LaLoosh is essentially corrupted in my franchise mode and can't be simmed correctly or credited for wins.
The bugs in MLB 2K9 may be fixed with a patch -- perhaps even as early as this week -- but if you don't log online and download the update, then you are stuck with any bugs in the shipped product. Some of these are simply unacceptable. I've harped a lot on the bugs in 2K9, but to be fair, even the greatest baseball games of the past decade have had some notable issues. That doesn't mean we shouldn't expect the best, especially when one company holds the exclusive rights to a sport.
For those who like to take their game online, MLB 2K9 PC is going to disappoint. No online functionality has been added. No online leagues or even simple competitive exhibition games are available. And none are coming via a patch.
©2009-03-09, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved