The adage of the once-great star being overshadowed by a young up-and-comer is ever-present in sports. You'll find no better real world example of this phenomenon than what's happening with the current state of baseball games. The old and wise MLB 2K series has been totally usurped by Sony's MLB: The Show, which only recently broke onto the scene. Every year we wait and see if 2K is going to be able to keep pace with what Sony brings to the table, and every year we walk away disappointed. While MLB 2K10 takes small steps towards fixing the problems that made last year's game
such a disappointment, it still doesn't come close to delivering the definitive baseball experience that we all want from the oldest baseball franchise around.
If you've been watching any of our coverage
leading up to the launch of MLB 2K10, it should be clear that 2K Sports is putting a large focus on the hitter vs. pitcher duel that is inherent to the game of baseball. The authenticity that 2K Sports has been able to capture when you step to the plate or hurl the ball across it is probably the single best achievement in MLB 2K10. It's something that other games have gotten right in the past, but 2K10 finally seems to have mastered the AI that drives these conflicts. If you swing at everything thrown your way, you'll absolutely never get a hittable pitch. It's up to you to display discipline and patience in waiting for a pitch to hit, much like players do in reality. It seemed like neither the hitter nor the pitcher had an advantage with the newly refined mechanic, something that was a worry when I first played MLB 2K10.
Sadly, it's the hitter vs. batter interaction that's really the only shining achievement for this year's game. Everything else has one problem or another that keeps it from being great or, in some cases, good. Take the new My Player mode, for instance. It's 2K Sports' first effort at delivering a career mode in their baseball franchise and, at least at first, it seems like they might have nailed it. But the more time you sink into the mode, the more its design and technical failings become apparent.
Things begin with the requisite player creation. It's just as detailed as any in the sports genre and even brings new last names for Gary Thorne and company to say such as "Ahearn." From there, you're off to your first game which, regardless of your position, is a bottom-of-the-ninth clutch moment for you to be either the hero or the zero. After that, it's up to you to build up your player through good in-game play and training drills.
Your fun factor in My Player is largely dependent on which position you play as the experiences differ quite a bit. If you're playing as a pitcher you're going to obviously be confined to the rubber with few chances to hit the ball. You're inundated with pitching points that you'll be able to distribute as you see fit. Other stats fall by the wayside, but that's understandable if you're a closer or a middle-reliever. Playing as a pitcher provided the most fun for me in My Player. The hitter vs. pitcher altercations are strong; even when in the minors, striking guys out is as satisfying as ever. I would've appreciated the ability to develop a pitcher that can also hit, but that's so rare it almost doesn't make sense to include it.
On the flipside, playing as a catcher is absolutely terrible. You don't have any control over what pitch is being thrown, thus limiting your time in the field to catching pop-ups hit behind the plate and bunts. In other words, it's really boring. The same goes for other fielding positions, at least to a lesser extent. MLB 2K10 only allows you (and forces you to do so for "key games") to play moments where your player is directly involved rather than allowing you to sit through an entire game if you want. It takes away any of the organic nature of My Player and instead grounds it in being a chore of a videogame experience. Further detracting from the realism is the fact that you can't be traded away from your club by your manager. Instead you can switch teams at any time without worry. I'd like to have the option of being totally under the AI manager's control.
Problems persist when you try and focus on developing your player into a powerhouse. I understand the idea behind the distribution of skill points, but its execution is lacking. In order to progress your hitting, you have to hit the ball. That makes sense. In order to improve your fielding you'll need to field balls effectively and make smart throws. That also makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the base running. In order to improve your speed on the base path you'll need to actually cross home plate to score a run (or complete a rare hit-and-run opportunity). To score a run, you'll need to be fast and you're also depending on your other AI-controlled players to put the ball in play, something that they can struggle with from time to time. It would have made more sense to give you points for every base that you run to or provide another alley in order to improve your player's speed. As it stands the progression for everyone other than a pitcher is a tough road.
My Player is also plagued by lots of bugs, which is sadly something that we've come to expect from this series through the years. I saw things like players stepping to the plate without a bat on rare occasions, players will sometimes slide along the ground in order to catch a ball properly, and basemen will stutter against base runners when they're running animations independently of one another (like when a base runner is walking back to the base and bumps into the baseman throwing to the pitcher). Of course, none of this mentions the incredible lack of visual fidelity in My Player. There's much less graphical detail on everything in the game, which makes no sense when you consider that the bulk of the interactions are automated thanks to the artificial intelligence.
So while My Player is largely a mediocre rookie effort with poor design decisions and several technical shortcomings, the core baseball gameplay that you'll see from most other modes has been nicely improved, even when considering it without the cool hitter vs. pitcher dynamic. For starters, everything is much smoother thanks to an enhanced framerate. It's still not perfect and there is certainly a large hit taken in terms of the game's visuals, but a sports game that's generally free of game debilitating hitches is certainly preferable to one that chugs along. Now all they need to do is smooth out some animations, get the cloth physics back in the game (but make them good), and increase the overall quality of the crowd and the textures throughout 2K10.
You can also pre-load throws for the first time in MLB 2K. You'd think this feature would've been in years ago, but it's making its first appearance here. It works very well for the most part. The only slight problem I had was when trying to tag a base and then make a pre-loaded throw to second; my player's AI clearly had no idea that I was trying to tag first before making a throw. Instead what I got was one out at second base instead of a stylish double play. Other than that issue pre-loading works like a dream.
The core gameplay and modes that you remember are back with a few tweaks here and there. The pitching is a bit different than it has been, though those hoping for a change from the right analog stick movements will have to wait another year. I'm personally fine with the series' different take on pitching, and this year's mechanic works better than it has before. Hitting has also seen an addition in the form of a defensive swing. This being included in MLB 2K10 makes absolutely no sense to me. I never once used it other than checking it out for this review and certainly never felt as though I had to do so in order to stay alive at the plate. I'm fine with having it included because someone will likely find a purpose for it; I just didn't. I did, however, take serious issue with the omission of any sort of check swing ability. It's inexcusable for a game to ship without check swings, despite the fact that you'll be able to download a patch on launch day that will add a check swing ability. I have no idea how well the mechanic will work, so for the sake of this review (and the fact that we can't count on everyone reading this having Xbox Live or PSN connectivity) we're reviewing MLB 2K10 without check swings.
Franchise mode, despite the addition of My Player, will still be where you spend most of your time. MLB Today does a good job of keeping you up to speed with what's going on in the league, and the commentators have a good repertoire of quips to spew out that reflect past performances and trends developing throughout the season. Trade abilities are standard, though the inability to spice things up with three-team trades, draft picks or cold hard cash is a disappointment. I also ran into what appeared to be a bug in the trading artificial intelligence. It seemed as though teams totally disregarded how much money they had at the time of the trade. I made a deal that included sending Derek Jeter and A-Rod to the Cardinals, thus leaving the team from St. Louis more than $20 million in debt. They didn't really seem to care.
Of course, no game of baseball would be complete without some online play. MLB 2K10 comes complete with online leagues and standard quick match options. You can also invite a friend into any franchise game that you might be playing. Sadly, my experience online wasn't quite as smooth as I'd expect from a release so late in a console cycle. Lag was apparent even when playing 10 feet away from another IGN employee on an insanely fast Internet connection. We also had a nearly debilitating bug pop up when one player stayed in the batter's box as another stepped to the plate. The result was something out of a horror movie that was made only worse when one of the two now-conjoined players hit a homerun and my pitcher proceeded to pitch to the next batter before the guy who just blasted one out of the park finished rounding the bases. It was a buggy game to say the least.
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