Last year Visual Concepts drop-kicked the World Series
name in favor of ESPN Major League Baseball
. The change in name signaled the fall of a once great franchise. With MVP 2004
easily taking the baseball crown last year, could Visual Concepts retool its baseball sim in time to be a contender? No. While MLB 2K5
is considerably better than its predecessor, it remains the second best baseball game available.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame
Presentation was once a weak area for all baseball games, but MLB 2K5 kicks the habit of mediocrity with the best baseball presentation ever imagined. While it could be said that you could always have more, it's hard to imagine what else developer Kush Games could offer. Each game begins with a spectacular stadium fly-by, includes cut-scenes of the 3D crowd reacting to the game, and offers a perfect translation of an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast. You get the same overlays as seen on ESPN, the K-Zone, and play-by-play and color commentary by Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, respectively.
What kind of horrible act did baseball gamers commit to deserve the "Gift of the Magi" curse that comes in 2006? MLB 2K5 fully integrates ESPN in such a way that it feels like a real broadcast -- but then EA signs an exclusivity deal with the sports network. To make it even worse, Take-Two nabs the third-party exclusive rights to make license baseball games, meaning that MVP 2006 with ESPN overlays isn't going to happen. It's a cruel joke on baseball fans.
Of course, there are plenty of aspects about MLB 2K5 that won't change due to losing the ESPN license. This year the graphics have seen a slight upgrade. There's some good facial animations and a number of players look very accurate. Especially impressive is the variations in body types, so that Randy Johnson and Albert Pujols don't look like twins. There are also some nice little details that are easy to overlook, such as the highly-accurate stadiums and the way shadows realistically progress towards home plate during a day game.
For all the good things, there are still some rough spots. The bodies just don't look natural, especially thanks to some of the choppier animations. Players have problems planting, so animations look unnatural whenever a fielder has to stop. There are also some truly awful animations that break the sense of reality. Hit a weak grounder to the pitcher and marvel at the awkward overhand toss to the first baseman. It doesn't even appear physically possible to make an arm move that way.
Audio is critical to a baseball game and this year Kush has really nailed the sound. Last year's iteration (developed by Blue Shift) had some major audio stumbles, but MLB 2K5 recovers, returning to the quality of sound pioneered by WSB 2K3. You simply cannot find a better duo than Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The talk is so natural, it really does feel like a broadcast. Joe even takes stupid questions from reader email. New and nastier taunts have been added for the crowds this season and the player-specific ones can offer some really good chuckles. Of course, the best heckles of all are the one's you provide on your own. "Maaaaaanny! I bet you can't hit a third home run, you loser!"
Speaking of providing your own sound, Xbox owners score a bonus of having custom soundtracks. Using the same editing tools as found in NFL 2K5, you can rip and cut music then assign it to play for specific batters. You can offer custom walk-ups for every player in the league and while these don't play online, it's still a great feature in your own home. I chose to make each team feature a specific band. The A's are all Hammer Time -- don't ask why.
On the Diamond
Last year's game felt sloppy, but this year MLB 2K is back on track. There stil some serious issues, particularly with AI, but overall this is a much more enjoyable rendition. It's not perfect, but what is (besides me)? On the Mound
MLB 2K5's boldest gameplay improvement comes when you step on the rubber. It was clear that VC had to answer MVP's brilliant metered pitching setup and did so with a very different kind of pitching arrangement. The new pitching system utilizes two perpendicular lines that bisect at the spot you're trying to hit. The two meters race along the line and your challenge is stopping each one as close to the pitch location as possible. Based on a pitcher's effectiveness with a pitch and the length you hold down the appropriate button (to power up a pitch), this becomes more or less difficult. The meter's fun, it's interactive, and a good answer to MVP's option.
Should you prefer something else, there are a number of other pitching choices, including a meter that pretty much apes what MVP offers.
At the Plate
Not much has really changed with hitting. There are still numerous options, but the default choice features a two-button hitting system. I've never been a fan of having a power button for hitting, it just seems stupid to me and it continues to be a misguided option for MLB 2K5. Hitting overall is too easy, even on harder difficulties, but not so much so that it becomes an arcade game. It just isn't quite as realistic as it should be.
One reason for this is likely the numerous options available. Baseball games rely on fine-tuning to create great balance. If you have a half-dozen different ways to pitch and hit, how can every single way possibly be balanced against one another? Options are great, but MLB 2K5 would benefit from choosing one option and making a great system around it.
There's been one risky addition to hitting -- the Slam Zone. The poorly named Slam Zone is an attempt to incorporate hurlers that tip their pitches and batters who are sitting on a location. Before any pitch, a player can guess at the pitch location. Guess way off and you make it difficult to hit the pitch, but nail your guess and you have the chance to enter the Slam Zone. The same can happen if the pitcher completely blows his throw, essentially hanging a pitch. Suddenly time slows, the camera focuses on the pitcher releasing the ball. There's now a battle between batter and pitcher, each tapping at the face pad furiously, with the batter attempting to fill up his power meter as the ball slowly travels towards the plate and the pitcher doing his best to minimize the damage.
Once the ball is close a swing icon appears. Why is anyone's guess, since I've never seen anyone ever miss the chance to swing. The more the meter is filled at time of impact, the longer the ball travels.
The Slam Zone happens a few times a game, just enough to be present but not annoying. Still, I can't accept this new feature. I didn't buy Slugfest, I want a sim game. A battle of button-mashing doesn't seem very sim to me. Fortunately, Slam Zone can be turned off (VC really does have a million gameplay options). Like the first-person cam of last season, Slam Zone should probably be laid to rest after this year.
While batting really hasn't improved as much as I'd hoped, base running has made some remarkable strides. If you have a man on base you can use the Right Thumbstick to toggle the camera and take direct control of the base runner. Use the Thumbstick to edge away from the base, control returning, and also control when you steal. The batter is now under the control of the CPU, but you can send in signs with the D-Pad. When you do take off, there's a run button you can tap to increase your speed. And as with MVP, the Right Thumbstick controls your sliding.
Kush also had the smarts to alter the way you view base runners. Instead of a tiny icon at the top of the screen showing where everyone is located, each base is now represented in the corners of your TV. Now you can enjoy a full view of the action and easily see how far off base each runner is. This makes tagging up and also pushing for extra bases much more functional. Gold Glove
Fielding has seen some decent improvements over last year. There are more animations, but (as mentioned earlier) plenty of bad animations to go along with the good. More wall jumps have been added and even some indicators as for when to make the leap. While double-plays have been smoothed out, there's really not much different or better this time around. VC still hasn't found an answer to MVP's throwing meter and instead uses a "risky throw" button. For those who don't have a clue what to do when a ball comes their way, a "smart throw" button has been added, though sometimes it makes a dumb throw. It's no Ozzie Smith, but then it's not so bad balls are bouncing off people's heads for home runs.
Kush put some time and effort into re-imagining the interface for Franchise Mode, but it seems that outside of accessibility, this is the same game I've been playing for the past four years. Added this year is a minor league system and the need to hire staff, but there's really nothing new or exciting in the franchise. I definitely appreciate the improved look, but as I've said the past two years, the Franchise Mode needs to take some chances and do something new.
It's still enjoyable and I like the fact that you need to hire a staff and that your staff actually makes a difference. However, it's starting to become a bit ho-hum. Something big and exciting needs to happen with Franchise Mode next year or it's going to become stagnant.
VC made some big improvements this year over last. For one thing, the game plays considerably smoother on both PS2 and Xbox. This year also sees online leagues and some cool stat-tracking options. Sign up for a league and your box scores and stats are automatically uploaded to a web page so all the world can see your glory. VC has recreated Microsoft's smart XSN Sports network for MLB 2K5. That in itself is quite an awesome feat.
I remain a bit of a skeptic about online baseball games, but if I had to choose one game solely based on online play, MLB 2K5 would be my pick without a doubt. My online experience was great, the game ran very well, and were I not such a cynic, I'd be signing up for a league right now.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved