Spring training starts today – 2K Sports has released MLB 2K9 this week on multiple platforms. We were pleased to receive the Xbox 360 version in for review, and although I don't have a great history of playing baseball games, MLB 2K9 was easy to get into, and fun to play. Let's check it out.
New Batter Up
MLB 2K9 is the latest in 2K Sport's MLB series, and the fourth to arrive on the Xbox 360. Features include things like Living Rosters, right analog stick controls for pitching and batting, hundreds of new player specific animations, a revamped commentary system, and Inside Edge. At the same time, nothing appears to be missing from the core game – all MLB teams are present, including several legends teams, multiple modes are included, and the plethora of game sliders are available too to tweak everything from the difficulty to position tendencies.
Of the new features in MLB 2K9, perhaps the most important is the control scheme. By default, 2K's new scheme, which focuses heavily on right analog stick usage, is on, but if you're uncomfortable with that, you can adjust the controls at any time to utilize the face buttons. That said, 2K has created two new mechanics for the series named Precision Pitching and Swing Stick.
With Precision Pitching, gamers are offered more precise control of their pitches, although it takes a bit of getting used to – nothing that some time in Practice can't amend however. The idea behind Precision Pitching is that gamers control the pitch in two stages. First, use the left stick to position where in the strike zone you want the ball to go. Then, by pressing the Left Bumper, you can toggle a seamless, informative pop-up screen that slides out from the left side of the action, that shows the controls for executing a variety of pitches. This screen also has two meters, indicating your pitcher's stamina and composure, which will of course effect the quality of his pitches. If you get your pitcher rattled by giving up a two run homer, for example, the meter for composure will rise. You can combat this by doing a visit to the mound, by playing better, or finishing the inning. Anyway, once you have decided what pitch you want to use, replicate the motion on the right analog stick; a circular diagram will pop up as you do this, basically indicating the accuracy and power of the pitch. Helpful visual queues show you where the ball went, what type of pitch it was, and of course you will see and hear if it was a ball, strike, or hit.
I think Precision Pitching is probably going to win over quite a few players, but it does take some getting used to. While nothing beats real practice, I was disappointed that the manual, very thin and brief in any account, didn't even mention this new mechanic.
On the other side of the ball, batters have the option to use the right stick to swing. This is done by simply moving the stick back, and then pushing forward, similar to the NBA 2K free throw controls. This new control mechanic is said to increase the variety of hit types, although having not played many baseball games nor being overly familiar with the sport, I can't say I honestly noticed anything unusual during play. Ultimately, I simply found these batting controls a little more interactive and enjoyable compared to just pressing a face button, even if I don't use them as specifically as possible.
Another important new addition to MLB 2K this year is Living Rosters, which was a major part of the excellent NBA 2K9. This feature uses an internet connection to automatically and subtly update your active rosters to match real world changes, including injuries, streaks, and trades. It's a handy tool that caters very well to enthusiasts. It goes well with the ticker option that shows real-time scores from the MLB and other sports at the bottom of your screen during play.
MLB 2K9 has the Inside Edge, too. Inside Edge is the result of six years worth of scouting reports on hundreds of players, according to 2K Sports. This data is used to help bring a more complete and realistic atmosphere to the game by tweaking player tendencies. The addition of over three hundred new signature animations makes the entire experience that much more authentic, although to recognize these tendencies you really have to be quite a fan.
Adding even more credibility and atmosphere to the experience is commentary by Gary Thorne and Steve Phillips. While I'm used to hearing Gary Thorne call NHL games, he does an excellent job in MLB 2K9, as does Steve. Frankly, the commentary may be the best overall commentary package I have heard in a sports game to date. Technically, I didn't experience any odd issues with the commentary like I have seen in other games. For example, some (minor) parts of the commentary in NBA 2K8 and 2K9 sounded significantly different than the rest, almost as though the person talking was completely different from who they were just a moment ago; not the case with MLB 2K9. Also, Gary and Steve have some interesting discussions that occur during the game, in between pitches – it certainly adds a lot of realism.
Speaking of realism, the sounds do an awful lot to bring gamers to the front row, what with the new and very well done commentary, the effects, and the crowd noise. Of course, sound alone doesn't make a great presentation, so it's good that Visual Concepts didn't forget to spend a lot of time on the graphics. Visually, MLB 2K9 is a good looking game; there are lots of smooth animations that encompass the basics and finer details, like puffs of dirt and grass coming off the field when a ball lands or bounces across it. The addition of new animations helps, as do the stadium renders. I am also pleased to say that there wasn't a ton of in-game advertising, which rather surprised me.
2K9's new features supplement the core game nicely. At it's heart, MLB 2K9 is a simulation done by Visual Concepts and 2K Sports. As such, gamers can expect a nearly complete package. Support for online and local play is available, although only for up to two players (unlike the 5-on-5 in some other sports titles). 2K Share is also included so that you can share created players and your game settings with others over Xbox Live.
Single player modes include the ability to jump into Practice, Exhibition, Franchise, Postseason, and Home Run Derby. Franchise mode is essentially your season mode, complete with your standard group of options like being able to adjust the number of games in the playoffs and trade settings. The Postseason mode is apparently new and, as you would expect, allows you to jump right into the October action.
Ultimately, while I am not real fan of baseball nor have I played very many baseball video games, MLB 2K9 comes across as accessible and pretty fun. I'm definitely a casual player in this case, however – I'm not familiar with baseball games nor 2K's series. That said, I decided to check out some other reviews and forums after having developed my own thoughts on the game. In doing so, I got some confirmation in that there is cause for concern in the overall quality of MLB 2K9. While I feel like Visual Concepts and 2K Sports got a lot right, there are certainly some issues in terms of poor AI and general weird behavior during play that pops up a little too often to readily forgive. I have experienced these unexplainable events myself, but I really wasn't certain if it was the difficulty, settings, or simple lack of experience and practice to blame. It certainly looks like the problems are more common though, so take note should be leaning on a purchase decision for this one.
Finally, being “just a baseball game,” I can't say I was truly amazed by anything I experienced with MLB 2K9. However, being just a casual baseball fan, MLB 2K9 provided several hours of enjoyment and it offers plenty of depth if you can forgive its shortcomings.
Let's get to the summary...