ESPN Major League Baseball 2K5 Hands-On

We take to the mound with ESPN's latest baseball game to check out all of its new upgrades.

In real baseball, referring to an organization as a "rebuilding effort" is often seen as a negative--a sign that the team is putting financial concerns ahead of its hopes of winning. However, when it comes to ESPN Major League Baseball 2K5, the idea of a "rebuilding effort" is not at all a bad thing, as the game seems to be taking some of the best aspects of last year's well-received baseball title ESPN Major League Baseball and fundamentally enhancing a number features for this year. We had a chance to play a few innings to see how the title is progressing before its spring release date.

From the moment you set up a game, you'll notice some changes in ESPN MLB 2K5. Besides two main game modes--video game (a more arcadelike experience on the bases) and pure baseball (simulation style)--the game also provides the player with several different choices when it comes to pitching and batting interfaces. On the mound, two new pitching modes include the K-Zone and K-Zone 2 (more on these in a bit). From the batter's box, players can choose between the true-aim system found in last year's version of the game, as well as cursor batting, which makes its return from the old World Series Baseball series. This plethora of choices means you'll be able to find a mix of batting- and pitching-interface styles that give you the best chance for success on the field.

As mentioned, the new pitching mode found in ESPN MLB 2K5 is the K-Zone pitching meter, of which there are two flavors. Similar to the K-Zone strike-zone display used in ESPN's Baseball Tonight program, the K-Zone adds a degree of challenge to the pitching game that hasn't been present in the ESPN MLB 2K series before. Instead of merely choosing a placement for your pitch, the type of throw you wish to make with the press of a button, and then hoping for the best, you'll be much more responsible for each pitch you make in a game. Using a cursor and superimposed strike-zone box on the screen, you can still aim your pitch as usual, and you'll still choose your desired pitch with one of the mapped face buttons on your controller. Where K-Zone pitching differs, however, is in the use of a horizontal and vertical meter that appears onscreen after you choose your pitch type.

Each pitch's success is measured by how accurately you can place the reticle that runs along these two axes inside your pitching cursor. Nail the reticle dead center on your cursor and your pitch will go exactly where you planned it to go. Miss it either vertically or horizontally and your pitch's accuracy will suffer. If you're looking to really throw some hot lead, you can charge up any pitch by holding down the associated button. While doing this, you'll notice your cursor shrink accordingly--this being the natural trade off between power and control that all major league pitchers face. To add even more complexity and control, the size of your cursor (and thus your margin for error) will change depending on certain factors, such as game situation, pitcher fatigue and confidence, pressure, and the aforementioned speed of the pitch. The difference between K-Zone pitching and K-Zone 2 pitching is simple: with regular K-Zone pitches, the cursor switches back to the center after each pitch; with K-Zone 2, the cursor does not go back to the center.

Batting also gets an upgrade in ESPN MLB 2K5. This is obvious, as you have the ability to guess the location of pitches before they cross the plate. While this is nothing new, the introduction of slam-zone animations is. If, while at bat, you guess the location of the next pitch, the game will then shift to a dramatic slow motion animation of the coming pitch, during which time you'll be able to charge up your power meter by repeatedly hitting a button. At a precise moment in the animation, you are asked to swing the bat by hitting another button. Complete both these steps and you're often looking at an extra base hit or, better yet, a home run. What's nice is that these slam- zone (as they're known) animations do not guarantee home runs, or even hits, for that matter. During our time with the game, we struck out once during an animation by failing to swing the bat within the "swing" window. Needless to say, you'll want to gain as many slam-zone opportunities as you can so that you'll have the best chance of scoring runs.

The use of the K-Zone pitching meter and the pitch-guessing batter interface looks to up the ante in the traditional pitcher-batter duel. Little touches, such as faking a pitch location by holding down a shoulder button, sweeten the deal and add another layer to the cat-and-mouse game between teams, especially during two-player matches.

Base running and fielding have also received face-lifts in ESPN MLB 2K5. The game will have three ways to control your men on the bases: picture-in-picture base running, maximum sliding, and base-burner mode. While picture-in-picture base running is self-explanatory and maximum sliding is controlling the type and direction (inside or outside of the base) using the analog stick, it's the game's base-burner mode that seems truly unique.

In base-burner mode, you actually take direct control of a particular runner on base. The perspective shifts in this mode to just behind the runner you're controlling. From here, you can perform standard base-running controls, such as taking a lead, choosing to steal, or heading back to base to beat out a pickoff throw (taking advantage of the maximum slider controls). You'll also have a modicum of control over the batter at the plate, giving him orders to hold off on a pitch, swing away, or bunt. This mode gives you much more flexibility with controlling speedy base runners, especially during crucial points in tight games where every run counts.

The game's upgraded fielding controls include new sliding, diving, and wall-climbing animations, all handled through an analog stick on your controller. The game's smart-throw feature lets you put the ball in the correct baseman's glove with just a press of the button, regardless of the game situation.

Fans of online baseball games will be pleased to hear that the ESPN MLB 2K5 will support online play for both the PS2 and the Xbox. Both versions of the title will also support 30-team leagues, which will include all the ESPN leagues' bells and whistles offered through the game's Web site.

Graphically, player models look sharp and gritty, especially faces, which animate convincingly, such as when the players are chewing gum. There are also new animations, such as batter warm-up routines (check out Lance Berkman's fingers moving before he swings the bat), or when players sign autographs for fans in the stands before the game begins. If you've got a particular home run you wish to commemorate forever, ESPN MLB 2K5 will let you easily take screenshots, save them to your hard drive, and even display them in your Skybox (the MLB equivalent to the Cribs found in the ESPN NFL series).

The game's sound experience is coming along nicely, with Jon Miller and Joe Morgan providing play-by-play and colorful commentary duties, respectively. The ability to customize the game's soundtrack music for both stadiums and individual player entrances is another nice touch.

With season, franchise, GM career, and tournament modes all included in the package, ESPN looks to have your bases covered, regardless of your preferred style of video game baseball. Similar to ESPN NBA 2K5's full-authority mode, you'll be able to "manage" games you sim, but, unlike last year's title, you'll be able to jump in and out of these simulated games and take direct control, just in case your team gets in a tight spot.

Because no firm release date, cover athlete, or price has been announced for ESPN Major League Baseball 2K5, there's still plenty of time to complete the work that needs to be done before the game is released this spring. From what we've seen of the game so far, however, this "rebuilding effort" looks to be on the right path. We'll have a full review of the game once it is released.

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