9

The prettiest baseball game around gets more than just a facelift; should be pleasing for fans of the series.

Here are my impressions. For context, I should point out that I'm only 3 games into my franchise, and I've only played one game online. Graphics / Presentation This is, without a doubt, the best looking baseball game I've ever seen. Player models have the same crispness and clarity that their football kin have in ESPN NFL 2K5; the stadiums (stadii?) look fantastic, and the ESPN integration is absolutely top-notch. What pleases me the most is that they've FINALLY addressed some of the little, nagging things that have bothered me over the last couple games: ** variable weather conditions ** if it's windy, flags will wave - in the appropriate direction ** stadium diamond-vision is FINALLY reflecting real-time scores (at least for the game you're playing; the out-of-town scoreboard still seems to be just one texture) ** the announcers will notice if your team is on a winning streak and mention that in the opening; hopefully they'll notice if your hitter is on a hitting streak, too I played a late afternoon game yesterday, and as the game went on, the shadows started to creep onto the field. Took me a while to notice it, but there it was - by the 4th inning, the pitchers mound was completely covered in shadow. These are the sorts of details that really make the game look and feel real. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan's commentary is terrific - they sound pretty much exactly like they do on Baseball Tonight. Especially Joe Morgan, who is a terrible broadcaster and remains as authentically nonsensical and vague here as he does on TV. Keep in mind, this is a great thing, because it keeps the whole experience immersive - if he were suddenly making sense, it would throw me off. And Jon Miller, who has one of the best broadcasting voices in the business, is perfect. They seem to have recorded a ton of things to say, and they're actually illuminating at times - talking about baseball trivia during the breaks, breaking down a pitch sequence, etc. There are lot of cool heckles from the crowd, too, although they don't mention steroids. One thing about the crowd, and the Sega/2K sports line as a whole is guilty of this - the crowd is kinda scary. During the 7th inning stretch, the camera cuts to a shot of the crowd standing up and singing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame", and they look like zombies, mindlessly swaying back and forth and looking vaguely hungry for brains. It's disconcerting. Also, there are nice little touches like the Trivia game, which takes place after the 3rd inning - it's like at a real baseball game, where there's a multiple choice trivia question and you have to guess the correct answer. This is not a make-or-break quality of the game, but it's something that keeps you from simply pressing "A" all the time to get to the next pitch. Basically, it's like watching a game on TV, which is basically all you could ever want out of a sports title. OH - the Skybox. MLB's answer to NFL's Crib, the Skybox is where you have a visual representation of all of your stats, accomplishments, unlockables, etc. The absolutely coolest feature of the skybox, though, is the poster system. Basically, if you do a manual replay during a game, you can take a photo - from any angle, of anything - and save it to the hard drive, and then you can turn it into one of six posters which are prominently displayed in your skybox. This is awesome. I've got great shots of leaping double plays, the moment of contact during a home run, and one fantastic shot of a sprawled-out Ruben Sierra crawling back to home plate after knocking the ball out of Jason Varitek's glove. If there is a way to share photos through XBL - like a virtual AP newswire - it would be the greatest thing ever. As it is, being able to decorate your skybox with your own photos is just totally awesome. Gameplay The manual spells it out - this year's game is not a "tweaking" as much as a complete overhaul. For the most part, that's true. Pitching has changed completely, batting is somewhat different, baserunning is its own separate mode of play (if you choose), fielding is a bit more dynamic... basically, even if you're a fan of the series, you're still going to need to learn quite a few things before you're able to not make any crucial mistakes. The one thing that's missing from this year's game, really, is a chance to practice. (There is a "Tutorial" in the options menu, but I believe it's just movies - you can't easily practice baserunning, which so far has been the most problematic element for me.) I'll admit that the pitching mechanic in last year's MVP is the most immersive way I've seen it done, and it seems that ESPN has adapted it somewhat for their own game. You select your pitch, and then you select your location. At that point, you'll have to line up 2 circles over your selected location, which isn't necessarily as easy as it sounds. What's cool about this is that you feel like you have a lot more control over where the pitches end up, and you feel responsible when you've hung one up in the zone. Speaking of which - if you hang a pitch, you trigger a mini-game, where time slows down and the batter has to whale on the "A" button to fill up a special meter and then hit "B" at the proper moment. (If there is a counter-move for the pitcher, I've yet to figure out it out - this will be addressed later.) Baserunning - well, this is tricky. Before I say anything, let me point out that the default baserunning scheme makes every runner only take one base, and then you have to manually send them to the next one. When you're starting out, you may want to change the option to the more aggressive approach, where the lead runner will attempt to go for the extra base on their own if they think they can make it. This way you can not accidentally send every runner to the wrong base, which I've done waaaay too many times already. Anyway, what they've done to the baserunning is actually quite cool, but it's tricky to figure out. At any point, if you have a runner on base, you can switch from the batter's perspective to the runner and thus you can directly react to a ball in play. You don't have to do this, and until I figure out how it works I'm staying away from it. You have far greater control over leads, stealing and advancing than you ever did before. Unfortunately, the controls are not very intuitive - once you learn how it works, it makes sense, but for someone like me who just wants to dive in, it's very weird and can cause some rather comical rundowns. Batting hasn't changed very much, and if you don't like the new system you can always go back to the old cursor-based standby. Essentially, before the pitch you have the option of guessing where the pitch will be thrown, and if you're right, you have a better chance of making solid contact. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's there. I think I saw something about a manual swing, with the left thumbstick (like in Links or Tiger Woods), which is something I wouldn't mind checking out. Flaws I'm a fan of the series, and I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt at every possible turn. But there are some problems with the game: 1. The menu systems are very confusing. Maybe I'm just not used to the new way of doing things, but for some reason it's very difficult for me to easily get to where I want to go. 2. Fielding can be strange. This happens in every baseball game - a ball will fall into the gap, and the computer will switch from the infielder you're controlling, who's running back, to the outfielder, who should be running in but because you're wailing on the thumbstick up he runs away from the ball, and the hitter ends up on 3rd base. 3. Baserunning is not intuitive. Maybe I'm stupid, I don't know, but it's taking me a LOOOOONG time to figure out how to not accidentally send runners to the wrong base. Again, as I mentioned above, switching the option to the more aggressive (and automatic) style solves a lot of these problems, but it took me a long time to even realize that that option even existed because the menus are so terrible. 4. Missing from this year's game (unless it's there and I just can't find it) are previous pitching sequences (when you're the pitcher) and the cool, Matrix-y stop-motion pitch tracker. The latter isn't that necessary - it's just cool to look at - but as a pitcher, I want to be able to recall what I thew at a particular hitter the first time I faced them so that I can give them a different look the next time. What's especially irritating is that you can do this as the batter - pressing in the left thumbstick before your first pitch will call up the previous AB's pitch locations (although not the actual pitch types). If you press in the left thumbstick as a pitcher, however, you end up intentionally walking the hitter. I've learned that the hard way. 5. If you care about this stuff, there are some minor clipping issues. They don't affect gameplay, which may or may not be a good thing - for example, if you hit a slow roller with 2 outs and you're thrown out about 5 steps before 1st base, you will continue the running animation and walk right through the departing 1st baseman who himself is walking towards the dugout. (One good thing, though - for the most part, each player goes to the correct dugout after making out.) I've not yet encountered a close double play situation where the runner is trying to take out the SS/2B making the throw to 1st, but I have had a successful collision at home plate, knocking the ball out of the catcher's glove. These are minor annoyances and haven't dramatically affected my enjoyment of the game, but they are annoying. Online play I've played one (1) game, with a friend. I kicked his butt. There was no lag. We got to see the same replays - not only that, we could show each other our own replays. He actually did one of those over-the-wall HR-robbing catches, which was amazing. I noticed that Sega's put in a lot of anti-cheating measures - if you pause the game, you have 3 minutes to un-pause it, and they very prominently display your drops and pause-drops in your profile. So that's nice. I don't know how the leagues work, and the rosters aren't totally up-to-date - for example, as of 2/25/05 Sammy Sosa is still a Cub, and Doug Meintkevich (sp?) plays first base for both Boston and the Mets. I believe there is an option to create a fantasy-draft online league, which might give Brewers fans some hope. I still don't feel like I've played enough to feel comfortable giving it a numerical score - I haven't done the GM mode, I've really only dabbled in some other options - but if I had to, I'd probably give it an 8.7, with a bullet. However, if I honestly fill out the GS tool below this review, I get scores in the low 9s. I'm giving the Gameplay a 7, which is far too low - the game plays great, once you learn the intricacies of the controls.

Discussion