MLB 2K6 Hands-On

If its stats you want, it's stats you're going to get. We delve inside a preview build of 2K Sport's scout-tastic baseball game.

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Baseball fans--real baseball fans--are amateur statisticians at heart. They like nothing better than analyzing the pitch frequencies of middle-relief hurlers during night games in August, or arguing over which Kansas City Royals outfielder likes to chase balls high and away the most. For years, baseball video games have sought to satiate the stat geeks with detailed stat-tracking over numerous categories. All previous console efforts will likely pale in comparison to 2K Sports' upcoming MLB 2K6, a game that looks to take stats-tracking to an entirely new level. We got a hands-on demo of the game, courtesy of the folks at 2K, and came away impressed with what we've seen so far.

Inside Edge scouting will give the inside info when facing batters...
Inside Edge scouting will give the inside info when facing batters...

The two biggest areas of statistical focus are the integrated Inside Edge scouting technology and a VIP system that has exploded in detail since last year's ESPN MLB 2K5. We've seen a bit about how the Inside Edge scouting service makes its way into the game in a previous preview, but today was our first look at exactly how it has been implemented for both pitchers and batters. We were also introduced to the many ways effective scouting can benefit you.

Inside Edge is a scouting service used by MLB teams to provide incredibly detailed and accurate scouting reports on every team and player in the big leagues. With the introduction of the Inside Edge service to MLB 2K6, the 2K Sports team has collected three years of hard scouting data on every player and team in order to give you some of the most detailed scouting reports ever seen in a baseball game. You'll be able to make use of Inside Edge services both in quick pickup games against the artificial intelligence-controlled opponents, and in the franchise mode. In quick games, you'll have 350 Inside Edge points to spend on scouting particular players. Certain players will cost more to scout than others, depending on their position and skill. A starting pitcher, for example, might cost more than 100 points, while you'll only need to shell out around 50 points for a middle reliever. With 350 points to spend, you'll want to make sure you spend wisely. You'll typically want to scout the starter on the other side, and a handful of their most dangerous batters as well.

Once you have your chosen players scouted, it's time to enter the game. When facing scouted batters while on the mound, your catcher will be calling for pitches. He'll call the pitch type and, based on the location of his glove, he'll give you an idea of where he wants it to land. By illuminating his requested pitch, your catcher will even let you know if he wants the pitch in or out of the strike zone. Assuming your catcher can call a good game, you have the choice of either taking his advice or ignoring it altogether. Look out though--just because the catcher is calling the shots, doesn't mean you'll hit your mark. Defensive alignments will also shift automatically to coincide with a where the batter typically hits the ball.

When you're in the batter's box, facing a scouted pitcher will give you information on his ball-placement tendencies, as well as percentage numbers on each pitch in his arsenal. The higher the percentage, the more likely he is to throw that pitch in a given situation. It's important to note that all the percentages are completely dynamic based on strike count and the number of men on base, and it will change throughout a single at-bat.

 …and is a great way to check out a pitcher's tendencies as well.
…and is a great way to check out a pitcher's tendencies as well.

As handy as Inside Edge services are when playing pickup games, they are even more valuable when in MLB 2K6's franchise mode. Here, the number of points you have available to you for scouting is a function of how large your overall team budget is. Just as in the real big leagues, scouting services come from the same money pool that player and staff salaries are drawn from. So while it may be tempting to buy full reports on every club out there, it's just not conceivable financially. To add more depth to the system, some teams are more expensive to scout than others. A full team report on the Oakland A's, for example, will run you about $870,000. Scouting the Yankees, on the other hand, will set you back a cool $1.14 million. Luckily, you don't need to scout an entire team to benefit from the services available. You can choose to only scout pitchers, or just batters, or just the stars on a team. You can even pick and choose which players you wish to scout on an individual basis. Smart players will quickly figure out that they'll need to spend the majority of their budgets on teams within their own division, while also saving up enough cash in reserve to scout playoff teams should your team make the postseason.

In all, Inside Edge looks to add an entirely new set of depth, strategy, and realism to MLB 2K6. But it's really only half the statistical story here. After all, it's all well and good to use the Inside Edge services to scout AI-controlled teammates. But what about those times when you take the game online and face real-life opponents? 2K6 has you covered there as well, thanks to an incredibly in-depth VIP system that tracks practically every conceivable player statistic and tendency. Consider this partial list as a representative sample:

  • Swing timing
  • Outfield/infield shift usage
  • Substitutions by position
  • Pinch-hit frequency
  • Bull pen usage
  • Runs scored for and against
  • Pickoff attempts
  • Pitch guess tendencies
  • Pitch location tendencies
  • Pitch selection

MLB 2K6 even tracks the number of times you argue with the ump on blown calls (and how hot under the collar you get while doing so!), the average number of steps you take when leading off a base, and the amount of showboating you do when fielding balls. In all, the game tracks more than 250 statistics and tendencies to give you the most accurate picture of an opponent's style ever seen in a console baseball game. By simply bringing up your opponent's VIP profile, you can see exactly how he plays a game, where his strengths and weaknesses lie, and where you need to focus your game plan in order to beat him. Does the guy chase at pitches high and away? Then that's where you'll be going as soon as you hit the mound against him. Furthermore, you can turn that VIP mirror on yourself to get a comprehensive picture of your tendencies in order to improve your online game. If ever there was a tool that could improve your standing in your online baseball league, this is it.

An insane level of stat-tracking is a highlight of 2K6's VIP system this year.
An insane level of stat-tracking is a highlight of 2K6's VIP system this year.

So, now you know about the stats but, as we all know, baseball is about more than cold, hard data. There's also skill and athletic prowess involved in making big pitches and bashing monster home runs. And when it comes to the game mechanics that mirror those batting and pitching skills, there's plenty that's new in MLB 2K6. On the mound, the 2K development team has bypassed last year's K-Zone innovation for a new pitching system that puts a premium on spotting pitches. Don't worry, you can still turn on K-Zone pitching if you like, or even use an MVP-style meter for true old-schoolers. But the new pitching meter is interesting and bears mention here. Most importantly, as opposed to aiming the pitch cursor to where you want the ball to land, the cursor now indicates where the pitch will break. In effect, you're spotting your pitches the way real major leaguers do it. To assist you, you can bring up a handy guide that will show you the direction your slider or curve will break. From there, it's a simple two-button mechanic to get your pitch off. All you have to do is press and hold the button down to determine the power of the pitch, which is indicated by an expanding halo around the ball. The bigger the halo, the harder the throw (or more break, as the case may be). As the halo rapidly contracts back toward center, you hit the button once more to let the pitch fly. Your degree of accuracy in stopping the halo will determine how accurate your pitch is. There's also a payoff pitch feature that lets you call your shot against a batter with two strikes against him. Make the pitch, and you'll get a slight bonus on that pitch for the rest of the game. Miss it and, well...you don't want to miss it. That would be bad luck.

On the batting side of things, the biggest addition is the swing stick. While in the batter's box, you pull back on the stick to initiate a batter's initial windup and either let go of the stick and let it return back to center (in order to make contact), or push forward and through to hit for power. You can even influence the placement of the ball by pushing to the left or right. It sounds simple in theory, but in practice, it takes some time to get the delicate timing down. Begin your swing too early or step back too late and you're nearly certain to miss the ball. On the plus side, you'll be given feedback on every swing you make in the game to continually improve your offense. The 2K6 producer we spoke to said the swing stick has helped his batting performance because he's not as liable to swing at junk pitches that he might have chased with the old button-press mechanic. Until we've had more time to experiment with the timing, we'll just take his word for it on that.

Fielding has some new features as well, including new physics modeling that introduces player inertia and momentum into the action on the field. It's now possible to overrun a ball when charging, run into the outfield wall when chasing a fly ball in the outfield, or knock down a teammate Len Bias blooper-style while trying to make a play. A new snap throw mechanic puts you in the shoes (and point of view) of the catcher as you try to make pickoff throws from behind the plate. The first-person view is an interesting twist to the pickoff play, even if you'll only use it a few times per game.

The franchise mode has also received some upgrades, including a greatly enhanced trade tool that makes deal-making easier than ever before. Whether you're looking to sign new talent, or offload one of your salary-chewing veterans, the new trade-finder makes finding deals and signing talent easier than ever. You can put up a player on the trade block and tell the system exactly what you're looking for in terms of trade value--and you'll instantly get responses back from interested teams. No more going team by team to try to make something happen by trial and error--here, the trades more or less come to you, dictated by the terms you set. It remains to be seen how realistic those generated trade offers are, and it's a question we'll certainly tackle in our full review.

The World Baseball Classic will pit teams from all over the world against each other.
The World Baseball Classic will pit teams from all over the world against each other.

MLB 2K6's franchise mode has also upped the ante when it comes to team chemistry. For example, you'll be able to see exactly how each player on your roster feels about practically everything going on with the team--from his playing time, to his current contract, to his position in the batting order. Better yet, if your number-six hitter wants to be moved up to the number-four slot--and you grant his wish--you'll immediately see his feedback change to a more-positive slant on things (of course, you'll now have a problem with your old cleanup hitter). Furthermore, as manager, you can call weekly team meetings where you can make a speech to try to turn around your team should they meet with a slump. Here you can offer everything from loving encouragement to nasty chew-out sessions and everything in between. You can even insult the mothers of every player on your team. No, we're not making that up. We saw it happen during our demo and saw the players' reactions to their managers' painful insults. Some didn't take it so well, while others found it to be an effective motivational tactic. Go figure.

It's clear that 2K Sports is taking its role as the sole third-party developer of Major League Baseball games seriously, and it's preparing MLB 2K6 to be one of the more-ambitious console baseball games in recent memory. Whether the team will be able to deliver on all that ambition, through the new gameplay mechanics and intense statistical tracking, remains to be seen. At the very least, we're extremely excited for the potential this game is showing. Stay tuned for more on MLB 2K6 as we near the game's March 13 release date.

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