MLB 2K7 Updated Hands-On

We get our hands on with an updated build of 2K Sports' upcoming MLB game for Xbox 360.

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While it isn't exactly fair to say that 2K Sports is starting over with the upcoming Major League Baseball 2K7, after the lukewarm reception of last year's next-generation debut of the series, the team behind the game realized that some work was needed to bring it up to the level of quality baseball fans were expecting. In our last look at MLB 2K7 from the show floor at the Consumer Electronics Show, it was evident that the game has improved on a graphical level by a good clip. The question remains, though: How has the rest of the game rebounded from a subpar 2K6 effort? We recently had a chance to get our hands on the game for a more extended gameplay session than we had in Las Vegas and try to answer this question for ourselves.

C.C. Sabathia, in all his tilted hat portliness, is an example of the high-quality player models in MLB 2K7.
C.C. Sabathia, in all his tilted hat portliness, is an example of the high-quality player models in MLB 2K7.

First things first: Don't expect a huge, game-changing game mechanic or a bunch of new modes in 2K7. Instead, the development team is making sure that the promising elements found in last year's game have been refined and last year's rough edges smoothed down into a more consistent and enjoyable baseball experience. Don't mistake this focus on refinement for a complete lack of innovation, however, as the game will include some important tweaks that look to improve the gameplay straightaway.

We talked about the player-model upgrades in 2K7 in a previous preview, but, having seen more major leaguers while playing the game during our demo, it bears repeating that the game features a excellent variety of accurate-looking MLB players. Producers are borrowing the phrase "signature style" from NBA 2K7 for their player animations in MLB, and it's hard to argue with that choice. Small details in the player gear are correct, such as the shin guard worn by the Oakland A's Nick Swisher when batting; more importantly, the team have obviously put in a ton of work at capturing the size of the MLB pros. According to producers, in last year's game, player models came in just a few preset sizes. By contrast in 2K7 a portly pitcher like C.C. Sabathia is going to be rocking the "muffin top" gut, while long, lean players like Mark Prior will look true to life as well. And, of course, no baseball game worth its salt would proclaim its "signature style" animations without having a glut of authentic-looking batting stances to back it up. It's probably too much to expect that every big-league player has a virtual doppelganger in 2K7, but any big names in the sport should be accurately represented in the game.

Beyond the upgraded look of the game, much of 2K7 will feel similar to last season. The game will once again utilize the Inside Edge scouting service to provide you with detailed scouting on the pitchers and batters you'll face in a game. You can spend scouting points on certain players before a game begins to gain a slight advantage when going up against that player in the batting box or on the mound. Your catcher will "call" pitches in 2K7, even for batters who haven't been scouted beforehand. Before the pitch, the catcher will position himself behind the plate to indicate location, and the suggested pitch will be illuminated on the screen. You always have the ability to shake off any suggested pitch and position your catcher as you like before dealing the leather. Paying attention to the Inside Edge scouting information will pay off at bat, too. If you know the hot and cold zones of the pitcher you're facing and guess accordingly with your aiming icon while up to the plate, you'll earn a subtle boost to your batting ability.

MLB 2K6 introduced a payoff pitch system that gave you a bonus for making clutch throws in pressure situations. The system returns in 2K7, so if you get ahead in the count, the catcher will call for a pitch in a very specific spot. Nail it and your rating for that particular pitch will go up; screw it up and your rating will fall just a bit. The challenge to the system comes with 2K7's button-based pitch meter, which uses the break point of a pitch as your aiming icon (thus requiring you to understand the motion of the pitch you're throwing). It takes some time to get back into the 2K swing of things, but after a few innings you come to appreciate the challenge of the system.

Base-running will be improved in 2K7 thanks to some tweaked presentation values.
Base-running will be improved in 2K7 thanks to some tweaked presentation values.

When at the plate, you swing the bat by pulling back on the right analog stick (after aiming with the left stick, of course), and from there you have two options: let go of the stick for a normal swing, or push forward for a big power swing. There's also the "defensive" swing, which you can pull off by pressing the analog stick forward without a backswing. Normally used to stay alive in the count, defensive swings won't travel very far if they stay fair, but they're a nice weapon to have in your arsenal, especially if you're looking to wear down a pitcher late in the game. You will also be able to pull off drag bunts by clicking on the R3 button after the pitcher has released his toss.

Player momentum has been refined in 2K7. A player's momentum in the field will still be taken into consideration when you're running down a fly ball or making a big toss to first base, but the animations that dictate your moves are smarter this time around. When fielding fly balls in last year's game, making small corrections to get your player underneath a ball was difficult because any correction meant the player would immediately move to his turgid running animation; in 2K7, the player will accurately set his feet when close to the ball, and adjust easier to any small corrections you need to make to get him in the proper spot. In addition, the development team at Kush has put in time to make sure that the transition animations between fielding and throwing are smoother than ever before.

Before a pitch, you can make outfield and/or infield adjustments by pressing up or down on the directional pad, respectively, then cycling through the various adjustments by pressing left or right on the D pad. There are tons of infield sets, from standard double play depth, to the famous "Barry Bonds shift" (actually, to be accurate to 2K7's roster, let's call it the "Joe Young shift"), where the second baseman basically sets up in shallow right field and hopes for the best.

Running the base paths in the MLB 2K series has been fun for a while, and the presentation in 2K7's base-running has changed a bit. Unlike last year, where the four bases were placed in the four corners of your television, the diamond is presented as an actual on-screen diamond this year, and the base runners are presented with a transparent overlay on the on-field action that helps you keep tabs on all the action on the bases, without becoming distracting. Each base runner is noted with an appropriate face button--to send him for extra bases, you simply press the left trigger; to send him back, you press the right trigger. You can also "preload" a player to try for extra bases simply by pressing the left trigger multiple times--twice for a double, three times for a triple, and so on. A number will show up next to the player indicating the base he's currently heading for, allowing you to easily keep track of where everyone is.

The AI in the game has been beefed up so that players will back up each other during cut-off situations.
The AI in the game has been beefed up so that players will back up each other during cut-off situations.

With improved stadium models, lots of transition animations and highlight replays between innings, and the aforementioned upgraded player models, it looks as though the focus on improving MLB 2K7's presentation is paying off. Based on our time with the game, it also seems to be playing well--pitches have been sped up, it seems, but not necessarily at the expense of approachability, and the new base-running tweaks are a welcome addition. We'll be getting another look at the game in the coming weeks, when we plan on bringing you more information on some of the other modes in the game, including franchise and online plans, so stay tuned. MLB 2K7 is set to report to retail stores on March 5.

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