Major League Baseball 2K5 is a big step in the right direction for Take-Two's (formerly Sega's) video game baseball franchise. Last year's game, to be kind, was full of bugs and had modes that didn't actually work as advertised. The best thing going for it was the incorporation of the ESPN license, which was mainly used in the form of informational overlays and replays. All of the modes in this year's game work like they should and there seem to be hardly any bugs, although the few you will probably run across do have the potential to be very annoying. Furthermore, the ESPN license has been used to conjure up new in-action camera angles, and this new feature has even been incorporated directly into gameplay in the form of new pitching and baserunning control schemes. Meanwhile, the graphics, the audio, the depth of play, and the number of available online options have increased significantly since last year.
What sets MLB 2K5 apart from other baseball video games is how great it looks and sounds, at least from a purely technical standpoint. The polygons and textures used to put together the players and the stadiums are crisp and clear and really do justice to the high-resolution 480p progressive scan modes offered by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. Batting and pitching use the same behind-the-hitter viewpoint, but action in the field is shown from a variety of different camera perspectives. The ESPN license is clearly evident in the graphical overlays and transitions, particularly the K-Zone and Web Gems instant replays, which look just like what you'd see during an ESPN baseball broadcast or an episode of SportsCenter.
The developer borrowed a page from EA Sports' MVP Baseball franchise and incorporated picture-in-picture baserunning windows. However, here the concept is taken further by placing the window for each runner in a separate corner of the screen (instead of cramming them into a single cluster at the top of the screen), and making it so the size and location of the baserunning windows change depending on what needs to be shown. When you're up to bat with runners on, the PIP windows are large and enable you to see both the base runner and the closest fielder, as well as how lengthy of a leadoff your runner has. Once the ball is put into play, the PIP windows grow smaller and either follow the runners, or relocate to the bottom of the screen so that they're never obscuring your ability to see the play or to see where the ball is.
Player bodies and faces are remarkably accurate, and there's a fair bit of expression evident in the eyes and mouth. Squinting, gum chewing, confident grins, rapid eye movements, and pained grimaces are just some of the many little touches to watch out for. The animation for player movements, specifically for swinging, catching, and jogging, is extremely fluid. Meanwhile, you'll also notice that uniforms gather dirt and grass stains based upon what happens on the field, and that the camera will often focus in on a player cleaning the dirt off his uniform right after a slide. If there is one drawback in this area, it's that the variety of different animations for certain plays isn't very high. Specifically, liners and pop-ups are hit toward the outfield. After playing a few games or so, you'll start noticing that line drives and pop-ups tend to go to the same locations and that the players go for the ball the same way every time. Fortunately, there are plenty of different animations for grounders, bouncers, and infield plays.
Stadiums are another high point. Not only are all 30 MLB parks (and 9 old-timer parks) accurate, but also they're outfitted with a variety of dynamically updating scoreboards and animated signage. When the score is 3-1 in the sixth inning, you can actually see that reflected on the outfield scoreboard, usually along with the hitter's portrait and batting stats. Familiar ballpark landmarks, such as the big glove in SBC Park (San Francisco) and the fountains at Kauffman (Kansas City), are present and look exactly as they're supposed to. In order to put so much detail into the inside of the park, the developer had to skimp somewhat on the scenery and buildings located outside of the park. The camera angle is usually set low enough so you don't notice how sparse the outside world is, but if you take a good look, it's pretty obvious that most parks are missing the parking structures, office buildings, and freeways that are usually seen above and beyond the outfield walls. That's an acceptable trade-off though, considering how absolutely beautiful the stadiums and their innards are.
The crowd inside the park is pretty impressive too. Each spectator is an individual polygon model and he or she is usually dressed up in team gear. The models can independently stand up, clap, and react to plays on the field. You'll notice individual spectators sometimes holding up rah-rah signs or flipping over strikeout placards in the outfield, while large groups of spectators can often be seen standing up and cheering together. This is especially obvious in the seventh inning, when the camera focuses in on a section of fans as they sing along to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Furthermore, the spectators in MLB 2K5 aren't all carbon copies of one another, which has often been the case in baseball video games in the past. The stands are full of people of different sizes and ethnicities, all wearing different clothes and reacting to the game in their own unique way.
It's not just the scoreboards and crowd that give MLB 2K5 such a natural feel either. All of the different camera angles, transitions, and replays help give the video game an atmosphere that's similar to that found in a live TV broadcast. For example, when you're teeing off on the CPU with a runner on base, the game might switch views and you'll see the play from the outfielder's perspective, from the perspective of a fan located along the lines, or it might be a snazzy fly-cam shot that follows and pans around the base runner. When a pitcher notches a strikeout, the game could show an overhead replay, a replay using the K-Zone display, a close-up reaction of the hitter, or it could just show one of the spectator's adding a "K" to the tally in the outfield. You'll constantly see an assortment of field views, reaction shots, crowd shots, replays, and graphical overlays, and it certainly keeps the action lively.
Lively and lifelike are also good ways to describe the audio. The sounds of the ball hitting the catcher's glove, the cracking of the bat, and the players sliding into base are a bit exaggerated, but not unrealistically so. Stadium PA systems announce the hitters, call out pitching changes, and sometimes chime in with advertisements for fictitious sponsors or promotions. When a batter is up at the plate, the loudspeaker usually pipes out some sort of traditional baseball cheerleading sequence, especially if there are men on base or a rally is in progress. What's really impressive here is that individual spectators will respond to the PA by cheering on or insulting players after they're announced, and then as a group they'll clap or stomp when the loudspeaker plays a familiar tune.
Even more striking is that the commentary turned in by ESPN analysts Joe Morgan and Jon Miller actually reflects the tone of the crowd and the pace of the game. If the crowd starts chanting for a certain player or the boobirds start up, Joe will say something like, "They're really showing him their love," or "The crowd wasn't happy with that play." When an exciting play happens, the level of animation in Jon's voice will pick up the instant the fielder catches the ball or the runner squeaks in safely, which is exactly what you'd want an enthusiastic announcer to do while calling a game. Just in general, Joe and Jon do a good job of the play-by-play. The variety of different calls, background anecdotes, and interjections is exceptional. Furthermore, the friendly rapport that the two have in the booth comes across in the game, thanks to all of the personal banter that was added along with the standard commentary.
Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech provides team summaries before the start of each game, although his comments really only get interesting if you're in the middle of a season or franchise, because then he'll actually comment on specific player streaks or situations that the teams need to address. For a final touch of ESPN flavor, the game incorporates familiar ESPN segue music and themes for its camera transitions and menus.
For the most part, Major League Baseball 2K5 plays like a simulation-style game as opposed to an over-the-top blastfest, although it certainly does have a number of juiced nuances. Ultimately, how much you like the game will depend on your own preferences with regard to the various control schemes, as well as how annoyed you are by a couple of minor, albeit potentially annoying, bugs that slipped through into the final product.
You can take your pick from five different pitching interfaces. The default setup, called K-Zone, is named and patterned after the graphical replay that's often shown between pitches on ESPN television broadcasts. It uses a combination of aiming cursor, power indicator, and crosshairs to let you select a pitch, aim it, put strength behind it, and then tweak the accuracy of the pitch. If you don't like the K-Zone interface, you can pick from four other pitching setups, which include two classic schemes: a simplified K-Zone and a meter setup that's identical to the one used in MVP Baseball 2005.
Here's how K-Zone works. Each pitcher has anywhere between three to six pitches, which are mapped to buttons on the controller. The available selection of pitches is shown onscreen in a cluster, which also shows the effectiveness of each pitch along with how much stamina the pitcher has left. To initiate the process of tossing a pitch, you first need to pick a spot around the strike zone by using the left analog stick to position a ball-shaped aiming cursor. Then you press the button associated with the pitch you want to throw. When you push the button, a large circle appears where the aiming cursor used to be. This circle represents the strength of the pitch, and it shrinks in size based on how long you keep the button pressed. The longer you keep the button held, the stronger the pitch will be and the smaller the circle will become. That's important, because the circle is also the target area for the next phase of the K-Zone process. After letting up on the button, two long crosshairs appear with that circle smack-dab in the middle of them. A dot then begins to move downward along the vertical crosshair. Using the same button, you're supposed to stop the dot in the circle. That starts a dot in the horizontal crosshair moving, which you're supposed to handle in the same fashion. If you land the dots inside the circle, you'll throw the pitch where you aimed it. If the dots land too far outside the circle, the pitch will end up somewhere within that margin of error. It sounds complicated when put into words, but the whole process really only takes just a few seconds and three button presses.
Hitting comes in two flavors, which are labeled in the game as "video game" and "pure baseball." The video game setup is the default and relies mainly on timing, whereas the pure baseball setup also incorporates the use of a large cursor for aiming. The two hitting setups actually aren't all that different from one another, since the video game scheme also makes use of a hidden, albeit very forgiving, cursor of its own called the "batter's guess." In a nutshell, the batter's guess feature allows you to position your swing through areas of the strike zone by pulling the analog stick in the appropriate direction. Generally speaking, you'll make better contact and get more hits by getting the timing right and making use of whatever aiming scheme is used in the hitting setup that you chose. Both control setups let you choose between contact or power swings by mapping each type of swing to its own button.
A new and particularly controversial addition to the hitting interface in MLB 2K5 is something referred to as "the slam zone." Sometimes when a pitch is made the action will freeze and the location of the pitch will be revealed, ever so briefly, by the appearance of a tiny baseball graphic in the strike zone. At the same time, a targeting cursor will appear that can be moved using the left analog stick. If you can move the cursor over the ball before it disappears, you'll activate the slam zone, which is basically a button-mashing minigame that allows you to sit dead red on a pitch and jack a monster home run. Obviously, some people will like the added thrills that slam zone offers, and some won't. Thankfully, slam zone, while enabled by default, is an optional feature that can be disabled in the settings menu.
The fielding and baserunning interfaces in MLB 2K5 are similar to those found in other baseball video games, specifically MVP Baseball 2005, but with a couple unique twists. With regard to fielding, the left analog stick controls fielders' movements and each of the buttons on the controller lets you throw to a specific base on the diamond. The right stick lets you activate diving catches and jumping grabs, which you can also use to climb the wall and rob a home run if you time it right. Instead of incorporating a throw-strength meter for making throws, which is what MVP Baseball has, MLB 2K5 lets you make a hard throw or give your fielder a brief hit of speed by pushing the right trigger button. On the baserunning end of things, you can take leadoffs and preload stolen base attempts by using the shoulder buttons and the digital directional pad, respectively. When the ball is in play, you can select and take control of individual base runners by pressing the button on the controller that refers to the base that player is about to leave. If a runner is near the next base and you want to have him slide a certain way, you can command him to do so by pushing a direction on the right analog stick. Again, these controls are very similar to those found in EA Sports' MVP Baseball 2005. The difference here, as was the case with fielding, is that you can also have a runner kick in his afterburners by rapidly pressing the button shown next to his name.
Baserunning in MLB 2K5 also includes a rather innovative feature called "on-command baserunning." For example, when you're up at the plate and there's a runner on base, you are allowed to take control of the runner and let the CPU handle the act of batting. To activate it, all you need to do is tap the right analog stick in the direction of the runner. The perspective will then switch to a viewpoint located behind the runner and the controls will change so that you can control the runner's leadoffs in real time using the left analog stick. You can also give the batter general commands, such as bunt, take, swing, or be selective, by tapping the corresponding direction on the digital directional pad. The only noticeable drawback to on-command baserunning is that the CPU won't try very hard to knock a base hit or jack the ball in this mode, even if you tell it to be selective with a slugger up at the plate. This mode is best used when you want to move the runner over, since the CPU is mostly focused on just making contact.
The slam zone, turbo boost, and on-command baserunning features are just a few examples of the many ways that the developer has strived to add some pep to the otherwise mundane game of baseball. Along with those nuances, there's also a challenge system set up that provides players with temporary cheats based on their performance in the field. When each inning starts, the computer puts up a challenge, typically along the lines of "steal a base" or "hit a home run." The first player to do so wins what's called a "face point," which can be spent the following inning to disable one of his opponent's abilities. Face points can be downright nasty, since they let a player (or the CPU) take away your access to things like contact swings, stolen bases, slides, or specific pitches. Generally speaking, MLB 2K5 also seems to give up more in the way of base hits and home runs than other baseball video games do. However, those distributions, along with the challenge system and all of the game's other arcade-style embellishments, can be adjusted or disabled in the settings menu. In fact, MLB 2K5 lets you adjust 49 different gameplay sliders for all aspects of hitting, pitching, running, and fielding.
MLB 2K5 balances out its flashier embellishments with an equal number of simulation-style features. These include things you'd hope to see in every good baseball video game, such as bull pen warm-ups, mound visits, one-button intentional walks, unintended injuries, and visible hot and cold zones for both batters and pitchers. The CPU does a good job of mixing up pitches and making substitutions in late or close innings. By the same token, you can figure out the CPU's patterns, or those of your friends, by pressing inward on the left thumbstick, which shows you the location of each pitch during the hitter's previous at-bats. Each player also has his own individual confidence and fatigue meters, which can change during a game depending on the types of plays he makes in the the field and how well he does. Striking out or grounding into a double play really drops a player's confidence, while starting a rally or stealing a base will increase his mood. In terms of stamina, fielders tire out more quickly if you use the turbo feature or make them perform diving catches, and pitchers won't last beyond the fifth inning if you make them throw too many pitches or peg the strength indicator to maximum on every pitch. Tired pitchers throw meatballs up at the plate, while tired fielders move sluggishly and run a greater risk of injuring themselves.
Aside from the personal tastes that dictate what people look for in a baseball video game, there are other things that may turn off some people, like a few minor, although potentially very annoying, bugs that made it past the testers and shipped with the retail version of the game. One of these bugs isn't so bad. On rare occasions, the CPU will simply just forget that players have runners on base and will let you steal with impunity. That's tolerable, since it's infrequent enough not to be a factor in most games. Another bug, however, is more frequent and has to do with the common occurrence of wild pitches and passed balls. Around the fifth or sixth inning, roughly, the catcher will sometimes start to miss pitches thrown to the edges of the strike zone, which causes the ball to roll to the backstop and usually results in the runners advancing 90 feet. There's no rhyme or reason to this bug, but when it happens once, you can expect it to happen at least five or six times in a single game. On the upside, it seems to happen to CPU-controlled teams much more often than human-controlled teams, so you probably won't mind the flaw as much when it results in extra runs for you or if you primarily plan to play the game against another person.
Online play is certainly a major selling point for sports games these days. Both versions of Major League Baseball 2K5, available for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, have the same rich set of online features. Exhibition matches and roster-update downloads are included, as are quick home run derbies and league play. League play can take the form of a short playoff tournament or a season ranging anywhere from 8 to 40 full games. As many as 30 different people can participate in a single league. Best of all, the limits placed on how many leagues you can create or participate in at a single time are set so high that you could literally spend every waking moment playing baseball. Leagues are pretty easy to set up. All you need to do is go into the league screen, select "create league," and adjust the various options, which include difficulty, game length, number of teams, and whether or not trades will be allowed. You can make your leagues public or make them private and give them a unique name and password. Information, such as team statistics, rankings, leaderboards, and friends lists, are also available online. The number of different statistics tracked in the leaderboard is exceptional, and it includes a full range of team, batting, pitching, and fielding metrics.
Online games, for the most part, are smooth and stable, with only the usual random fits of lag here and there. However, when lag does crop up, it can cause pitches to teleport, making it difficult for both players to time hitting and pitching interfaces. Before initiating a challenge, the game checks both players' connections and will put up a warning if network conditions are less than optimal. Games played on the PS2 involving users on dial-up connections exhibit a great deal of lag and choppiness, which is about par for the course.
In addition to online play, Major League Baseball 2K5 also comes stocked with a variety of offline play modes. The list includes typical selections, such as exhibition games; home run derbies; season and playoff modes; a text-based GameCast mode; two different franchise-style modes; and a situation mode that lets you set up what-if scenarios by fabricating specific aspects of a game. All 30 actual MLB teams and stadiums are included, as are the majority of major league players--with the notable exception of Barry Bonds and other players that aren't members of the players' association. Nine historic ballparks, 12 classics teams, and two dozen retro uniforms are also available, although they have to be unlocked in the game's Skybox area before they can be used. The Skybox area is basically a clearinghouse for all of the challenge tokens you earn from playing games. These tokens can be spent to unlock additional teams, uniforms, and stadiums, as well as a whole host of cheats and Easter eggs. Arcade games, such as darts, air hockey, trivia, and shuffleboard, are also available as unlockable goodies.
Devoted baseball fans who enjoy career-style franchise modes will be pleased to know that MLB 2K5 has two such modes. The first is a plain franchise mode that's oriented around the players on the team. You can draft players, make trades, sign free agents, hire staff, renew contracts, set lineups, manage the disabled list, and perform minor-league call-ups. The second franchise option is called GM career, and it's basically an expanded variation of the aforementioned franchise mode. In the GM career mode, you also have to worry about keeping the owner happy by meeting his yearly goals and responding to whatever comments he makes throughout the season. Goals vary, from things like putting up a winning record or making the playoffs to turning a profit or sweeping a rival team. Once in a while, the owner will ask you to meet a short-term goal, which is usually along the lines of getting rid of an overpaid player or spending money to acquire free agents for the pennant chase. Your ability to satisfy the goals set by the owner affects the budget you get for the following season and helps to determine whether or not your contract is renewed when it expires.
Player progression is one of the better aspects of the franchise and GM modes. The coaches you hire can influence the evolution that your rookies undergo on the way to becoming veterans, and variables such as playing time, confidence, and injuries can factor into whether a player's abilities improve or decline between seasons. Young players are rated based upon their current ability and their future potential. A young player with an A-level of potential is destined to turn into a superstar within a few years, while a rookie with a C- or D-level of potential will likely remain a journeyman player during his entire career. Individual player stamina isn't much of a factor in exhibition games, but its impact is huge in the franchise modes. Tired players don't move or throw as well as rested players do, and they're more prone to injury. Both franchise modes let you schedule routine days off for players in the starting lineup based upon a percentage of their playing time, which makes it easier to combat fatigue. Features that are new to the franchise modes in this year's game include multiple-user profiles (so that four people can each manage a team), adjustments that let you specify the number of games in a season and how lenient budgets are, and a budget-breakdown screen that shows you what players and coaches you're spending the most money on. The "simulate games" option, which lets you quickly advance through the season by having the CPU automatically simulate game outcomes, has been sped up. It's been sped up to the extent that it makes the sim option in other games seem sluggish by comparison.
One of the better new features is the player-oriented "wants" list that's built into the staff-hiring interface. Before you hire new managers and coaches, you can bring up a list of minor league players that shows what they're all looking for in a potential coach. Pitchers will ask for coaches who favor strategy or aggression, power or control, and so on. Hitters may want batting instructors who teach contact or power. Fielders can make requests for coaches who lean toward speed, dives, range, or arm strength. By honoring your players' requests, they'll improve quickly and make better progress in between seasons. You can actually see this bear out, too. Play a couple of test seasons with the same team, but vary the coaches, and you'll find that the team that hired the desired coaches has improved the most.
The main drawback to the franchise and GM career modes is that, while they are comprehensive in some areas, they're not as comprehensive as the franchise modes found in other current baseball video games. As was the case with last year's game, the 2K5 release only offers two levels of unnamed minor league teams. While that setup is more than sufficient to manage the dozens of free agents and rookies you'll acquire as the seasons go by, it's nothing compared to the 90 licensed teams and three distinct levels that MVP Baseball 2005 offers. Depending on your personal tastes, you may also be disappointed in the lack of administrative options provided by the GM career mode. Other games let you set ticket prices, buy stadium upgrades, and plan giveaway promotions. MLB 2K5 is completely focused on keeping the owner happy above all else. Lastly, statistics tracking has been cut back in this year's game. Last year's release tracked metrics in more than 80 categories, while 2K5 follows around 50.
Besides these omissions, everything necessary for a good franchise mode is here, including CPU-instigated trades, contract negotiations, fictional rookies, minor league development, retirements, who's hot and who's not reports, weekly and postseason awards, Hall of Fame inductions, historical statistics, and so on.
Let's say you do decide to buy Major League Baseball 2K5. If you own both a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox, you're probably wondering which version is better than the other. Honestly, while the PS2 version is no slouch--and certainly looks and sounds great--the Xbox version is superior for a number of reasons, one of which is that initial load times are shorter, which means you can get into a game quicker. Also, the player models have more facial detail in the Xbox game. In the Xbox's online mode, the lag that crops up isn't nearly as unpredictable or harsh as it is in the PS2 game, and that's because Xbox Live doesn't allow dial-up users onto its service. Those of you that own home theater systems will be interested to know that the Xbox game supports in-game Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, whereas the PS2 game is limited to Dolby Pro Logic II. Finally, the best reason to pick the Xbox game over the PS2 game is that you can set up custom ballpark and player soundtracks using the music that you've ripped to the Xbox's internal hard drive. You can go so far as to set up specific songs for batter introductions, pitcher introductions, between-inning interludes, as well as songs in response to specific plays that the home team makes.
Again, keep in mind that while the Xbox game does offer all of these added benefits, the PS2 game still looks and sounds superb and offers the same set of modes and options.
In the end, how much you will like Major League Baseball 2K5 will depend mainly on what you're looking for in a baseball video game, as well as how much the certain flaws in its gameplay matter to you. The franchise modes are comprehensive enough, the selection of different online play options is extensive, and the whole game almost looks and sounds just as good as a broadcast on ESPN HD. The controls, pacing, and physics are very authentic, even if the number of home runs and stolen bases is a bit high. In that regard, some people do prefer a simulation with some pop. As for the wild pitch bug, it will be a deal breaker for some but not for others--especially those of you who intend to play primarily with friends or online.