As expected, the Xbox 360 version of Major League Baseball 2K6 flaunts nicer visuals and livelier audio than either of the versions of the game that are available for the PlayStation 2 and the older Xbox. It also benefits from a slightly better variety of play animations and cutaways. That's the good news. The bad news is that the jump to the 360 hasn't done much overall to spice up the game's halfhearted presentation. Many player faces are still inaccurate, the same replays and play animations still recur frequently, and, although the animation is more fluid in this version, the players still look a little jittery while they're running. To further complicate matters, the Xbox 360 game also suffers from a greater frequency of minor bugs and AI quirks than its so-called "last-generation" counterparts do. None of these rough edges are deal breakers on their own, but, taken together, they conspire to severely drag down what is otherwise a deep and feature-rich baseball sim.
Without a doubt, the graphics put the high-resolution capabilities of the 360 hardware to good use, at least in the technical sense. The player and stadium models are heavily detailed and everything has a sharp, vibrant look. Scoreboards and signs behind the outfield, which automatically update with line scores and dynamic advertisements, are perfectly legible from behind the plate. Finer details--such as skin tones, facial features, clothing, dirt, and turf--look more textured in the Xbox 360 version, as contrasted with the comparatively muted details found in the versions available for the PS2 and the original Xbox. Player faces look disturbingly human, although, for every face that actually matches a real player's, there's another that's completely wrong. On the one hand, Pedro Martinez and Alex Rodriguez look like the guys you see on TV every couple of days. On the other hand, Manny Ramirez doesn't have his knotty dreds and Ichiro Suzuki looks like he's an Italian-American.
The crowd in the 360 game is especially impressive. Every last spectator, from the fans behind the plate to those in the upper deck, is a complete 3D model, which is quite the improvement over the cardboard cutouts and low-poly people normally found in the seats in most sports video games. Individual spectators stand up, wave, and fidget in their seats. In certain views, you'll notice pizza and beverage vendors walking the concourses. After a home run, the cutaway viewpoint will show the person who caught the ball celebrating their catch. It's also very cute how spectators fight over foul balls that are hit into the stands.
When compared side by side with the PS2 and original Xbox versions, the Xbox 360 version looks smoother in motion and has a wider variety of play animations and cutaways. Players still look a little jittery when they run, but individual plays are silky smooth. On the whole, the variety of different plays is good. Routine throws from the infield to first all look the same, but there are plenty of different animations for double plays, outfield catches, and non-routine plays. It really is like the difference between night and day when you see how many different shoestring catches and athletic grabs happen in this version of the game compared to the others. There are also more instant replays, crowd cutaways, and player-reaction shots to see in the Xbox 360 game.
That's not to say that replays, cutaways, and reaction shots are a frequent occurrence. They're not. After most plays, the viewpoint simply switches right back to the hitting or pitching view. When a snappy catch or a tide-turning play happens, the odds of the game celebrating it with an instant replay or a camera cutaway are fairly low. Perhaps one out of every three plays gets the broadcast treatment. That's ultimately the biggest problem with Major League Baseball 2K6. While the game flexes the system's technical might, it doesn't do a good job of celebrating all of the subtle nuances that make the game of baseball so much fun to watch at the ballpark or on television. Batter walk-ups and post-strikeout reactions are the exception rather than the norm. Players walk off the field when the inning is over, but they don't walk back to their positions or pass the ball around after an out is made. In terms of visual atmosphere, local sports channels do a better job of making baseball seem exciting than this game does.
Thankfully, the audio portion of the presentation fares much better. ESPN's Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, arguably the best commentator team in baseball today, have the in-game play-calling duties. Some of their calls don't convey the proper level of emotional response, but they make up for it by keeping up with the action and having a lot to say. Additional comments and dialogue were recorded specifically for the Xbox 360 version of the game, allowing the pair to offer commentary and insight into offbeat situations and plays that they generally gloss over in the other versions. The crowd and the stadium public address system do a bang-up job of ratcheting up the volume in response to close plays and home-team highlights. Additional atmospheric audio was also recorded for the Xbox 360 game, adding more pep to the already lively stadium environments. There's a satisfying range of miscellaneous baseball-related sound effects, but all of the different musical snippets, crowd comments, umpire calls, and stadium announcements are what ultimately give each ballpark an authentic and exciting auditory atmosphere. It's just too bad that the visuals can't convey the same degree of personality as the audio does.
It really is a shame that the overall presentation is so lethargic, because the underlying features and gameplay are actually quite compelling. You wouldn't know it from seeing the same canned animations all the time, but this baseball sim is comprehensive and layered with depth.
Every feature you could want in a baseball game is in Major League Baseball 2K6. All 30 current MLB stadiums, teams, and rosters are included, along with about a dozen classic and superstar teams. Play mode selection includes single game, season, franchise, GM career, home run derby, playoffs, situation, and managerial showdown choices, as well as a basic World Baseball Classic tournament mode. Due to licensing issues, the WBC mode doesn't feature any non-MLB players or stadiums, although all of the uniforms and team logos are accurate. Aspiring GMs will adore the franchise and GM career modes, which feature actual managers and coaches, two levels of minor leagues, trades, drafts, contract negotiations, and realistic player progressions. The franchise modes in MLB 2K6 don't let you set concession prices or sell advertising, but they do implement player morale and fatigue as day-to-day variables, which you can subsequently manage by shuffling lineups and adjusting how much time off your players get. In the majority of play modes, you can choose to play the game, spectate, or manage from the sidelines. Stats are automatically tracked in more than 100 individual categories and subcategories. Various settings menus let you tweak the difficulty, control configurations, and multiple tuning sliders to your liking.
2K6 also has a feature-packed online mode. All of the standard features have been implemented, including roster downloads, single-game play, friends lists, and message boards. Additionally, users can set up and manage their own tournaments and leagues. As many as 16 people can participate in tournaments, while leagues allow for as many as 30 participants. The server handles scheduling and automatically keeps track of standings and a full range of statistics. One feature that 2K6 offers that no other console baseball game does is the ability to trade players in league play. As Paris Hilton would say, "that's hot." The online mode is streamlined so that batter walk-ups, instant replays, and other cutaways don't appear when playing against human opponents. This doesn't help the game's bland presentation any, and it can lead to confusion when the sides change between innings. On the upside, games played in the online mode seem to be smooth and lag-free.
One of the sweetest and most innovative aspects built into MLB 2K6 is its Inside Edge system. Besides incorporating scouting reports and statistical data into player strengths and CPU behavior, the Inside Edge system will actually make hitting and pitching suggestions to you on a pitch-by-pitch basis during the game. When you're on defense, the game will suggest the most effective pitch and location based upon the hitter's past performance in that particular count. When you're on offense, the game will show you how likely a pitcher is to throw each of his pitches, as well as display the three most likely spots where the next pitch will be located. What makes Inside Edge so captivating is that there's still a margin of error involved, meaning that you still have to factor your own hunches and baseball knowledge into each situation.
On the field, you can literally control every aspect of a ball game. Managerial functions let you make substitutions, warm up pitchers, and visit the mound whenever you like. If the umpire makes a close play or a batter gets beaned, sometimes the game will prompt you to argue the call or charge the mound. Doing so, however, may result in your manager or player being ejected. The fielding and baserunning interfaces are mostly identical to those in other games. Leadoffs and stolen-base attempts can be queued up before the pitch, and you can command a player to make a diving catch or slide into a base just by pulling on the right analog stick. As in previous years, MLB 2K6 is the only baseball game that lets you compel runners and fielders to kick in an extra burst of speed by rapidly tapping the relevant buttons. The risk of injury or fatigue is higher when kicking in the afterburners, though.
There are two hitting interfaces to pick from. The default lets you swing the bat with the right analog stick. You pull back on the stick to take a step and then either let go for a contact swing or push the stick upward for a power swing. This setup is nice because you're not wrenching your thumb unless you want to swing for the fences. If you don't like the swing-stick interface, you can always switch to the classic button-based interface in the setup menu. Both interfaces let you target your swing to specific spots in the strike zone by aiming a circular batter's-eye indicator, which may appear large or small depending on the hitter's plate discipline in real life. You can also push the right bumper button to have the batter hit from the opposite side of the plate. This is a nice option to have if you have a switch-hitter up at the plate, but it's rather bizarre that the development team would allow such an option to be used with devoted righties and lefties. The thought of Ichiro swinging right-handed or Manny swinging left-handed is insane. It's also so insane that Jon and Joe's commentary will actually make fun of you if you have a non-switch-hitter change sides.
MLB 2K6 employs its own take on the meter-style pitching that's all the rage in baseball games these days. Pitches are selected and aimed using the buttons and left analog stick. When you press the button to select a pitch, the targeting cursor grows into a large circle that gets bigger the longer you keep the button held. This indicates how much power or break you've built into the pitch. Letting up on the button locks in the effectiveness and causes the circle to quickly collapse into a crosshair. You then have to tap the button one more time to lock in the accuracy. The smaller the circle is, the more accurate the pitch will be. In practice, it's a highly intuitive system that boils the complex art of pitching down to a couple of quick button presses.
Another intriguing aspect of the pitching interface is that it's actually possible to specify where the catcher sets up for each pitch. Pulling the right analog stick will position the catcher's glove over any of eight spots around the strike zone. This lets you psych out players by setting up outside for inside pitches and inside for outside pitches. It's also the key to the game's optional payoff-pitch mechanism. In a real baseball game, a pitch made on a two-strike count is called the payoff pitch, because the pitcher's confidence can be shaken or strengthened based on whether the next pitch is a ball, a hit, or a strike. MLB 2K6 simulates this when you choose to position the catcher on a two-strike count. If your pitch lands in the glove without causing the catcher to move, you'll add a couple of points to your pitcher's effectiveness rating. If the catcher has to move to catch the ball, you'll lose a couple of points. Perhaps the implementation is a little bizarre, but the ability to adjust the catcher's positioning is still a welcome addition.
Along with being a very hands-on type of sim, Major League Baseball 2K6 also does a relatively good job of portraying what tends to actually happen during a professional baseball game. The CPU plays a smart game, is relatively aggressive on the bases, and makes substitutions when they're appropriate. When you swing too early or too late at pitches, foul balls and weak pop-ups are more likely to result than clean hits. Overall, the ratio of ground balls to liners and fly balls is right on the money. Pitchers get rattled when there are men on base with no outs, or when a fast runner is on first, which causes the pitching cursor to bob and weave, and inexperienced fielders will bobble the ball or make offline throws from time to time.
It's not all roses, however, as there are a few gameplay quirks that reveal themselves once you get serious with the game. Hits are somewhat easy to get on the default pro difficulty setting, particularly home runs. This is easily remedied though, by upticking to a higher difficulty setting or reducing the contact sliders in the tuning menu. Every so often, fielders will be slow to react to a liner up the middle or a lazy fly ball, to the point that the game will ignore analog-stick input for a brief moment, causing your infielders to miss hits up the middle and your outfielders to get a late jump on flies. Fielders and base runners also run slower than they ought to, unless you make sure to mash the turbo button during every play. You can alleviate both of these problems to some degree by cranking the tuning sliders for reaction time and speed, but the game will still revert back to its lazy ways on some plays.
Oddly, while the nitpicks mentioned above hold true for every version of MLB 2K6, the Xbox 360 version also suffers from a number of additional, albeit infrequently occurring, bugs and AI problems not found in other versions of the game. Controller commands are sometimes ignored, or they're initiated without player input. One time, the game might ignore your command to switch to a different fielder, only to switch you to a different fielder another time while you're running down the ball and not pressing any controller buttons. What's more annoying is that fielders and base runners will, on rare occasions, develop a will of their own and run in the direction totally opposite to the one you're indicating with the analog stick and buttons. Very rarely, a fielder will dive for the ball, even though it's nowhere close, without your input. On the other end of the spectrum, fielders will sometimes ignore a ball that has landed right next to them, or repeatedly boot it before picking it up.
All of the above-mentioned gaffes are infrequent, thankfully, but there are so many of them that you're guaranteed to experience one or two in every nine-inning game. It's not so bad when the overall result of one of these bugs is that you gave up an extra hit during the game, but it can be quite maddening when you watch runs scored because of them. Hopefully, 2K Games will release a patch download that fixes these glitches sometime in the future.
In the final analysis, Major League Baseball 2K6 for the Xbox 360 is a good baseball sim that's taken down a few pegs by its lackluster presentation and gaggle of embarrassing gameplay bugs. Diehard sim fans may be able to forgive the rough spots and doldrums because the stats-focused gameplay is so sublime and because all of the numerous play modes offer so much to dig into. Everyone else should probably take a pass and hold out for next year's game.