Major League Baseball 2K9 Review (Xbox 360)
March 3, 2009 was supposed to be a day of triumph for 2K Sports. The final chapter in a three-year development cycle that started with MLB 2K7.
Each new edition was to be another layer of bricks built upon the initial foundation, remaking the baseball video-game genre as we knew it. MLB 2K9 was to be the shining star at the top of a glorious skyscraper of baseball awesomeness.
As they say, "the best laid plans of mice and men."
Instead of being the final chapter, MLB 2K9 once again marks a new beginning for the franchise. Visual Concepts has once again taken over development of the series -- the studio had previously been separated from the baseball series for several years.
As for the game itself, many aspects of it are actually fun and exactly what you would expect from a big-name title. The franchise mode is deep and does a good job telling a story about the day-to-day life in the MLB (post-patch at least, more on that later), and the new "Real-Time Atmosphere" does a great job of making you feel like you are watching the game on live TV.
While the online features do not include an online franchise, up to 30 people can compete in a league with a fantasy draft and trades included, and the "Living Rosters" are a great new addition for those who love having up-to-date rosters.
Put those items together with extra goodies like 2K Reelmaker, Home Run Derby and 2K Share, and you have plenty of solid additions to the game.
But the game is hurt in the one area it cannot afford to be: on the field.
Unfortunately, MLB 2K9 doesn't quite get the game of baseball right.
On the Field
The biggest problem with MLB 2K9 is that, sadly, most games play out like a high-pitch summer softball league game, and not like a showcase of some of the finest baseball professionals in the world.
I am not talking about one of those softball leagues with equipment rules either. I am talking about one of those leagues where all the players have $500 NASA engineered bats.
Computer-controlled hitters hack away at almost anything near the dish and make a ton of contact in the process. In fact, during about a week of playing MLB 2K9, I can count the number of strikes called looking on two hands. Called third strikes are an even rarer commodity -– nothing less than a perfect pitch will ring up a hitter on default sliders.
Now, you can artificially work the count by throwing balls to boost the pitch count. Nevertheless, the stark reality is that hitters work the count to try and get a pitch they like, which is not the case in this game. The same goes for the A.I. when it pitches. I could take two strikes in hopes that the A.I. throws a ball, but why not swing away when I know there is little to no chance of being walked on the default sliders.
Couple this free-swinging attitude with tons of long balls and a lot of offensive fireworks, and the softball league analogy holds true.
Looking back, I did sort of know something was up when I scored six runs in my first MLB 2K9 game. Sure, one of those runs was of the old-school, manufactured variety, but it was followed by a three-run homer and a two-run homer.
All told, I had more than 10 hits in my first MLB 2K9 game, which is completely out of character for me.
With any new baseball game, I tend to follow the same path. I get thumped 5-0, 6-1, 7-2 as I try to get my timing down and learn the nuances of the game. However, I never remember turning on a ball and hitting a monster home run less than an hour after turning on the game.
The pitching system this year also feels uninspired. The default "hold and gesture" is just a neutered version of the pitching system MLB 2K8 pioneered last year -- that while new and innovative, some felt was too hard.
So this year 2K put the same system in, but without the final hold, while also removing any indication of how effective your pitch actually is. Did you do the pitch gesture the right way? Who knows. The same problem is there if you use the classic pitching system.
Getting hits in MLB 2K9 is easier than ever.
As a comparison, if you are pitching with a meter, you get instant feedback telling you how effective a pitch was. If you hold a button too long on the way up, you usually know before the ball is thrown. If you hold it too long on the way down, you know before the ball is thrown. Last year you knew how effective your pitch was as well because the game showed you.
This year, though, you find yourself trying to guess how close to perfect that last pitch was. It really makes it tough to get your timing down on pitches when you have to guess where the top and bottom limits of the system are.
Fielding is also an issue. While play in the infield is pretty solid -- sans the moments when your first baseman does not touch the bag when catching a ball -- the outfield is an adventure. Your players will regularly slow down for no apparent reason, as if they suddenly have lead in their cleats. They will also routinely misplay balls that should be easy outs.
The A.I. will make some wonky decisions in the field as well. Sometimes it will run the ball into second base while a player rounds third and heads for home, and sometimes it will not flinch as the ball sails right past it.
There also does not seem to be much of a speed difference between outfielders. Manny Ramirez seems to move just as quickly to a spot as Carlos Beltran does.
Again, cue the softball comparisons.
Throwing is also inconsistent. The game does not preload throws as much as it should, so you will find yourself throwing some floaters until getting the hang of the system. Holding the left trigger to make a quicker throw also takes some getting used to.
On the positive side of things, the biggest shinning star in all of this is the running system. Stealing is controlled by the left trigger. You tap it to take your lead and then hold it down until you are ready to take off for the next base.
Being able to lead off a base and tell your player when to take off gives you a ton of control. Things like delayed steals, better hit and runs, run and hits and other types of small-ball strategies are very viable as a result.
You also have two options for controlling runners when the ball is in play. You can use the right stick to tell a runner where his final destination is, and you can also use the triggers and bumpers in a fashion similar to previous games (advance all runners, retreat all runners, and so forth).
When you get good at it, you will be able to do things like tell a runner on second to head home, then control the hitter and wait to see if you should advance him to second or not, which will obviously depend on where the ball is thrown.
Make no mistake about it, the graphics aren't bad at all. They just aren't spectacular.
Graphics and Audio
While the player models are not the best out there, the overall graphics in MLB 2K9 are impressive.
Stadiums feel bigger than life, and the lighting in this game is top notch. Where the game really shines, though, is with the "Real Time Atmosphere" feature -- essentially the cut scenes between the on-the-field action.
Whether zooming in on the face of David Ortiz as he steps into the box or showing Dusty Baker leaning on the dugout railing, the "camera work" adds a nice television-like feel to the game.
As impressive as the stadiums look, the crowds are equally unimpressive. While they do perk to life at some big points, usually late in the game, the crowd is usually pretty lifeless and just sitting around like bumps on a log.
And while Steve Phillips is not my cup of tea (Mets fan), him and Gary Thorne are a solid play-by-play commentary duo.
Another decent new feature is the postgame highlights. At first, it will seem like a great new feature because it will be fun to relive some of the moments once a game is over. After a while, though, you will realize that the highlights are fairly one-dimensional -- no clips of guys rounding third to score, no clips of outfielders showing off their guns to get a runner at home. You will see just three types of clips: hits/home runs, strikeouts, stolen bases.
Franchise mode is good if you can overlook the issues popping up.
The franchise mode this year features most of the usual suspects you have come to expect –- trades, injuries, minor leagues, budgets, and so on -- and one of the major flaws in the mode has already been addressed via a patch (free agents should now be signed by teams instead of sitting in the free agent pool for multiple seasons).
A few new features, however, are sure to help keep your franchise going after you begin.
The addition of MLB.com, with headlines from around the league, should quickly and easily help players keep a finger on the pulse of every team in the league.
Free agency has also been reworked, providing a real system of negotiation between players and multiple teams. You are able to see what offers players have and are able to counter offer or pull out of negotiations as a result.
The draft, however, seems to be continuing the trend of "football offseasons" in baseball games where your high-profile draftees linger in the minors for a year or less before jumping to the MLB. As an aside, kudos for a very solid stat-simulation engine.
There are reports in the community of freezing issues within the franchise mode, but I cannot say I have had issues with them and do not know what exactly causes the issues either.
Playing online is doable this year, unlike last year.
Sure there is not an online franchise, but you are able to get up to 30 friends in an online league and play out a season complete with playoffs (unfortunately flex scheduling does not appear to work right). You also have the ability to trade players and have a fantasy draft before you start a league.
Last year, MLB 2K8 was a disaster online. This year, online play still needs some improvement but it is at least playable. While the hitter and pitcher interaction is pretty solid, there are numerous and very noticeable slowdowns and lag issues when playing in the field. Also, for the sake of smoothness, the game forsakes one of its biggest strengths -- the camera work during the game. You also have the same problems with the gameplay that drag the experience down offline. In other words, tons of swinging for the fences and tons of contact even on pitches that only Vlad Guerrero has a chance to touch.
The Living Rosters will keep you up-to-date not only with player transactions, but also Inside Edge information. There is already a roster update available that includes most of the recent transactions.
You also have the ability to share rosters, sliders and created players online. 2K Sports Reelmaker also allows you to put together highlight reels and share them online.
Other online features include leaderboards, home run derbies and card battle games.
MLB 2K9: Not so bad, but far from great.
Overall, I was pretty disappointed with this offering from 2K Sports, especially when I consider where the franchise probably should be at this point in the life-cycle.
The secondary features are great and add a ton of life to this game, but it is going to take a ton of slider jockeying or a patch to get the play on the field to match up with these secondary features.
On the Field: Too much offense, too many swings that make contact and some wonky outfield A.I. and movement hurt the on-the-field experience.
Graphics: Nice cut-scenes and close-ups give the game a nice television feel. The stadiums are very nicely lit. Player models are a bit on the average side.
Sound: Nothing to write home to mommy about. Crowds are usually pretty dead, except at limited points later in the game.
Entertainment Value: The on-the-field action really hurts this game, which has other features to bring you back for more. Unfortunately, it all kind of falls apart on the diamond.
Learning Curve: Most veteran baseball gamers will jump right in and start smacking the cover off the ball. It will take a few games to get over habits from older games (right stick for sliding as an example). Pitching is tough to get a feel for because there are no visuals to show you how successful your last pitch was.
Score: 6.5 (Decent)