Major League Baseball 2K7 Review (Xbox 360)
There’s no denying the passion of a baseball fan. Rivaled only by college football - perhaps - no game generates more dyed in the wool fans with live, breath, eat and sleep your favorite team passion more than Major League Baseball. Whether it’s the perennial powerhouses like the Red Sox or Yankees or the lovable losers like the Cubs, there’s no mistaking a baseball fan.
As it often does, sports gaming fans tend to mirror their real-life counterparts. While it’s hard to argue that the football releases in the fall generate the most conversation around the net, there’s nothing like it when the baseball fans take over the forums in the early part of the year. Baseball gaming fans are purists. They play the games that they love, regardless of the date on the box. They break out their copies of High Heat. They wax nostalgic about Earl Weaver’s and Tony LaRussa’s titles. Entire communities will work together to modernize old version of a favorite PC title and mod it to play like a brand-new release. Baseball fans don’t accept a simple roster update.
To say that 2K Sports’ maiden voyage on the Xbox 360 for their Major League Baseball franchise last year was sub-par would be like saying Barry Bonds has “bulked up a little” since he two-hopped his throw from deep shortstop in the ’92 NLCS. While opinions varied from “unplayable” to a few people who legitimately enjoyed the game, there’s no doubt fans would be waiting with pitchforks and torches for the release of Major League Baseball (MLB) 2K7.
Right off the bat (no pun intended), there’s no denying that this game looks good. The first thing that you’ll notice is how clean and intuitive the user interface is. If you’re like me, recent 2K Sports games' menu systems have left you scratching your head in bewilderment. You’ll be happy to know logic prevails on MLB 2K7 and you’ll actually be able to get where you’re headed without directions, a map, and three tolls.
Graphically, while some will be bothered by the blurred background style that is being used more and more, I actually like it a lot. When you think of it from a watching on TV perspective; it doesn’t necessarily fit, but it almost looks more like you’re watching it at the stadium in a weird voyeuristic sort of way. With the pitcher-batter interface being static and TV-style, it gives it a nice balance between the two.
The character models are really nicely rendered and their Signature Styles are nicely utilized in both the models themselves and all of the animations. Not only do Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Carlos Beltran look like their real-life counterparts, but they share the same mannerisms and rituals. It’s not 100% across the board. When I was playing with my Tigers, lower-tier players like Brandon Inge were pretty accurate in their stance and style, but you could they didn’t get the full treatment. That’s not a complaint; I was actually shocked with the number of players who were really spot-on.
Along with the graphics, the presentation is really something to behold. Replays are run before at-bats, between innings and other logical places to really add to the feel of the game. If Ryan Howard hits bombs in the 1st and 3rd inning, rest assured you’ll get a look at them again before his next at-bat. My personal favorite happened when playing against the Kansas City Royals; Emil Brown hit a home run against me and later in the game climbed the wall to pull one back. When Mr. Brown came to bat later in the game, Jon Miller said something to the effect of, “Brown has been doing it with the bat and the glove today,” while they showed both replays back-to-back. Sweet. Nice touch. The in-game stats and overlays are really well executed and flow seamlessly into the action as well. Even the Player of the Game award only comes up when it can be run in conjunction with a well-timed replay.
Unfortunately, it’s not great across the board. I found a few issues in this area that really stood out to me. While Miller and Joe Morgan are very good and the inclusion of a pre-game discussion with Jeanne Zelasko and Steve Physioc make for a nice lineup, the commentary itself gets repetitive rather quickly for a game of this magnitude and in online games; the play-by-play will actually tip off your opponents when the announcers tell your opponent where your catcher wants the next pitch.
I also saw some gaffes in the cut-scene presentation. I lost a pretty normal 2-0 game against the Cleveland Indians. While their team certainly played a nice game, when it ended they jumped all over each other and celebrated on the field like they just had won the World Series. That is certainly a great cut-scene when you clinch a pennant or even throw a no-hitter, but it really seemed out of place for a Wednesday game in April.
On the diamond, the pitching system is mostly the same as last year and stands up as one of the better interfaces in the genre. The movement on pitches and overall break are by far the most realistic in any title. The challenge of the pitching meter has a fair-to-steep learning curve and you can legitimately feel the effects of over-pitching or leaving your guy out there an inning too long. I’m a big fan of the catchers calling the game like they do in MLB 2K7, and I'm even more impressed by the fact that there seems to be a notable difference between a battery with “Pudge” Rodriguez and one with the third-stringer from Tampa Bay.
The Payoff Pitch is back and becomes almost a game within the game. My only complaint with it is that there doesn’t seem to be a big enough dividend to making the right pitch in that situation. It’s actually easier to get that third strike, especially swinging, with a different pitch and location. Even when I convert my Payoff Pitch, it very often goes for a ball or a hard-hit ball.
At the plate, you’re looking at two choices that could not provide two more different experiences. The Swing Stick controls at the plate involves pulling back on the right stick as the pitcher hits his plant foot and taking your cut by simply releasing the stick or driving it forward to take a bigger cut. While I am a huge fan of analog stick use in sports gaming, there are a few things that rub me the wrong way about the Swing Stick.
For starters, as a timing based system, once you pull back on the right stick, you are very committed to taking the swing. Maybe I’m just old and the younger joystick jockeys are not having the same issue, but on All-Star difficulty, once I pull back, I’m pretty much all in. The problem with that is you are committing long before you can ever get a read on the pitch, and reducing your hit strength in the process.
My second issue is that it feels unnatural to me to pull the stick back and then simply release it. In the fractions of a second between pulling back and making the move to swing, there’s simply not enough time to make the decision to release instead of push forward and power swing. I would have much preferred a trigger or shoulder button being used as a modifier to either use a contact hack or a swat at the fences.
That left me to Classic Hitting Mode, which I am more than satisfied with. It’s a simple timing-based hitting system with the left stick used to “influence” the cut that you take. It’s not "zone hitting" per se, but it’s pretty close.
You’re also given the option to use Batter’s Eye when you are at the dish. Batter’s Eye is a combination of Cursor Batting and Guess Pitch. If you click the left stick, you bring up a fuzzy white circle that varies in size depending on the hitter, situation, pitcher, count and so on. Positioning it pre-pitch denotes where you think the pitch will be coming in. If you’re right, you’ll be tipped off during the wind-up where - exactly - the pitch is coming. Of course, you still have to hit it. I’m not sure how many people actually use this feature, but I actually prefer the old MVP version of Batter’s Eye with the different colored balls. It was more similar to really being at bat. I know, how is a green ball more realistic? Well, if you’ve played baseball at any relatively high level, picking up a pitch type out of the pitcher’s hand is much more feasible than knowing what part of the strike zone in which the pitch will arrive.
Once you’ve chosen your swing type of choice, you should be pretty happy with hitting in MLB 2K7 overall. I found that there were a few too many opposite-field home runs and I hit a lot of hard ground balls to the first baseman. I mean a lot. Ten a game in some cases. I watch a lot of baseball and played first base for many years in my youth. You don’t see that much action on batted balls at first. You see your share against a heavily left-handed team, but I think there are a few too many in this game.
While we are taking infield and shagging a few, I have to hit on my #1 complaint with MLB 2K7 – the fielding camera. Fielding in this game can be one of the more frustrating experiences in recent gaming memory. On a hard-hit ball into the outfield, it requires as much or more luck than skill in taking the correct angle to the ball, resulting in a boatload of unrealistic triples for even the slowest runners. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Frank Thomas! You won’t misplay as many routine chances in this year’s version as most of us did last year, but it will happen. I can understand if this was an intentional effort to make it a steeper learning curve and a bigger challenge, but the AI rarely, if ever, makes the same mistake. In fact, if you don’t have wheels or an outfielder with a noodle arm, even a ball that rattles around in the corner or perfectly parts the outfielders will often result in a close play at second if not an out.
Modes of play consist of your standard fare in recent baseball titles. You have your one-and-done Exhibition games, Season, Franchise and GM Modes while there are a few mini-games mostly centered on the Home Run Derby. Nothing really jumps out as new or innovative in any of these areas, so you will probably simply jump on whichever is your preference.
Single season fans should be pretty happy with a simple season. Inside Edge is back, so you’ll be able to pick up a dossier on your rivals and toughest outs. While I love the concept of Inside Edge, I don’t find it nearly as useful as I believe it is intended to be. That’s not a bad thing, exactly, because that’s one thing about baseball - you can watch all the tape in the world on Randy Johnson, but when game time comes, you still have to hit that fastball, even if you think you know where it’s coming.
I’m a Franchise player myself and this is certainly one area where MLB 2K7 could use some improvement. While the product on the field is the same, I was bothered by the lack of depth to the mode itself. There is no Spring Training, for starters. You get a report that tells you how you did during Grapefruit or Cactus League play, but there is no option to play it. Not only does that hurt the full franchise experience, Spring Training effects ratings, and I don’t want ratings dropping due to something I have no control over.
You’ll also notice the inclusion of a limited Minor League (Triple-A and Double-A) system on your roster. This is truly just the inclusion of extra young talent on your roster and should in no way shape or form be confused with having an actual Minor League system. The games aren’t playable, nor are they even full teams. This is something that should be addressed in the 2K8 release. You paid big bucks for the MLB license; you need to use every piece of it.
GM Mode is really a Franchise Mode with the inclusion of goals for the owner of the team. I was immediately turned off by this mode because of the lack of realism in the goals set forth. I fired up a GM career with the Tigers and one of the first orders I got was to cut or trade Placido Polanco due to his salary. Come on! Not only is he one of the better players on my team, his salary isn’t even big enough to necessitate that move. Things like that and stat-based goals instantly turned me off to this mode and it will not see any of my time after this review is over.
Where 2K Sports continues to shine (eventually) with most of its releases is in the area of online gaming. MLB 2K7 boasts single-game, online league and tournament options to satisfy almost any taste. Setup is quick and easy and the games that I’ve experienced have been clean, crisp and almost 100% lag-free. Lag is the absolute death-blow to timing-based games like baseball, and I’ve had nothing but great experiences so far. 2K Sports are so far ahead of the competition in this arena, it’s almost as if they are playing two different sports.
In the end, the strangest thing has happened. The really outstanding visuals and presentation in MLB 2K7 are really the things that hurt the game the most. Between the maddening fielding camera angle and some of the awkward presentation, the one thing that you took as a gimme win from the screenshots alone actually end up damaging the overall experience. Not to say that that is the only area of concern – the lack of depth in Franchise mode and the exclusion of both Spring Training and a real functioning Minor League system will rub most baseball purists and hardcore franchise players the wrong way. What’s the point of the exclusive license if you’re going to leave out some of the most exclusive parts of baseball – the varied feeder system and the rituals of spring.
But, alas, while Operation Sports is, and will continue to be, a gameplay-first establishment, I have to factor in the parts of the game that feel less that complete. The lack of camera angles that cause an unrealistic fielding difficulty, a flaw in the Swing Stick concept, and what feels like a 65-75% complete Franchise Mode hurt the overall experience. I do enjoy playing MLB 2K7, and it does feel like baseball. To say it’s an improvement over last year’s 360 release may be the understatement of the century. However, with all that has improved, there is a lot of room to do more.