MLB Bobblehead Pros Review (Xbox 360)
Batting is cursor-based, with your batter's contact rating determining the size of the hitting cursor. Pressing the right bumper shrinks the cursor to a small circle during "big swings," making it more difficult to make contact, though with the reward of increased hitting power.
The gameplay balance of "big swings" seems a bit off because there's little reason to use the normal swings when you can just "big swing" every time and wait for an easily tracked fastball or slider. Human opponents have the smarts to keep throwing lots of wild breaking pitches, but the reward for connecting with a "big swing" is greater than the risk you take by minimizing the hitting cursor, so most players will end up choosing the power swing every time.
Initially, some players will be "big swinging" their way to too many home runs thanks to the generous batting assist that is switched on with the default difficulty settings. However, after I turned the global pitch speed to "fast," set the human batting assist to "low," hid the CPU pitch cursor, and bumped the CPU's hitting and pitching skills to "pro" difficulty, MLB Bobblehead Pros felt like a surprisingly realistic and challenging game of baseball.
For as many options as MLB Bobblehead Pros offers to tweak the game's difficulty, it's disappointing to find no way around the poorly designed fielding mechanics.
At first glance, fielding looks simple. You only have to use the left stick to move and climb walls, the B button to dive, and the Y button to jump. But since throws to first base and second base are mapped to the same buttons as dive and jump, your player often performs one action when you want him to do the other, which may cost your team crucial runs.
Player movement is limited to analog control, and there are times when it feels like you can be right on top of the ball, yet your player will not pick the ball up, giving the other team extra bases as the ball passes by. The game also uses an auto-switch mechanic to determine which fielder you control during a play. The auto-switch can create frustrating moments where the game picks the player furthest away from an approaching fly ball, or stupidly switches you to another player while you're chasing down what should have been a routine grounder.
As is, there most likely will not be a single game where you do not surrender at least one runs due to the faulty control scheme, the unreliable analog fielding or illogical auto-switch decisions.
Each pitcher has a fastball and a selection of breaking pitches to choose from on the mound. Pitchers are given a star rating for each pitch in their arsenal, ranging from one to seven. Zack Greinke, for instance, has a five-star circle changeup, three-star slider, but only a two-star curveball. Early in the game, your pitcher's velocity will be firing, and his breaking balls will be moving all over the plate. As your pitch count increases, you'll gradually lose velocity and notice that balls don't break as sharply.
Facing computer batters on the higher difficulty levels feels cheap because the AI rarely swings at pitches outside of the strike zone, and it has the ability to trace breaking pitches all the way across the plate with inhuman reaction speed. The AI also has a tendency to hit your pitching all over the field in the early innings. If you give up a lot of hits in a row, your pitcher starts seeing stars around his head, and his pitches begin to unpredictably veer off-target. If you record a few outs, the stars will go away and your pitcher settles down.
The "turning points" feature introduces a new strategic element to the Power Pros series, as brief cut scenes occur when the score is close and runners are in scoring position. The team that wins these pitcher/batter duels gets a ratings boost for an inning. Capturing momentum during "turning points" can often be the catalyst towards a comeback victory, and in season mode, winning a "turning point" can help break players out of cold slumps.
Each team's ballpark is beautifully captured, including details like signs, banners and flagpoles. Background advertisements are preserved in humorous fashion, with one stadium featuring a billboard for the fictitious matchmaking website, Bobblematch.com.
Most gamers will want to select the behind-the-batter camera just to hide some of the game's graphical unevenness. The broadcast camera might look sharp, but it reveals how stilted the batter/umpire animations can be when compared to the fluid and versatile fielding animations. Infielders scoop and flip ground balls to turn double plays at second base. Outfielders make impressive pirouettes to relay long throws off the wall to waiting cutoff men. Yet the umpire can't even transition from his crouching position to the strike pose without looking like a cardboard cutout.
The game's trademark bobble animations add humor during post-play cut scenes, but if you're so inclined, there is an option to turn the bobble physics off. And yes, someone forgot to tell the players their springs are showing.
Weather is sadly just for show in this game. A downpour can break out in the middle of an at-bat, and instead of busting out the tarp and going into a rain delay, you continue playing on through torrential floodwater.
Presentation oversights pile up as you start to keep score. Player names do not appear on the back of their jerseys, and the PA announcer addresses players only by their number, not by their name.
Hitter-specific hot/cold zones are incorrectly color-coded in the game. Instead of showing red for hot and blue for cold, both areas appear blue at the plate, forcing you to pause the game and scroll through two or three menus just to access a crucial part of the game's hitting strategy. And, after you memorize your hot spots and mash a home run, the game won't even tell you something as simple as how many feet the home run traveled.
"Quick game" matchmaking takes long enough that you can coat your Xbox 360 controller in pine tar, down three hot dogs, and make it through the Star Spangled Banner and O Canada before the system finally pairs you up with an opponent.
If you're patient enough not to cancel the "quick game" search, the experience often ends abruptly, either from the 10-run online mercy rule or from your opponent quitting the game as soon as you take an early lead.
Quitters aren't punished with a loss, and you aren't rewarded with a win if the other player ends the game prematurely, so all you're left with is a couple meaningless innings of lag-filled online baseball and time wasted watching Johan Santana bob his head back and forth in the matchmaking menus.
Private matches are the lone option for having fun online. Thankfully, there are private lobbies as well as the ability to extend direct invitations to anyone on your friends list.
All your players' statuses are randomized before each game, making for some interesting lineup situations where you'll want to sub out starters whose condition icons show that they're having an off-day. You can still start any players who are physically in bad condition, but their performance on the field will suffer.
Lag is a major issue in all online modes. A test game between two OS staff members featured 31 strikeouts, 19 for the Brewers' Zack Greinke and 12 for the Cubs' Matt Garza, with most strikeouts being the result of a laggy hitting environment.
Offline, a fastball is the easiest pitch to track and hit. But fastballs arrive so quickly online that the player has little time to move his cursor to the edge of the plate and swing on time. Pitchers can easily dominate online by abusing the latency and throwing a ton of fastballs, mixing in the occasional changeup and curveball to keep the opposing hitter guessing.
Managerial duties are completely absent from Season mode. There is no draft, no trades, no free agency and no minor league system. Clubs are stuck with their original roster, though players' ratings will level up or down depending on their performance throughout the season. Player improvement is extremely slow, and it takes several months of all-star-level play before key stats like power and contact hitting gain a letter grade, so don't expect to "hulk out" your roster too quickly or ruin the game difficulty.
During the season, players can become injured while sliding on the basepaths, diving in the field, getting hit by pitches or colliding into walls. Pitchers also can be injured if they continue throwing while heavily fatigued. Injuries could have brought an interesting risk/reward system to going "all out" to try and win a game, until you realize that all injuries in the game reset after each game. In other words, you can leave your prized pitcher in the game until his arm falls out of his socket or run your fielders headfirst into walls, and they'll all be back the next game.
There just isn't much to Season mode aside from playing games, racking up player attributes, stats and awards, then doing it all over again. Even the offseason schedule is sparse, offering little more than a few spring training games before you're back into the grind of another 162-game schedule -- there doesn't appear to be any way to customize inning length or even the number of scheduled games per season.
There's a lot of nitpicking and negativity in this review, primarily because you can't quantify the one thing MLB Bobblehead Pros excels at: creating a fun experience. You can make a long list of everything MLB Bobblehead Pros does wrong, but when you put down the pen and paper and pick up the controller to just play, it's hard not to have fun.
Whether you're smashing a walk-off home run to win the game or striking out the side to silence the road crowd, there's an innate satisfaction to every action in MLB Bobblehead Pros. Except the fielding, which will just have you launching into expletives like Earl Weaver. !@#$%^& the *&^% &@*#%$^ fielding!
Visuals: Stadiums sport fine detail and the fielding animations sparkle, but the broadcast camera brings attention to some clunky animations at the plate.
Audio: The cheesy guitar rock and lounge music begs to be muted. With no in-game commentary, too much dead air fills the stadiums.
Control Scheme: Having dive and jump on the same buttons as throws to first and second base leads to all sorts of fielding errors. MLB Bobblehead Pros offers so much customization in terms of difficulty and presentation, yet for some reason there is no custom control scheme.
Learning Curve: Batting and pitching are initially too easy, but tweaking the difficulty results in a realistic, challenging baseball game.
Lasting Appeal: Season mode lacks the depth to keep gamers interested for more than a year or two, making multiplayer with friends the game's primary source of longevity.
Score: 7.5 (Good)