It’s that time of year again, when sitting side-by-side some drunken lunatic is nothing but a pleasure while both of you ridiculously cheer on your losing team through another year of disappointment and false hope. You know the feeling we’re talking about, when you watch your team make it all the way to the ALCS/NLCS, only to get swept by the opposition and miss out on the big game completely. That’s probably the best way we can describe Major League Baseball 2K8, developed by 2K Sports Los Angeles, formerly known as Kush Games.
MLB 2K8 does an ample supply of things right, but the things they do wrong are almost at every turn, counteracting the good. After last year’s problem riddled installment, 2K Sports was looking to set the bar high for this year’s release and they didn’t fall very short of that, but they didn’t quite reach it either.
With MLB 2K7 resulting in a laundry list of issues that gamers had no problem letting be known on forums, 2K Sports has revamped the entire playing experience from the ground up. They’ve gone ahead and implemented not only their new Swing Stick 2.0 and ‘Precision Throw Control,’ but also a highly intuitive and innovative ‘Total Pitch Control’ system as well. Last year there was a huge concern regarding how easy it was to hit homeruns and this would always result in unrealistic scores and play in general. For a simulation sports title, that was a huge let down, but for the arcade gamer at heart, they enjoyed it fully.
The new Swing Stick 2.0 (don’t worry, you’ll still have the option to switch back to the two-button system if you so choose) has finally brought a bit of realism to the hitting side of the title. No longer will your games be filled with singles and homeruns throughout the game, but you’ll be greeted by a plethora of hit ranges. We noticed the variation between singles, doubles, triples, and homeruns were very evenly distributed. They felt right and they were happening with players who you’d expect to see them occur with more often. On top of this, you’ll also play witness to a lot of variety in your hits as well.
When Ben Brinkman discussed these new hitting elements in his conference call prior to release, we were skeptical about how they’d all come together in the title, but they came through just fine with only a minor hitch. Though you will see enough slow rollers, choppers, and chip shots that sail just over the infielder’s head; you’ll also notice that the way you come about performing each style is very tedious and unrealistic. What we’ve come to realize is that in order to lay the ball down on the ground, you’ll literally have to swing early or late by mistiming your swing. If you happen to swing through fully, which happens the majority of the time, you’ll notice an abundance of pop-fly balls that result in base hits, but also a ton of fly outs. The balance between the two needs a bit more work as there seems to be not enough ground balls put in play. For those of you wondering if the homerun problem has been addressed and fixed, then yes, homeruns are now more of a commodity than an expected occurrence.
The other new implementation is the Precision Throw Control. 2K Sports has completely walked away from utilizing face buttons to designate which base you’ll be throwing to. Now, all you have to do is direct the analog towards the base in question, right for first, and you’ll see a little meter come up that has a green zone in the middle with red zones on each side. If you allow the meter to land within the first red zone, your throw will take a higher arc and have the chance to be overthrown. If your meter lands in the last red zone, your throw will skip to the base, making you hope the baseman has good scooping ability, and finally, if you land right in the green zone, your throw will be spot on, as it should be.
Surprisingly, this works very well. It gives a lot more meaning and realism than the button mapping usually offers. The only minor hitch to this feature is the throwing meter seems to take a split-second before popping up. This could result in a tight play at first going to the runner because your throw lost that little bit of time. It also makes double-plays that much harder since the throwing meter usually has to pop up twice to complete.
Our favorite addition out of the main three was the Total Pitch Control. This ingenious mechanic has made pitching a lot more realistic and by far and away the best it has been offered in any baseball game to date. Every pitcher in the game will come with his set-list of pitches and the way each is thrown. However, they will all be thrown using the right analog stick only (option to change back to original is there, but believe us, you probably won’t want to).
You’ll push your analog stick in the direction indicated to begin your wind-up once that is done, you’ll rotate the stick or push it in the next expected direction to reflect the forward motion of the pitcher, and finally, you’ll let the analog stick return to the middle to indicate where the ball should be released. If you’ve done it even close to right, your pitch should hit the desired spot. Unfortunately, if you mistimed and executed it with a bit of error, you may want to brace yourself for getting tagged. An improperly timed pitch will result in a “meatball” being thrown to the batter. This will result in a huge hit and potentially a homerun.
Depending on the difficulty setting, you’ll see a wide variety of them. If you’re playing on a much harder difficulty, expect to see these meatballs get slaughtered for homer after homer. That happens to be the only issue with this new design. The computer makes you pay for too much at higher difficulties. We feel there should be a bit more variety around the hits that occur from your mistakes. Outside of that though, this new mechanic is absolutely fantastic and we hope to see other baseball games implement it as well.
One of the other issues that plagued last year’s title was the baserunning. Though this wasn’t a huge change to this year’s version, 2K Sports did take care of the problems surrounding it. One of the key factors was the ability to score the guy from second on a base hit. Last year this proved a lot more difficult than it should have been fortunately this problem has been resolved completely. Another error in MLB 2K7 took place online where a squeeze play between third base and home had a major glitch to it. This problem has also been rectified.
The baserunning has also been mapped to the four main face buttons, each representing the base they should. You’ll also still be able to use the triggers as well. In order to advance individual baserunners, you’ll be able to select them with the left analog stick and advance them separately. As we stated at the beginning though, good and bad come hand in hand in this title. Though this may be minor and only an issue for the impatient players, it is still worth mentioning. We cannot express how often we hit a single or a double, then pressed the X button to get to our next at bat, only to watch our guy on base take off for home. Due to the button mapping being arranged like this, it makes the impatient gamer pay. Kind of like Pavlov’s dog all over again, don’t you think?
Fielding has been completely redone as well. One of the coolest things we noticed and it took us a moment to realize it was happening, was that when a pop fly is hit to the outfield, you’ll be able to see where it is landing however if you have to turn your back to the ball in the air to run to that designated area, the target disappears. It makes sense, since you still can’t see the trajectory of the ball with your back turned. This small but added effect definitely brings out the realistic side of things.
Something we did notice that may become an issue is the collision detection plus the AI of outfielders. It seemed far too often during a fly ball that the two outfielders would haphazardly run into one another to make the catch. This happened with guys like Juan Pierre and Carlos Lee, two guys who are above average OFs and who would definitely know better. We have even witnessed this causing inside the park homeruns on more than one occasion. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t result in both fielders getting planted to the ground from it, but it does. Maybe we’re missing it, but a “call for” button would have definitely been a nice addition to combat this flaw.
While on the topic of collision detection, we’d also like to point out that sometimes players do run through one another; though a relatively small issue, it really shouldn’t be happening in this generation of gaming. Other small technical error the game seems to put out involves the fluid motion of the game. Though there is fluidity between the buttons and what happens on the field, the camera takes away from this greatly. When throwing to bases, or going to make a play on the ball, you may see the camera jerk or the gameplay drop in framerate causing this to happen. Baseball should always be a fluid experience and this takes away from the overall spectator experience. It doesn’t so much detract from the gameplay itself, but it certainly doesn’t help the presentation of it. We’ll also let you know that this framerate issue seems to kind of melt into the game and your mind by the fourth or fifth outing to the point where you don’t notice it.
One of the things that 2K Sports is known for is the features and modes their products usually bring to the user. MLB 2K8 is no exception to this trend and does so beautifully. Franchise Mode has everything in it that a user could dream for. It features 90 minor league teams that come with 3 generic stadiums but also 20 authentic stadiums as well. On top of this, there are a handful of named minor league players. You’ll still be able to call-up players, scout opposing teams and upcoming free agents, as well as play your minor league games. The Franchise Mode is nothing new to the studio, so it’s no surprise that they have it so perfected.
You’ll also be given the opportunity to run Manager Only games, as well as the Home Run Derby, though unfortunately, 2K doesn’t really offer anything innovative to the user here that hasn’t already been done. Unlike its counterpart, MLB 08: The Show, MLB 2K8 seems to be playing it safe by only offering standard modes of play.
Something that will capture the attention of the casual gamer is the Trading Card feature. This feature allows you to unlock packs of cards or players individually by completing certain player-specific goals. You’ll then be able to assemble a team based on these cards that you can bring online or keep offline and utilize in real games. On top of this, you’ll be given the opportunity to name the team, pick a logo and stadium to play in, but that’s about it. We were very disappointed that there wasn’t a bit more customization made available for that option. You’ll also be able to trade cards online or sell them back to the game for credits in order to buy new packs.
If you’re planning to bring the game online, you’ll experience the exact same thing you did last year. Not much has changed online outside of the addition of a “Strikes Only” lobby, which will allow users to play in games that only allow strikes to be throwing.
The player models seem to have taken a step back. Most players look nothing like their real-life counterpart and are almost disappointing. On top of this, the opening presentation to each game just doesn’t feel “authentic” or realistic. One of the things that contribute to this the most is the cloth animation. It seems to stay only in the midsection of the players. It never seems to venture outside of that one area. It kind of gives it an awkward look that isn’t very pleasing and, though the swing animations are very realistic to their real life counterparts, the rest is lacking and could use an upgrade or at least the consideration of improvement.
The announcers remain Joe Morgan and Jon Miller. Though, much like last year, a lot of their calls are inaccurate and leave you chuckling sometimes and disappointed in others. It’s especially disappointing when they make it sound like you’ve gotten a base hit, only to watch the fielder scoop it up and throw you out at first. Fortunately, when they are getting the call correct, it does sound like you’re watching it on television. One of the cool things they discuss is baseball questions via email. It lets you learn a bit about the game of baseball as you play. This was a nice added touch to the commentating of MLB 2K8.
The soundtrack is filled with indie rock groups that are decent enough, but nothing special. You’ll probably not be crying for a custom soundtrack, but you won’t leave the game sitting to listen to the menu music either.
Overall, Major League Baseball 2K8 is a huge improvement over its predecessor from last year. With an amazing new pitching mechanic and a nice gimmick trading card feature, gamers will undoubtedly find something to love here. However, much like there being an opposite reaction for every action, the game has a number of niggles that will frustrate you all the same. With the PlayStation 3 playing host to MLB 08: The Show, you may want to look there first.