A wild pitch.
Last year, baseball gamers were in the enviable position of having too many good options. Did they want to swing at EA’s fastball? Take a crack at 2K’s breaking ball? Or be patient and rock Sony’s skillful change-up? As long as they swung at something, they were guaranteed a hit, like Barry Bonds, but without the shrunken nuts or federal inquiry.
With EA kicked down to the college game by a licensing deal between 2K Games and the MLB, this year’s choices have narrowed to two. One is Sony’s boring but solid MLB ’06: The Show, and the other is the interesting but flawed Major League Baseball 2K6. The latter distinguishes itself from other titles by bringing the interaction between pitchers and catchers to the forefront and placing a premium on good scouting, but features the roughest fielding we’ve seen in years. It’s a good game, but its flaws just make us yearn for a better one.
[image1]It’s also a very big game, featuring just as much content as its Sony rival. You can guide your favorite team through multiple seasons as a coach or general manager in Franchise and GM Career modes, respectively, compete in a Homerun Derby, manage a game in Manager Showdown, play through the World Baseball Classic, or set up a custom tournament.
Both the GM Career and Franchise modes are nice and deep, with goals to meet and player morale levels to maintain. The World Baseball Classic is also a great and unexpected addition, complete with all the international players, but none of the international stadiums. In any of these modes you can either play the games, manage your way through, or sim to the end, although you cannot fast forward through specific segments as you can in MLB ’06.
Then again, Major League Baseball 2K6 has some of the best A.I. options we’ve ever seen. You can choose between several levels of difficulty, create a custom difficulty, or set the game to Dynamic difficulty í¢â‚¬“ the game will get easier or harder depending on your performance. You can also set your opponents’ skills to increase when they’re winning and decrease during a slump.
The most interesting new option, though, revolves around a different kind of intelligence í¢â‚¬“ scouting reports. In every game mode, you have the option to purchase Inside Edge scouting reports for every single player on the opposing team. If you’re playing an exhibition game, you’re granted a small number of points to spend on reports, usually buying you intel on three or four players. As a general manager, you can use your budget to buy reports, although that means less money to spend on players and staff.
The reports themselves are remarkably deep, providing detailed analyses of pitchers’ favorite locations and pitches as well as batters’ strengths and weaknesses. This new feature seems to have sprung from last year’s returning V.I.P. option, which stores your tendencies and uses them to create an artificial “Youí¢â‚¬? your friends can practice against. Major League Baseball 2K6 takes its stat tracking to a whole new level by tracking patterns, and then making them available to you during an actual game.
[image2]For example, if you’re at the mound and you bought a scouting report on the batter at the plate, your catcher will recommend a pitch-type and location based on the batter’s weaknesses as chronicled in Inside Edge. If you nail a pitch your catcher calls for, you gain a stat boost, and if you miss your stats decrease. The problem is that you can’t turn Inside Edge off once you’ve bought it, and your catcher occasionally makes some crazy calls. If you ignore him, you’ll take a permanent loss on whatever pitch you throw, but if you listen, you might waste a ball.
We like the fact that Major League Baseball 2K6 introduces the dialogue between pitchers and batters, but it’s a little silly that your catcher only gives you his insights on hitters you’ve paid a ton of money to scout. Instead of basing this entirely on scouting reports, the catcher and pitcher dialogue should be a constant developed over several seasons of working together. Oh well, there’s always 2K7.
Plain old pitching is based on the three-tap system pioneered in the MVP games, may they rest in peace. You tap and hold for power, then tap again for accuracy. Instead of filling a meter above the pitcher, though, a circle emanates from the pitch-location cursor for power, and then contracts for accuracy. This takes a while to figure out, as the game never actually explains how any of this works.
At bat you can guess pitch types and locations. If you’re right, you’ll lock onto the ball, but knocking it out isn’t just a matter of pressing í¢â‚¬ËœX’ anymore. The R-stick swings the bat in this game, making timing a much greater factor than ever before. To swing properly, you need to fluidly pull back to charge your swing and then either release for contact or push forward for power. This takes a lot of timing, and as a result, off-speed pitches and fastballs throw batters out of their rhythm more than ever before.
That is, unless they see them coming, and with the new Inside Edge intel, they might. If you scout a pitcher, the game will display the three zones he’s most likely to target on any given pitch, as well as the most likely pitch type. It’s a solid system that makes a lot more sense than simple hot and cold zones.
If only baserunning made as much sense. You can still elect to enter Baseburner mode and control the runner, but your options here are just as wooden and unwieldy as they were last year. Instead of analog controls, you adjust your lead with the L-stick, advance or return with the shoulder buttons, and slide with the R-stick. It sounds simple, until your runner randomly decides to go for extra bases. On one bunt play, my runner ignored a request to slide into third and rounded for home instead. Fortunately, the computer was so shocked by his bravado it just stood there, holding onto the ball while my rebel runner scored a bizarre run.
[image3] This game is full of such lapses, and most of them take place on bunt plays. Then again, I once I hit into an inning-ending double play but my guy at third crossed the plate before the third out, so the game counted the run. How generous.
The computer isn’t the only one who makes fielding errors, though. Thanks to sluggish, unresponsive controls, Major League Baseball 2K6 features some of the worst defense yet seen in a baseball game, and I’ve played every single one in the last seven years. The biggest problem here is that the game’s control scheme doesn’t allow for minor adjustments. If your first baseman catches a grounder right next to the bag, you’ll have a hell of a time stepping on it for the out. You’ll step around it, leap over it, and juke yourself stationary as the game struggles with one of the easiest ideas in baseball. Aside from throwing to bases, there is no aspect of defense that isn’t marred by chunky, sluggish controls, and your players’ unbelievable inertia. This is not a fun game when the ball is in play.
It is pretty fun online, though. Featuring the tournaments, leagues and instant access that made last year’s game such an online MVP, Major League Baseball 2K6 is still the king of great online baseball.
It just doesn’t look very regal. Many players look nothing like themselves, the textures are flat, the colors drab, players skip animations during plays and then become stiff as statues afterward, and to top it all off, things go completely crazy after outs. Once, after a strikeout, Barry Zito sort of crouched in slow motion, and gradually spread his arms like some demented condor. It was the weirdest looking thing I’ve ever seen in a baseball game.
The sounds are about as clean as the visuals. Sometimes, all audio cuts out completely; other times, the supremely annoying organ plays an endless loop. Occasionally, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan will call plays well after they’ve ended. The rest of the time they’re spot on, but still, this is a far from polished package.
At its core, though, this game contains some very interesting ideas and a great hitting mechanic. It takes risks, which we love, and builds off the risks of yesteryear, which is even better. However, little in this game is streamlined or intuitive, the fielding is awful, and some of the lapses are unforgivably sloppy. As it stands, this game is earns its base on pure balls.