Today, the Bats and Bytes series is taking a break from its historical roots to review what may go down as the most disappointing baseball video game in recent memory, 2K Sports’ MLB 2K8.
Notice I didn’t say “bad”, because it isn’t. Well, not completely. The latest installment of this series is simply a decent, generic baseball sim that should satiate less discerning fans, despite some glaring flaws. However, to those who have stayed true to the MLB 2K franchise over the years, this slab of silicon reeks of developer laziness, and will do little to reward your loyalty.
Thanks to the EA Sports conglomerate, the industry trend for sports video games is third party license exclusivity. In short, it means that the company who owns the license is the only outside vendor allowed to make a game for a specific console (in-house companies such as Sony and Microsoft are allowed to produce for their own machines.) This madness began with the NFL (Madden), and quickly worked its way through other licenses, such as the NCAA, NHL and even the rights to the FIFA soccer brand. Though EA snagged most of these, 2K Sports managed to secure the MLB license for four years, which appealed to fans tired of hearing “it’s in the game…” every time they fired up their consoles.
Last year, they got it right. MLB 2K7 was a winner, especially if you owned the XBOX 360 version. Unlike it’s predecessor, 2K7 was a balanced mix of graphics, presentation, ease of use and realism. The seemingly endless customization options allowed your game to be as arcade- or sim-like as possible, though the default settings were pretty close to the real thing, anyway. It wasn’t perfect, or even as good as Sony’s The Show series, but it was the best (well, only) option for sim-hungry gamers.
This year, it seems like 2K was too busy patting themselves on the back to make a strong follow up.
When you boot up the game, not much has changed, other than seeing Jose Reyes’ goofy mug everywhere. The stadium fly-by intros are still present (though strangely less attractive than last year) and the Coma Twins, Morgan and Miller are still there to occasionally make an accurate call.
One of the biggest criticisms of 2K7 was the lack of animation while batting. It seemed as if only three frames of movement were actually used, making the process of hitting more of a guessing game than good strategy. This year, the developers definitely fixed this, as the hitting portion of the experience is far and away the best thing this disc is offering. Using the “swing stick” method makes things more difficult, but there is a certain amount of reward in slapping your first single after whiffing for the first three innings. Though most players will revert back to classic controls, the swing stick has made enough strides to be considered a plus.
Unfortunately, this is where the good vibes end. All of the extra batting animations were apparently stolen from the fielders, because once the ball is put in play, even the most routine grounder becomes an origami slideshow. By the time you’ve gotten a hold of your player - a full second after contact is made - it is usually too late to make any kind of reactive play, much less an accurate throw. And, as if the developers were aware of this problem and laughing at you, AI-controlled batters will bunt mercilessly while you flail about the infield trying to end an inning with some dignity.
The same one second delay applies to outfielders, which means you’ll be spending a lot of time chasing balls in the gaps, rather than shagging flies. While these types of lags were normal for a first or second generation PS2 game, it’s simply inexcusable on next generation hardware.
Oh, you want to know about pitching? Actually, you don’t. But before I get into this gameplay feature/abortion, I need to ask you all a question: Why do companies insist on adding new buttons to these controllers if all they want us to do is use the joysticks? If I play MLB 2K8 as the developers intended, I would only use those bright little buttons to get through the menus and pause the game. The rest of the time, I would be forced to jack those weak sticks for nine innings, hoping that, in the heat of the moment, I angled my thumbs correctly. In short, it doesn’t work.And neither does the pitching. This year’s “groundbreaking innovation” is the implementation of an all-analog pitching system that requires the player to move the right stick in a series of motions to emulate a pitch. For example, throwing a slider requires you to locate your pitch with the left stick, while performing a complicated “down and around” motion with the right. Dizzy yet?
If the timing or motion of either thumb is even slightly off, the end result is either a wild pitch or a fat one right down Broadway. And after you give up with third consecutive home run to Melky Cabrera, you’ll quickly ixnay these carpal gymnastics and revert back to the tried and true button presses of days gone by. Thankfully, they were smart enough to allow players to do this, otherwise EB Games would have to build new shelves to hold all the used copies of MLB 2K8.
A quick note to developers: Don’t implement new game mechanics until they can bring something fresh to a game. While we understand that these complex motions were intended to replicate the intensity of pitching, nine innings of Street Fighter thumb yanking doesn’t exactly “bring me there.” More importantly, when a new innovation isn’t properly used, it makes the game seem more like work. And frankly, after spending 60 bones on a piece of shiny plastic, that’s not what we want. Back to the drawing board, fellas.
Visually, the game actually seems a little less impressive than last year. Stadiums and uniforms are spot on, though not as sharp as 2K7. New wind-blown uniform animations are impressive at first, but quickly become ridiculous when a player’s jersey is whipping around violently while the center field flags don’t move at all.
The graphics also take a hit on the PS3 version, which is full of jaggy lines, choppier animations and less detailed stadiums. If you have the luxury of having to choose, and graphics are important, the 360 version is the clear winner here.
Also, though it may just be me, the player faces are either spot-on, or generic drones. There is no middle ground, and after remembering that David Wright isn’t a muscular Hispanic man, you’ll realize the developers cut more than a few corners. And, in what alternate universe is Big Papi tall and lean? I’ll tell you where - this g-damn game. Yes, it does take away from the experience.
So does the crowd. Not only do these flat punks look like they were ripped right from a Genesis title, but they also seem to cheer at every inappropriate time. Game tying home run for the home team? Polite applause. Sacrifice bunt? Riotous, deafening, rock concert cheering.
(Don’t even ask how much they appreciate the ball boy, because I don’t think you’re ready to handle it.)
Now, where does this leave us? Other than the improved batting animations, the graphics, controls and ease of play all fall well below last year’s version. Likewise, there haven’t been any notable improvements in sound, gameplay or franchise/season modes. In fact, aside from the atrocious new pitching mechanics and updated rosters, I don’t think anyone is going to find a single improvement in MLB 2K8 over what was offered a year ago.
Is it fun? Sure, it’s a baseball video game. And if you don’t own 2K7, or simply have to possess the latest versions of everything, go ape. You’ll probably love it and call me a jackass for blaspheming your new best friend. However, for people who remained loyal to the series, and waited with bated breath for this version to blow off their hoodies, this disc ultimately just brings disappointment. Rather than making the best of its only professional sports license, 2K Sports has seemingly gone through the motions this year, tacking on a few bells and whistles for good measure, and actually breaking gameplay mechanics that didn’t need tweaking in the first place.
Bottom line: If you want it, get the 360 version, as it’s easier on the eyes, and slightly more playable. Everyone else, stick with 2K7 and spend a rainy Sunday updating the rosters.
The Bats and Bytes history lesson returns soon. Until then, thanks for reading.