Major League Baseball 2k8 Review

David Creech

2K Sports’ Major League Baseball 2K8 is the second year of a three year project to completely revamp this franchise. The focus this year was to rewrite pitching, batting, and fielding from the ground up, and to utilize the next gen graphics capabilities to clean up the glitches from last year while providing a realistic baseball simulation. The same team was responsible for MLB 2K7 and is already at work on MLB 2K9, which lends some continuity to the games that is lacking when sequels are split between developers – compare COD3 with COD4 for an example of this. Without a doubt the pitching, batting, and fielding are all vastly improved from last year. The pitching in particular is stellar (see below for more detail) and even throwing the ball between players is very nicely handled. The graphics still have some challenges, but do show some improvements.

New this year is a trading card system that absolutely rocks. You earn trading cards for completing various in-game challenges – such as stealing 3 bases with Ichiro in one game – with more opportunities to earn them on harder difficulties. There are currently over 400 trading cards available, and the options you have to use them are plentiful. You can trade with other gamers, create teams, play online or offline with teams, use wild cards, and much more. This feature adds significant replay value to the game, and a level of frustration as well since you don’t earn the trading cards unless the game offers you the opportunity to do so. For instance, you might see that you can earn a trading card for getting a single, double, and triple in one game with a certain player, specifically work to do so, but if the game doesn’t offer that as a challenge in the game you may end up without the card. This is especially noticeable on the easier difficulties, much less so when playing on Legendary and utilizing the realistic pitching and throwing options.

Infield hits can get on base if the throw is off.

There is a full minor league system also new this year, with 90 playable teams and 18 minor league stadiums authentically recreated. As should be expected, playing with Single-A players is much harder than MLB or even Triple-A players because of rampant errors, poor hitting, etc. Taking one of those teams through the playoffs in Franchise mode is going to give people some gray hairs, but is a challenge that veteran players should enjoy.

Total Pitch Control is a complete re-write of the pitching system from the ground up. Rather than just timing when you press a button, you are required to move the right stick in a two step sequence, timing the second move and release back to center to determine how well you perform the throw. 2K did a great job with this feature, making it very intuitive and natural. The screen displays all pitches available to the pitcher with the required movements, and as you pitch the target above the plate provides input on how accurate and hard you throw the ball. A diagram that analyzes your previous pitch rests above your available pitches, which helps fine tune your pitching without having to spend time in the tutorial.

The batting has also been re-written from the ground up, but this is not as apparent to the gamer holding the controller. Instead, the trajectories and sounds associated with hitting the balls are much more varied, and especially on Legendary the game is a bit less forgiving than last year. Expect to hit a lot more foul balls and have less control over which part of the field you hit to, as the physics of the baseball’s path have been given a great deal more realism.

The pitching is easily the best part of the game.

Fielding was a huge problem last year, with the game deciding when your players should dive, wall climbs of truly heroic heights, etc. This year the developers spent a lot of time making the fielding much more realistic, wall climbs are almost non-existent, and chasing down the ball is harder. The best part of this is the changes to throwing the ball once your player catches it. Instead of just pushing a button to indicate which base you want to throw it to, you have to use your thumbstick to indicate which base, and hit a moving target on a small diagram that pops up. This is somewhat similar to the active reloading feature in Gears of War, in that if you hit the target dead on, you throw an ace…but if you miss badly, you can throw the ball too high or too low, off to the side, etc. This took longer to get used to than the pitching, but is a very cool feature that makes this part of the game quite realistic in feel.

As long as we are on fielding, let’s talk about the not so good. Ground ball between SS and 3B, both run over to get it. The ball rolls right through them, and neither one can grab it for some reason, neither the player-controlled SS nor the game-controlled 3B. This happened both times I had two players very close to each other going for a ground ball, once infield and once out near the fence. They seem to get in each other’s way and cause a conflict that prevents either from touching the ball. This is possibly an improvement from MLB 2K7 where the outfielders would smash into the player-controlled avatar right before the catch, but not by much. Some of the animations are incomplete, also. One example of this seemed pretty common: after an out at first my infielder threw to 2nd, that player threw to RF, but the ball never left his hand and you could see that he was still holding it despite having gone through the animation of turning and throwing the ball to RF. This happened multiple times per game. Another odd one is when the SS is run over at second base, 2B comes running up to assist, but every time slammed the SS back to the ground as he was getting up. I can see once or twice in a season, but not every time that situation comes up.

The loading is slightly faster between pitches, but there are still lots of scratch and spit moments that add to the length of each game, some of which cannot be interrupted, or at least not until several seconds go by. On the plus side, you can turn off some of the animations (such as replays) in the menus, which helps the loading times. Speaking of loading times, the producer spent a lot of time talking about how the frame rate issues that plagued the game last year are largely gone (see this interview with Ben Brinkman) but he was not entirely accurate in this statement. Even a lot of the loading screens lag, with nothing else showing but the 2K logo. In the game, lag is quite noticeable, and online it is just as bad if not worse. There are a few places where I never experienced issues with the frame rate: pitching, pre-swing, and the stadium loading screens. Last year the crowd walking around would sometimes lag mid-step for a moment, and that hasn’t happened this year.

Lots of stadiums with lots of in-game advertising.

There are some other anomalies that detract from the overall realism 2K was aiming for: 76° F in the stadium, but you can see the pitcher’s breath; the dust on the ground is blowing one way, the uniforms on the player above the dust is blowing another way; diving in the outfield (i.e. grass) stains the uniforms brown (i.e. dirt). There are some other annoyances as well, such as when Ichiro singles off the first pitch in the game, why would the coach walk out to the mound and start another pitcher warming up? Really? After one pitch? That doesn’t strike me as realistic. In one game at an open stadium, the trajectory of the ball changed 45° mid-flight, which I could understand if there was a roof for it to hit or something…but there wasn’t. Speaking of which, the target in the outfield for flyballs also tends to disappear mid-play quite often, so don’t grow reliant on it.

The achievements in the game are split between trading cards (110 points), franchise mode (135 points), online play (300 points) and in-game activity (455 points). Note that while most of the franchise and in-game achievements state pro-difficulty or higher, they also require (unstated, but verified) that advanced controls be turned on. Some of the achievements are related to each other, which is rather cool. For instance, The Train’s Comin’ Through and De-Railed are opposite sides of stealing home base, while You’re Not So Tough is awarded for beating someone online who has earned the A Day To Remember achievement (pitch a 9-inning no-hitter). Decent variety, but with 30% of the achievements dedicated to online play, this is not the best choice for gamers without Live or who merely don’t like to play with strangers.

The online play has not changed much from last year. You can set up some more choices, such as ensuring that your opponent uses the same pitching scheme you use, and you can play a Card Battle where you have to take a team made up from earned trading cards and face off against an opponent doing the same thing. There are still leagues you can join or create, or you can hop into a quick match with random strangers. You will find the same lag in game play online as is found offline, but not generally any new lag. If you enjoyed the online experience with MLB 2K7, you will with 2K8 as well. If you didn’t, try the Card Battle for something a bit different and give it a shot.

There is a vast improvement in the variety of comments from the announcers, and with the crowd jabber thrown in and a decent (albeit small) soundtrack, the audio is quite respectable. Definitely the best crowd noise in any sports game to date on the 360.

Beautifully rendered stadiums and two weeks of mo-cap for the animations make those parts of the experience quite nice. On the down side, the evenly spaced crowd in the stadium seats (more space than people) and odd gaps in the background (hot dog and ice cream stands with exquisite detail around them, but no food available). Still, a beautiful game overall visually.

The pitching might be the single best feature…very easy to learn, comfortable, realistic, and natural. This game is pick up and play, and any tutorial needed can be accessed through the pause menu without the need to restart a game. Very close to perfect.

The menus are easy to use, much crisper than last year. Overall the interface works well, provides lots of detail where needed, and clarity where appropriate. Unfortunately, the lag in almost every other aspect of the game detracts from the score quite a bit.

A decent variety of achievements, although the amount of online ranked achievements are a disappointment (220 points are reserved for ranked games) and detract from the score. Some of them will definitely take some skill, although most can be rather easily obtained by adjusting sliders.

This is another solid entry from 2K Sports, and with the same group working on MLB 2K9 next year is looking good as well. The pitching is ground breaking and the rest is solid, with the exception of the frame rate issues. Definitely worth playing.

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