Publisher: 2K Sports
Developer: Kush Games
Release Date: February 27, 2007
Baseball fever is finally upon us, and I, for one, couldn't be happier. Sure, by the end of the season, I'm a little exhausted by it all, but by the time January rolls around, I'm trolling the trade rumors and counting the days until football stops dominating ESPN coverage. Over the last couple of weeks, I've been watching every spring training game I can find, monitoring the injury reports, and getting ready for the two fantasy drafts I have coming up later this week.
As you might expect, baseball has had a significant impact on my gaming life, as well. MVP Baseball 2005 is easily one of my favorite games of all time, and I was infuriated when 2K Sports picked up the exclusive third-party MLB license, effectively ending the major-league MVP series. That anger was only compounded by the debacle that was Major League Baseball 2K6 for the Xbox 360. It looked nothing like the CG-esque "in-game" shots that predated the game by months, its gameplay disappointed, and — oh yeah, the first production run crashed consoles by the thousands. It was enough to put me off baseball gaming for all of last year.
But for all its polished gameplay, MVP 07 NCAA Baseball simply isn't enough to satisfy my needs this time around; I need the MLB license. Thankfully, Major League Baseball 2K7 is not the next-gen embarrassment that its predecessor was. Refusing to rest on its laurels, Kush Games brought in Ben Brinkman, former lead developer of the MVP series, to help rebuild the game from the ground up for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Though much of the gameplay can still be deemed as a work in progress, the astounding visual presentation and emphasis on big-league atmosphere make this an easy investment for the next-gen baseball faithful.
Signature Style is immediately impressive, and the awe and excitement that it generates never subsides, even after weeks of play. Signature Style refers to the little touches added to presentation of nearly every player in the game. While only about 150 players have been given the all-out treatment, many of the minor players come close to the real thing. Matt Murton of the Chicago Cubs may only have a year and a half of big-league play under his belt, but he was immediately recognizable when I first saw him step up to the plate.
It's about more than just the batting stance or the wind-up; Signature Style touches on pre- and post-swing movements and mannerisms, home run swagger, body size and shape, and just the general feel of watching a team take the field and play a fairly realistic game. MLB 2K7 uses a heap of faux camera focus effects for the in-game cut scenes, further enhancing the feeling that you're watching an actual game on television. It can be a bit overdone at times, but the effects go a long way toward reinforcing that real-life feel.
As mentioned earlier, only 150 of the players have been given the full package (face, body, animations, etc). While many of the other players have been accurately approximated, there are still some that stand out like a sore thumb among the excellence. In particular, some of the lesser-known relief pitchers looked downright silly, with in-game faces that bore no resemblance to the real-life photos displayed on the screen. And though the fielding animations are mostly well done, there is typically a short pause following the end of each play, in which the player will stand in place before throwing the ball to another player. Adding fluidity (and variance) to the animations will go a long way in future iterations.
On the stadium side, I was mostly impressed with the rendering of the ballparks, inside and out. Wrigley Field really pops from the screen, while the surrounding buildings on Waveland and Sheffield retain an aura of authenticity without the actual trademarked logos and advertisements. Some of the ballparks have kind of a muted look to them, as if these are the basic models, and improved ones will follow in 2K8.
Animating the fans has long been a concern in baseball gaming, and MLB 2K7 makes a decent attempt at pushing things forward. While not nearly as polished as the players, the people in the stands are 3D and animated, which is a lot more than can be said for MVP 07 on PlayStation 2. I would've liked more variance in audience apparel, though. When the Cubs play the White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, you should expect to see a ton of blue shirts in the mix.
Of the major gameplay systems in MLB 2K7, pitching is easily the best and most fully-formed of the bunch. Though I was impressed by the analog pitching system implemented in MVP 07, the pitching in MLB 2K7 is about as good as it gets on the digital end. Throwing a pitch is as simple as holding a button, releasing it, and then tapping it again, but that's an oversimplified perspective. In actuality, pitching in MLB 2K7 is perhaps the least pick-up-and-play system of the current batch of baseball titles.
Unlike in MVP, when you choose the location of your pitch, you are not choosing its destination — you're picking the break point. Each pitcher has an arsenal of up to five pitches, and holding the right trigger button will show you the approximate break of each pitch. A slider from a right-handed pitcher will likely break sharply to the left, whereas a 12-6 curveball will fall from the top of the zone to the bottom, while moving several inches to the left in the process. As such, you must be able to predict where a pitch will land based on its break, otherwise you'll be serving up fat fastballs and countless walks.
But if you already have a working knowledge of solid pitching mechanics, you can quickly become a master. I felt like an ace after a few games, when I was dropping power curves into the upper inside corner and getting swinging strikes on sliders that broke well inside on the hitter. With the default settings, your catcher will call the game, suggesting a pitch type and location for every single pitch.
During critical situations (two-strike counts, bases loaded, etc.), your catcher will call for a Payoff Pitch. If you can make the pitch (even if it's a ball), your pitcher will earn up to four bonus points for that specific pitch type. So, if your fastball is rated as an 82, it may go up to an 86 if you throw it exactly where the catcher wants it. If you miss, you'll lose a couple of points, but anyone with a solid grasp on pitching will only benefit from the Payoff Pitch system.
Really, the only major issue with this area of the game is with pitcher stamina. Workhorses like Carlos Zambrano might be able to throw a full nine, but your average starting pitcher will struggle to get through five innings. In two separate situations, I had 10 strikeouts with Ted Lilly after four innings, yet had to pull him after five because he was missing his spots. If I'm pitching that well with any starting pitcher, I should easily be able to get seven strong innings from him.
Analog batting returns, and though it is largely effective, I find the simplicity of the analog system in MVP 07 to be much preferable. In that game, you would make the uppercut swing with every pitch, and you could hold a modifier button to influence the power of the swing. In MLB 2K7, there are two main swings; pulling back and letting go of the analog stick results in a straight-forward contact swing, while the uppercut swing is designated for fly balls and home run attempts.
In addition to that, those looking to make contact swings to a particular field must curve their swing along the border of the analog stick — a movement that bears no resemblance to the standard contact swing. As you're watching a pitch come towards you at 95 miles per hour, picking between the different swings is extremely tough, especially when timing is an issue. After all, it'll take longer to do the uppercut swing than to just release the stick. I'd love to see a singular swing motion implemented in the future, but the Swing Stick is a capable system.
Though less obvious than in previous years, MLB 2K7 is still very much a home run-happy game. Three of my hitters were in the top five for homers at the end of the season, and I hit four home runs with Alfonso Soriano in a single playoff game. While I'm hoping that such an event will actually happen this year, I'm not going to bet the farm on it.
Fielding is the biggest offender of the bunch, though baserunning can be considered a close second. On several occasions, I would position a player to field a ball and nothing would happen. One time, while attempting a double play, my shortstop tossed a ball to the second baseman, who stoically watched it roll into right field. Gaffes like this can really kill a close game, especially if it happens more than once. Additionally, fielding in the infield can be damn near impossible, as the camera angle used makes it very hard to get a read on the depth of a ball. If one aspect of this game needs to be touched up for next year, it has to be the fielding. If I make the effort to get a man in position, the game had better follow through and allow me to complete the play.
When it comes to rounding the bases, you have two options to choose from — and both are action-packed with issues. If you choose the manual baserunning option, your player will only advance to first base on any base hit (except for a home run), meaning you'll have to tell him to move onto second before reaching first. Otherwise, he'll stutter-step or come to a halt, wasting precious seconds in the process. On the other hand, should you opt for automatic baserunning, your player may advance well beyond where he can safely tread. By the time you realize it and try to head back to the previous base, you can almost be assured of an out. There has to be a middle option in which the runners can intelligently advance without having to click a trigger for each and every base beyond first.
Beyond that, you may run into several "What the ... " moments over the course of a season. I hit a home run into the basket at Wrigley Field, but the game didn't recognize it as such. With the ball visually in the basket, the centerfielder just stood there, staring at it. I, on the other hand, had to manually progress my player home, at which point it was called an in-the-park home run. After 15 seconds of waiting, the next batter was finally summoned and the game progressed as usual. Much more memorable, though, was an incident that occurred during an infield pop-up while I was on defense. My first baseman got to the correct spot and was about to make the catch when ... my pitcher tackled him to the ground? Seriously!
At this point, the overall gameplay package is largely solid, but the little gaffes and recurring issues keep it from being really well-rounded. The most important focus moving forward needs to be consistency of play. That doesn't mean that everything needs to be analog-based (like in MVP 07), but when you're in a particular role, you need to know that if something is supposed to happen, it will. On top of the other issues that plague the fielding and baserunning, the occasional unfortunate camera angle can make it tough to snatch a ground ball or decide to take second base on a ball hit to the outfield. With consistency of both play and presentation, the MLB 2K series may eventually be sharp enough to justify its sole possession of the third-party license.
Joe Miller and Jon Morgan of ESPN return to call the game, and upon first listen, the commentary is fantastic. Jon and Joe have been calling games for ages, and they play very well off of each other. The lively commentary includes specific statistics, allusions to real-life events from recent baseball history, and even a number of "reader mail" Q&A segments. But as you work through a season, you will hear the same exact phrases over and over again in predictable situations. Nearly every home run is "clutch," the fake umpiring crew is usually "the best of the best," and any fly-ball out committed by a hitter in the three or four slot is certainly the result of "some awesome advanced scouting."
When you hit the postseason, the commentary takes a turn for the worse, with generic analysis and incorrect references to previous appearances that never occurred. All throughout the season, the pre-game commentary is supplied by Jeanne Zelasko (of Fox Sports) and Steve Physioc (Angels broadcaster), and there were several noticeable irregularities between the statistics shown on the screen and what they were saying. The analysis would occasionally be incorrect, and Steve's part would sometimes be skipped, though Jeanne would always say, "Thanks, Steve," before Jon and Joe took over. So, kudos for the attempt at entertaining commentary, but the repetition and incorrect references derail its potential.
As in 2K6, the soundtrack in Major League Baseball 2K7 skews toward indie rock, but this year, a few familiar alternative rock tracks from the 1990s found their way into the mix. Alongside solid cuts from The Walkmen, Editors, and Tapes 'n' Tapes, you'll find 311's "Down," Sublime's "Summertime," and Nirvana's "Breed" (also heard in MotorStorm). Once you've grown tired of the 20 rock-centric selections, you can add your own custom soundtrack and take it in the direction of your choosing.
Aside from the basic Exhibition and Season options, the two main modes are Franchise and GM Career. At the core, the modes are essentially the same; you play through a season, all the while making decisions about the personnel and income of the team. In Franchise mode, you're responsible for maintaining "buzz" (through wins and ticket prices), while GM Career gives you a number of tasks to complete over the course of the season (such as winning a series or getting rid of an expensive player). Next year, it would be great to see the two combined and expanded to create one comprehensive mode in the vein of MVP Baseball 2005's Owner mode.
Online play exhibits many of the same tendencies of the online mode in MVP 07. While the experience is generally stable, the pitching takes a hit and a number of little snags pop up from time to time. Nailing your spots while on the hill can be tough, and you'll have to adjust your release point just to get the ball close to where you want it. Batting seemed unaffected by latency issues, though the aforementioned fielding issues seemed magnified by the online playing field. It was not strange to see two or more fielding discrepancies in a single online game. But otherwise, 2K's online network seems well-developed and well-accepted, as there were dozens of players online at any given time.
Major League Baseball 2K7 has overcome the dark shadow of its sloppy predecessor to become a truly worthwhile gaming experience. Though the gameplay is still saddled with recurring issues, the next-gen visual enhancements make the game much more atmospheric than any previous hardball sim. Producer Ben Brinkman has described 2K7 as the product of the second year in a "three-year plan" to revitalize the franchise. Considering the huge gap in quality between 2K6 and 2K7, MLB 2K8 should prove to be one hell of a follow-up.
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