Most managers and coaches will tell you that one of the biggest dangers for a successful team is complacency. If your squad has a good season, then you must work doubly hard to make sure it stays hungry next year and comes back with the same intensity that carried you to such heights a year ago. It's a concept that seems to have fallen on deaf ears for the crew of MLB 2K11; after a solid outing last spring, this year's product is an utter disappointment. I guess the development team already used up all of its good ideas, as this newest entry does nothing to differentiate itself from last year's iteration and may actually be a worse experience.
The book on MLB 2K11 is that it's constantly chasing Sony's MLB: The Show series but coming up short year after year. Last year was actually a good one for 2K's baseball franchise, as the product had a lot of neat new features and ideas that got fans buzzing about the series' direction. I'll even admit that I played MLB 2K10 long after The Show was sitting on my shelf collecting dust. If the developers had managed to innovate and improve for another year or two, they might have eventually become the dominant baseball franchise.
Instead, this latest game is a half-hearted update that doesn't fix any of the problems raised in last year's game while managing to pile on even more. On top of that, the few new features don't offer much, and many of the improvements are barely noticeable. Don't be surprised if you pop in MLB 2K11 and then have to eject the disc after a few games to make sure you aren't running last year's game.
The MLB 2k series was the first to embrace analog pitching and hitting, and those features return once more with some further refinements. Pitching is still a precision affair, with players being required to contort the control stick in various ways to pull off different pitch types. The difficulty of pitching has been tweaked a bit this year to make it harder to paint corners and cheat the strike zone, which is definitely a welcome improvement. Those who got by last year by exploiting the sometimes-broken strike zone will be in for a rude awakening.
Nothing has changed fundamentally in the hitting department, either, with various flicks of the right stick corresponding to contact, power and foul ball swings. I still struggle to see the value in an intentional foul ball swing aside from using it as a way to infuriate people you meet online, but it's a strategy that's common in real baseball, so you have to expect it to be present here as well. Hitting has also been tuned so that it's all about timing, and as you get a feel for when the game wants you to swing, you'll find yourself making more solid contact and putting more balls in play. It's a nice mixture of complexity and accessibility, and it's one of the few things that MLB 2K11 actually does right.
Analog fielding also joins the party this year, but the result is nowhere near as pretty. After fielding a ball, throwing comes down to holding the stick in the direction of the desired base and releasing when the meter is in the green sweet spot. In theory, it's a good idea and it works well enough for great fielders like A Rod and Ichiro, but even average players have a hard time making decent throws. Missing the spot by a fraction results in such a week toss that runners will likely beat it out or a massive overthrow that pulls fielders off the bag or finds the ball rattling around the dugout. It's far more punishing than it is fun, and nailing a perfect throw doesn't bring about a sense of accomplishment but rather relief.
Another huge disappointment is My Player mode, which showed a ton of promise last year. Once you create your player and pick a position, you begin your march to the majors, and ... it plays out exactly like last year's game. You still have the same ridiculous and sometimes counterintuitive goals (if there's a man on third with one out, shouldn't I be more worried about driving him in than getting an extra base hit?), as well as experience points divided up based on your batting, fielding and baserunning prowess. Improving your stats feeds back into your overall call-up goals, a rigidly defined set of requirements you need to fulfill before reaching the majors. There's absolutely no excitement in this setup; at all times, you know that until all the checkboxes are ticked, you won't get called up no matter how you're performing in the other aspects of your game. Once you do make the big time, you're set for life as a starter at your position even if you haven't done a thing to earn it.
Those seeking to escape the doldrums of My Player might opt to head over to Franchise mode, but life isn't much better on that side of the fence. Managers still make terrible decisions and act like they have no understanding of how pitching works. There is very little rhyme or reason to how the AI chooses to substitute its players.
As if the gameplay weren't stale and embarrassing enough, the game is also riddled with glitches and bugs that try their best to ruin your fun. Balls that land near the fence and get stuck will magically teleport into the glove of the cutoff man, and sometimes the first baseman or second base umpire decide to stand smack in your way so what should be a routine advancement on the basepaths turns into an unexpected out. On top of that, you've got players crashing into walls as they run full bore after foul balls that are clearly out of play. There are also the old standbys, like the floating bat with no player attached to it warming up in the on-deck circle. What's the strike zone on an invisible player looks like, you ask? I can't wait to find out myself.
Presentation also suffers, as the frame rate stutters and dips constantly on fly balls and player models look terrible. Also, fielding animations sometimes ruin plays, as many times I watched infielders not make an out because by the time they finished their drawn-out animation to simply turn around, the runner was already on base. The broadcast booth does its best to keep things informative and entertaining, but it also suffers from some sort of broken scripting where the commentators repeat the same information in slightly varying sentences over and over again. It's as if they're trying to infuriate you when they say, "Carlos Beltran at the plate. He struck out in his last appearance. Zero for 1 in the game with a strikeout. Struck out his last time at bat," all before the pitcher even takes the sign from home plate.
I feel genuinely bad for baseball fans who only own an Xbox 360, as this is the only baseball franchise they get to play. MLB 2K11 is a joke on nearly every level, with little to no redeeming qualities. Maybe this year's abomination will be a wake-up call for the crew to do better work next time around, but that's still a lost season. Unfortunately, MLB 2K11 is the worst kind of sports game — a $60 roster update and little else.
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