There are some things that are irrevocably tied to the return of spring: birds singing, flowers blooming, and baseball. Terrence Mann, the character played by James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams said “…The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.” Each spring the game returns to the ball diamonds, backyards, back alleys and living rooms of America like clockwork. And while nothing can replace the feel of the bat in your hands as you make contact with a hanging curve, or the smell of your glove when you put it on to head into the field, for those days when you don’t have someone to “have a catch” with, the folks over at 2K Sports have been kind enough to grace us with their annual installment of the very successful Major League Baseball franchise, Major League Baseball 2K7.
Now it it’s fourth year as a franchise, the MLB 2K series has come quite a long way since the original release as ESPN Major League Baseball. Glitchy and full of roster issues, the original incarnation was less than impressive. The following year, after the release of an improved MLB 2K5, 2K Sports signed an exclusive agreement with MLB and the MLBPA that runs through 2012 prohibiting EA and other 3rd party developers from creating MLB licensed games. Thankfully, the exclusivity didn’t dampen innovation as MLB 2K6 was chock full of new features and upgrades. MLB 2K7 continues that trend, primarily in the upgrades in the initial releases for the “next gen” platforms, with this review focusing on the Xbox 360 version.
As with so many games released for the Xbox 360, the most astonishing change between it and the Xbox version is in terms of graphics. From the flyover views of the ballparks, to the near photo resolution of the player models, the graphics come the closest I have ever felt to blurring the lines between playing a game and watching a movie, especially in 1080i resolution. The animation of each action, from the pitchers’ wind up and release to the batters swing, exudes realism. In what 2K Sports refers to as “signature style” movements that are unique to specific players, such as Gary Sheffield’s bat waggle or Nomar Garciaparra’s step-in to the batters box, were captured from video footage and added to the game. According to producer Ben Brinkman this feature isn’t implemented for every player on an MLB roster, but most star players or players with very distinct movements are in the game. After playing nearly 30 games, every player that I could think of as having a unique style of play had unique motions in various parts of the game action.
The next major change was a complete redesign of the interaction between infielders and outfielders. In prior versions of the game, throwing runners out from the outfield was nearly impossible, and you were often lucky to limit them from taking an extra base, because the cutoff man wasn’t always available for you to throw to. In 2K7 using the bumpers allows you to throw to the cutoff man versus the throwing to a base (by pressing the corresponding alphabet button). In addition, if you don’t take the right angle to cut off a ball in the gap with the outfielder you’re controlling, the AI will switch you automatically to an outfielder who is closer to the ball. AI Infielders and outfielders also
Do a much better job of backing up the play in case a ball gets past your human controlled fielder.
The controls are mostly as you would expect from the previous year. Personally, I’m not a fan of the swing stick. To me, it simply doesn’t feel as natural as say the skill stick in NHL 2007. I use the classic controller layout which lets me swing for the fences with the A button instead of trying to time the pullback and release of the right stick with the pitch crossing the plate.
Speaking of swinging for the fences, one of the features carried over from last year is the batters eye, which is how you select which area of the strike zone you’re targeting for the sweet spot of your swing, where hitters make the best contact with the ball. Using this feature in combination with Inside Edge pitching tendencies for the guy on the mound can give you a pretty decent idea on where to look for the next pitch to be headed. It allows you to “look for low and away, but still watch out for in your ear”, another bit of wisdom from Field of Dreams (this time from Shoeless Joe Jackson as portrayed by Ray Liotta). The Inside Edge data has been updated to include the 2006 season, so that the last four seasons of MLB scouting reports for the pitcher or hitter you’re facing are reflected in the guidance provided on screen.
Aside from playing nine innings against the AI, MLB 2K7 also allows you to play against a live opponent whether face to face or over Xbox Live. 2 player mode is very well done with easy to choose from menus and screen controls that allow you to make pitching and hitting decisions without giving it away to a live opponent. In addition to standard (exhibition) games, you can play through a full 162 game season based on the 2007 schedule for the team of your choice. The next step up the ladder from this of course is franchise mode, where you guide a team not just through a single season, but throughout multiple seasons building on successes or rebuilding after failures. While I haven’t completed a season yet, I found the season mode to be a lot of fun as the stats for each player on my roster effected their future performance, streaking both hot and cold depending on how I did in each at bat and game. Franchise mode is truly for the person who wants to control the destiny of their favorite team, allowing you to act as GM, coach, and player all at the same time.
Of the other additional modes, Situation and Home Run Derby show the most promise as quick and easy ways to have some fun with friends playing. Home Run Derby is exactly what you would expect; whoever bashes the most balls over the fence wins. Situation is an interesting way to work on skills, as it allows you to use different players in specific situations, such as high pressure moments like the ones we all imagined as children. Whether it’s the bases loaded and 2 outs with the big home run hitter at the plate and you’re trying to drive in that winning run, or just the middle of a pitchers duel, you can jump into a game at any point, with the situation as you want it to be.
The thing that really gets me in this game is the detail, whether it’s the Tigers on top of the scoreboard in Comerica Park, the plaques in Momument Park beyond the outfield wall in the House that Ruth Built, or the seats on top of the “Green Monster” in Fenway, the designers didn’t miss a thing. And between the realistic body modeling, the signature style of the superstars, and the head scans of each of the players, you almost feel like you’re controlling the players themselves.
Of course, no game is perfect. This game is deeply in need of a spring training and batting practice mode, which would allow players to practice pitching without a hitter, work on fielding in repetitive situations, and get the timing down while trying to turn on a fastball. Also, while the animations are truly some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen in a game, there sometimes is a bit of jerkiness or a disjointed feel as the game couples the animations. For example, the shortstop looks great diving to his left to snag a hard grounder deep in the hole, but between gloving the ball and wheeling to throw it, there’s an awkward hitch in the player motion. This ‘hitch’ is prevalent throughout the game when any to player animation sequences are combined. While it’s a small quibble, against the rest of the beautifully done game, it stands out like a sore thumb after a while.
Finally, some of the more special plays in baseball (such as robbing a hitter of a home run) happen a bit too often in the game. In the first 10 games, I had 5 players robbed of home runs, including one where the fielder was several feet above the right field wall in Comerica Park. This is something that has never happened once in real life, let alone 5 times.
In conclusion, it’s hard to say that any of the issues I just mentioned are serious enough to warrant more than a passing mention, although players who spend a lot of time with the game may become frustrated with them. In short, this game is a winner, much like the Detroit Tigers (I couldn’t go a whole review without mentioning my team.) I recommend this game to any baseball fan or any sports junkie looking for a way to pass a couple hours during a rain delay.