If “Major League Baseball 2K9” (rated E, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, $50 on Wii) were a baseball player, it wouldn’t be San Francisco Giants ace and cover athlete Tim Lincecum. It’d be Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez, a blue-chip prospect with a repertoire of filthy pitches, cursed with an inability to locate any of them inside the strike zone consistently.
The pitching controls, which require you to move the right thumbstick in a two-part motion corresponding with the type of pitch you want to throw, are a revelation. When I first saw that, to throw a curve with a right-handed pitcher, I needed to press the thumbstick down and to the left, then roll it counter-clockwise, I thought, “Gimmick!” But after a few innings, the controls became second nature, and I found myself wondering why no one thought of this sooner.
The hitting controls, in which you rock back on the thumbstick, then push toward the pitcher to shift your batter’s weight as the pitch arrives, are similarly intuitive. The timing is trickier to master than the pitching, because every pitcher throws at slightly different speeds and has a slightly different windup, but my experience with past “MLB 2K” titles served me well here. Sure, it’s more challenging than just pressing “A” to swing the bat, but it’s also a lot more fun once you get the hang of it.
As much of a joy as hitting and pitching are in 2K’s game, it’s plagued by problems the series has struggled with since “Major League Baseball 2K6” hit the 360 shortly after launch: an overabundance of home runs and woefully buggy fielding. After four years of homer mania, I’m convinced 2K prefers the MLB of 1998 and 2001, when Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and others bashed home runs with extreme prejudice. And though I’m a fan of pitchers’ duels and great defense, I’ve come to grips with it.
The fielding in “2K9,” though, is a nadir for the series. How bad is it? First baseman are often totally disinterested in touching the bag for an out after hauling in a throw from a fellow infielder. The throw could be perfectly on line and arrive plenty early, but some unseen problem, maybe involving poor collision detection, means that far too many routine plays at first result in a throwing error charged to an infielder and an extra baserunner to deal with. Likewise, outfielders often play like Lucy in the “Peanuts” cartoons, failing to stick up their gloves to catch pop flies that land harmlessly next to them and roll to the wall for a triple. In one game, my squad made five errors, at least four of which were attributable to these two glitches.
Lastly, the catcher often seems unaware of runners about to cross the plate. I was able to execute a triple steal twice in the same game because Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit simply stood upright and held onto the ball after receiving pitches, allowing whatever runner was on third to slide harmlessly into the plate. He didn’t even bend over and half-heartedly reach for the guy.
The inclusion of a playoff mode is similarly half-baked. Yes, it’s great to skip the regular season and go straight to the postseason, but why force players to use last year’s playoff brackets for a game called “MLB 2K9?” If my die-hard Royals fan friend Steve wants to live the dream and pit Kansas City against the Yankees in the postseason, he should be able to. The decision to force players to use last year’s playoff brackets is more galling once you choose your team and begin play, only to realize that you’re playing last season’s playoff games with current rosters. Want to defy history and pitch the Brewers to the World Series using Vallejo native CC Sabathia’s golden (and beefy) arm? Too bad. He was a Brewer last year. He’s on the Yankees now.
Another feature, using 2K Beats to set players’ at-bat music similarly falls flat. Once I navigate to the screen that allows me to set playlists for individual players, I get an error message telling me, “You must have soundtracks saved to your Xbox 360 in order to customize events.” I’m not sure what that means, but I have 100 or so music tracks saved to my 360’s hard drive. Why can’t I use those? Sadly, the game’s manual doesn’t mention this feature at all. I looked for help in “2K9’s” online frequently asked questions page, but the page contained no questions, let alone answers.
My last gripe about the game is its alleged abilities to provide updated scores for real-life sporting events. The supposedly “live” scores don’t update while you’re playing. If the Warriors are down 76-74 to the Utah Jazz in the third quarter when the first pitch is thrown, they’ll still be down 76-74 in the 14th inning if your game goes extras. What’s more, I played “2K9” extensively during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and none of these scores appeared in the ticker, even though I’d set “show NCAAB items” to “on.” When I tried to check the scores, it just said, “There are no games available for this sport.” On the first day of college basketball’s big event? Inexcusable. Similarly, why can’t I see spring training scores and stats?
I can only guess as to whether so many of “2K9’s” features feel half-finished because Visual Concepts’ programmers were distracted by having to develop this game and “MLB Front Office Manager,” which released in February, simultaneously. If that’s the case, hopefully they’ll can the sub-par “Front Office Manager” next year, roll its features into “MLB 2K10” and make a better core game.
Ordinarily, I’d be willing to forgive some of these shortcomings, revel in the brilliant pitching and hitting controls and say, “2K’ll get ’em next year.” But, like Pittsburgh Pirates fans, gamers are surely tired of shelling out $60 each year, only to be let down again. If you’re gaming on a Sony console, lean toward “The Show,” which I’ll review next week. If you’re on the 360 or Wii, see if you can score “2K9” at a discount.
(Reviewed on the Xbox 360.)