Before I begin, I must establish a few things I hope will differentiate this review from normal, useful video game reviews. If you want scores and grades, read IGN's effective review. In the true Ghostrunner style, I've opted for a more experiential, nebulous, navel-gazey, pointless, and uninformative approach.
That said, bear these two factors in mind:
- I am incredibly biased. Video games, especially those updated and released annually, do not exist in a vacuum. Each game must immediately be compared to the one preceding it, and games released by different publishers are produced with the competition in mind.
Why do I mention this? Because I love MVP Baseball 05 more than life itself. While it only ranked fourth in The Reverend's early polling, I've played the MVP series more than any non-Goldeneye game ever released. I love everything about MVP 05, and while EA's licensing comeuppance was long overdue, it broke my heart. Every baseball game I play will be immediately compared to the game I know and love so much.
- I am stubborn yet impulsive. One of the first things I did with my XBOX Live account was download and play the demo for MLK 2K8. Which I hated. Without any real instruction, I was thrown into a new game without any prior knowledge of the control style. Being new to XBOX only made this worse. But as fall became more and more of a reality, I was already fearful of a winter without baseball. The game's low sticker price ($29.99 new) combined with my ever-smoldering yet nearly empty pockets won out over my inner belief that this game sucked. This would also explain why I'm reviewing a game 6 months after it was released.
First things first, skinny jeaned try-hards from Pitchfork helped select the tracklist, so an early blast of The baseball-crazy Hold Steady is a pleasing development. More cocaine-addled mustache punk follows, including the nauseatingly twee Pete Bjorn & John. I'm a sucker for some Craig Finn, and The Cool Kids are awesome, so it's not a total loss.
The somewhat cluttered menu screen lets you select your game mode. Life consuming franchise mode to home run derby and everything in between. Everything except practice mode, which is both a shame and an oversight.
Getting the gimmicky swing stick down pat can be difficult, especially when you realize the batter's eye feature from the MVP series is painfully absent. Perhaps the batter's eye (brief colour-coding to assist in picking up pitch types) is gimmicky and unrealistic in it's own right, but trying to differentiate between a slow curve and high heat makes timing your swings even more difficult. The home run derby feature is cartoonish and in no way replicates the in-game hitting experience. You cannot practice pitching in any capacity.
I'm not completely resistant to change, so I will praise the Total Pitch Control. It's a decent wrinkle that keeps you honest on the mound. The instant feedback that retraces your actual path with the right stick aids in learning on the go. Another MVP feature I desperately miss is tracking each pitch thrown in each at bat. Not the broadcast-style red and blue streamers, but a one-button screen that shows what and where I threw in each batter's previous at bats.
A lot of time and effort went into recreating individual batter's stances and ticks. As cool as it might be to watch Vernon Wells kick the bat as he walks back to the box after a swinging strike, I wish more time was devoted to making the gameplay better.
Considering the regularity of Total Pitch Controlled meatballs that go for home runs, you'd think more time would go into the look and execution of the cut scenes and animations.
J.D. Drew isn't the type to show human emotion on the field, so when he goes into a long, showboaty bat-flip-and-saunter-to-first, it rings hollow. Especially after hitting a monstrous opposite field shot, which seems to happen a lot. Lots of opposite field power from guys not known for opposite field power. I must assume it was a long home run, as the camera stays tight to the fence and first three rows no matter how high up the ball lands. The inability to track these frequent blasts really takes away from the experience.
I realize that fielding is hardly the most glamorous part of a baseball video game. I know a few hardcore gamer dudes that set the fielding to automatic as they have no desire to play defense. If you've ever read this space before, you know that I'm all defense all the time. If only Take Two had focus grouped me instead of my homer-happy friends. The fielding looks and plays like chunky soup. It just isn't fun. Perhaps I could have spent more time customizing the camera positioning, but that won't change the herky-jerky nature of playing the field. The inability to throw directly to a neutrally positioned cutoff man is a pain I could do without. Let the shortstop make an informed decision with his relay throw.
There are quite a few things to like about this game. Sadly, playing it isn't one of them. It looks good (but what next-gen game doesn't?) and the franchise mode is deep and engrossing, despite my inability to pry Rocco away from the Rays for a bag of balls. I love the inclusion of Win Probability charts and individual WPA's for each player after each game.
I'm a sucker for achievements (fingers crossed for my Hayabusa Sword) but the player card system seems weird. If you do something a player is known for, hit a double with Lyle Overbay for example, you are rewarded with his card. You can then go online and trade with some kid that will almost certainly call you a fag before the bottom of the first inning. Some of the rewards are understandable but silly. Make a sliding catch with Vernon Wells and you get his card. He's a Gold Glove winner, so it makes sense but I can think of very, very few sliding catches he's actually made. They should be more realistic, like the Alex Rios GIDP card or the Gregg Zaun 0 for June card.
In the end, this game does a good job of mirroring a baseball broadcast more than a baseball game. Some of the features are nice to have but if the game doesn't play well, what is the point? I forced myself to buy it but I can't force myself to play it. Looks like I'll be listening to ElectroChoc radio in the streets of Liberty City until Left 4 Dead is released.