MLB 2K10 Preview: Battling Back to Even the Count

2K Sports' baseball franchise, maybe more than any other sports title, will have this year's title judged against and compared to last year's offering, and not for its good qualities.

It's hard to tell whether last year's MLB 2K9 - one of the worst-reviewed (and deservedly so) games ever for this class of sports simulation - raises or lowers consumer expectations for MLB 2K10. 2K9 suffered from glitches, clipping, bizarre baserunning and fielding AI, and, frankly, unacceptable graphics, especially in the player modeling. Conditioned to expect subtle changes in the fundamentals of year-to-year sports titles, I really didn't know what to expect. A set of drastic changes could bomb just as badly as ones tone-deaf to last year's problems.

2K gave me a four-hour guided preview of the game at their Novato, Calif. studios on Tuesday. Rather than attempt to certify whether this is an overhaul, a tuneup, or something in between, I decided to do what Visual Concepts seems to have done: Clear my mind of last year's game, and start all over on this one.

What Is It?
MLB 2K10 will be the current version of 2K Sports' major league baseball offering. In 2K Sports' defense, last year's game was pushed out in a nine-month development cycle owed largely to transferring the project and its team up from Kush Games (maker of MLB 2K8) to Visual Concepts at the 2K Marin studio. Well, maybe that's said in defense of the development team, not necessarily those making the decisions that hamstrung it so late in the game. But in my time at the studio, the Visual Concepts guys were honest and accountable for last year's shortcomings, while reasonably confident this year's product will be a vast improvement. They started over with a 12-month schedule and new development team members in hopes of getting it right.

What We Saw
On the Xbox 360, I played portions of several standard singleplayer games, as much to get a feel for its new gameplay mechanics and to see how the stadiums and players were presented. I was also given a tour of the "My Player" mode, a well-received concept in NBA 2K10 making its debut here. Again, 2K Sports is tinkering with both its swing and pitch mechanics. While both remain based on right analog gestures, this year's configurations make loads more sense. They also represent a deliberately more deterministic mode of play that account for the many degrees of success or failure within the delivery of a pitch or the swing of a bat.

In pitching, players will select a pitch with a face or bumper button and then be given a diagram of how to execute it with the right analog. How closely your motion matches the diagram determines the overall effectiveness of the pitch. It's a much better method than last year's, which did not have the selection step, and could result in throwing a completely different pitch than intended - an outcome as unrealistic as it was frustrating, and mystifying. In this game, you're helped by a pitch analyzer that will pop up and show you the path your right analog traveled in case you botch the pitch, hang a curveball, or bottom out a changeup. The analyzer, plus what felt like a finer-tuned pitch gesture motion, help flatten out the learning curve. It's not a button-based pitch meter, but those can deliver almost impossible accuracy. This new pitching system will better incorporate walks into your game, no small victory for realism.

Hitting was vastly different and a little hard to time at first. The biggest reason is the ball's apparent velocity is faster than in 2K9. Part of this is because of a shift in the camera angle for the hitting view. But the new tilt enables a much cleaner view of whether a ball will arrive inside or outside the strike zone. 2K Sports is sensitive to the fact that hitting in video game baseball is often based on a decision, before the ball is even thrown, to swing at the next pitch. The new camera angle is meant to help you sensibly work the count and, again, reach base by walk. The swings themselves have changed subtly. There's no drawing back to ready for a pitch on a standard swing (although there is for the power swing.) That will throw your timing at first, but removing that step is key to preserving bat speed while processing what's been thrown for an extra fraction of a second. A third, new swing - the defensive swing - is engaged by flicking the stick right or left. This probably won't result in a base hit, but it allows you to protect the plate with two outs, foul off pitches until you get one you like, and frustrate opposing pitchers into making mistakes - all aspects of baseball that haven't really come through in previous games. You'll also be presented with visual cues indicating the likely pitch location and type, depending on your batter's "eye" rating. This is how the game will manifest the "book" of knowledge that good hitters keep on pitchers' tendencies, and is much more useful than the game's previous "hitter's eye," which didn't enable successful guess-hitting as much as it did randomize your chances of whaling a fat pitch. And lastly, the left stick is given a more appropriate degree of influence. There is no need to use it to aim within the strike zone - your hitter will make contact without it. The stick is meant to influence the flight of the ball, but that path still will be more determined by timing and pitch type. In other words, you can go an entire game without using it if you like. Holding up on the left stick, last year's shorthand for "hit for power" is now converted to a sacrifice-fly decision - which both reduces cheap home runs and gives you more deliberate means of getting that ball in the air with a runner on third.

How Far Along Is It?
The build I saw is about a month from delivery. The guts of this game are essentially finished but some fine-tuning in the menu selections, and tweaks to the frequency with which the pitch analyzer appears will need to be implemented. Judged by the visuals alone this will be a much better game than 2K9. All of the major league stadiums have been rebuilt, as well as character/face modeling, eliminating last year's embarrassments. Cap logos are appropriately proportioned, one of my pet peeves from 2K9. One of the best updates will be the addition of two-player animations, in which double-plays or plays at the plate incorporate both runner and fielder (and the ball coming loose, where appropriate), for seamless collisions and outcomes with no distorted clipping or incongruent behaviors. Though not as visually strong as MLB 09: The Show, this at least gets 2K's game back in the conversation.

What Needs Improvement?
Honestly? For what it's set out to do here, not much beyond a final coat of polish. The bugs I saw on the preview build were minor (inconsistent shadow redraws, some dead-ends in a menu) and fixable. I felt the swing stick was a little twitchy at first, but on further review, it needs to be that way to preserve the blink-of-an-eye decision to swing that a face button enables. I've heard and I've sympathized with the complaints that 2K Sports should bring its game back to pitch meters and button swings. But a successful pitch isn't a binary act - do A and B is always the result. Nor is a successful at-bat. Flat curveballs can still fool hitters unprepared for an offspeed pitch. They can also be hammered 500 feet. Off an All-Star pitcher. Punch-and-judy hitters can hang in against lights-out closers by shortening up the swing and waiting for the right pitch. A successful baseball simulation should not feel like you got to these moments purely by chance, and the player should own the decisions and outcomes that got him there. From what I saw of it, MLB 2K10's hitting and pitching philosophy justifies the use of the analog sticks.

What Should Stay The Same?
The brief time I spent with My Player looks like it will take advantage of the opportunities baseball presents for a solo, singleplayer career mode. Whether it will be as strong as what The Road to the Show in MLB: The Show has become remains to be seen. Unfortunately, if you create yourself as a catcher, you won't be calling pitches like your character will in this year's Show. Otherwise it looks like a fun, up-through-the-minors sim that reduces grind by not forcing you to participate in every pitch of every game, only those in which your player is involved. I didn't spend enough time with it to get a feel for the difficulty; whether you'll have trivially short stays in the minor leagues (you start in double-A, from which big league call-ups are frequent) or be stuck in the long tours common to My Player in NBA 2K10.

Final Thoughts
2K Sports knows it has to repair a ton of trust with the public after MLB 2K9, and really after some disappointing management of the franchise after signing its exclusive license with Major League Baseball. For some, last year's game was unforgivable, and that's an entirely understandable reaction. PS3 owners are solidly entrenched in MLB The Show, and I can't suggest MLB 2K10 will come any closer to unseating that game on that platform, much less as the best-in-class offering. But what I saw in Marin is more than worth a second chance, and I'm eager to spend more time with this game when my review copy arrives.