Major League Baseball 2K12 is widely expected to be in its walk year, the final season of a fat contract going back to 2005. Unlike a superstar in the big leagues, this is not a cause for optimism that fans will see an above-average performance. Not when the performer is the one paying the contract, and not when it has been notoriously inconsistent despite having the Xbox 360 all to itself.
But the intrigue involving 2K Sports parent Take-Two Interactive, whose chief executive inherited an expensive deal and has publicly called it a money loser, is a front-office drama that the players at 2K know they must tune out, the same as anyone in the dugout on a beleaguered club. They've focused on the areas in which they have done well, notably the game's best-in-class commentary and the shrewd ways they've created batter-pitcher matchups that run deep in the count and call on strategy from both participants. And they've tried to round off some of the rough edges of the previous edition, especially ones introduced with new fielding mechanics.
Whether or not we one day remember the things MLB 2K did right—and it has done them, despite all that's been said of the series—nothing stops us from enjoying them now. MLB 2K12 will still, however, look a lot like last year's game, visually, and this has been a series with looks only its mothers and fathers could love.
"I was expecting you to ask about that," Mark Little, the game's senior producer, said when I brought up the expiring contract during a visit last week with Visual Concepts, 2K's in-house sports development studio, at 2K Games' studios in Marin County, Calif. "I was going to be disappointed if you didn't."
I pressed him for some kind of specific evidence, some detail that showed baby got its milk this year, that neither 2K Sports nor Take-Two is mailing it in with a baseball franchise that seemed to right the ship in 2010 but, disappointingly, didn't carry the momentum forward last year. Little told me that the game was given "a budget consistent with last year's," and one he would have expected from the sales performance of MLB 2K11, regardless of what may happen after MLB 2K12 ships. They also spent several months building tools to measure and test the authenticity of numerous hitting outcomes all at once, which I'll get into in later stories.
But that means that a comprehensive, and expensive, visual upgrade, which would signal a complete overhaul more than any of the new gameplay features I did see, didn't happen for this year's game. While there are new player models, faces and new animations, every sports video game is expected to include those year to year. The structure is essentially the same. I was shown several innings of play at Miami's new boondoggle of a stadium, partly because it was new, but also because we were trying to make its garish centerfield extravaganza light up with a home run.
We didn't get it to light up, and this stadium probably wasn't a good choice to showcase the game's visual detail, as half of the field was perpetually covered in shadow thanks to the partially closed roof in an afternoon game. Anything in shadow had a very flat, low-contrast look, almost no different from MLB 2K11, which I slammed as an ugly game. The players that did venture into sunlight did show some decent uniform texture, but this still is a game that seems unable to get the proportions of the uniform numerals right, a silly, nitpicky detail but one you're going to notice a lot as, well, every play in the field begins with the pitcher's back to you. I even noticed a gap in the white surface of the Marlins Park dome where it met a support girder. The stadium still is under construction, but it's not supposed to be in this game.
New presentational details are still being added into MLB 2K12, ones that will advise you in how to pitch to certain batters (if you're paying attention to Gary Thorne and analysts Steve Phillips and John Kruk) and, as booth audio only aren't features that you can miss if you have a twitchy finger and button-through things out of get-on-with-it habit. The game's multi-stage commentary means the announcers interrupt themselves so they're not behind on the action, something every sports game needs to implement.
The problem is I still saw too many interstitial camera shots, particularly between innings, that seemed to linger on voids in the field or blurred-out parts of the crowd. While the catcher has a new set of behaviors, the same old batter-up animation begins each hitter's introduction. These are the kinds of things that get in the way of playing the game for long stretches.
I fear that people are going to kill the game for its looks and some of its repetitive visuals, and allege that it's a warmed over version of last year's game. It isn't though. 2K Sports has meaningfully innovated on the gameplay, and if it holds up in the long run, I think it should push other developers to try something similar, as analog controls in MLB 2K10 certainly pushed MLB 11 The Show to include them there.
The good news is, if you can get past the visuals, it's a game with a novel approach to creating a more realistic performance in CPU pitchers as well as humans, one I think is worth trying for yourself when the demo arrives. I prefer pitching when I play the game or create a career player, but I constantly worry that I don't mix location or pitch type in a realistic way. In a sense, the game has catered to this kind of laziness in the past, and with reasonable twitch skills you can throw a strike every single time. Now they've built something in that not only requires you to throw weaker pitches now and then, which may even miss the zone, it makes the strategic base on balls a little more necessary.
Here's how it works. Each pitcher on the roster is governed by his real-world tendencies, as measured by 2K Sports' statistics partner. If someone's best pitch is a changeup, of course, he doesn't necessarily throw offspeed all of the time (as its intent is to destroy a hitter's timing). Even though that pitch still has the "best pitch" flag in the pitch selection menu, if you throw it more than the pitcher does in real life, you're going to see its baseball icon turn red, indicating you've gone to it too many times. This will not only deliver a performance advantage to hitters, they'll see it coming because everyone up and down the bench knows you're favoring it.
Further, location matters more. MLB 2K12 still has a favorable strike zone that doesn't require you to get all of the ball, sometimes even any of it, in the rectangle to have it called a strike. I was a fiend for going to a backdoor slider in tight spots, usually low. You can abuse location as much as you can pitch type, and the areas you're going to will start to black out in the strike zone display. This is something the hitter can see, too, and if he sees a black bar across the strike zone, he knows anything headed there is going to be ripe for a gap shot. So favoring a type of pitch and location all the time—and we saw this when people tried to exploit the perfect game challenge last year—is a one-way ticket to the showers regardless of who is throwing.
Also, the game's going to vary your pitch effectiveness depending on what happened with it in the game. It's results-driven, and it implies a pitcher's confidence or lack thereof in his stuff. If a fastball gets belted for a hard out, there'll be no penalty even if it was a close escape or a spectacular play. But if it's blooped cheaply for a single and a run scores, it will be dinged, with a red number showing its new rating and representing a decrease. On the other hand, blowing someone away with a fastball will return a big ratings boost.
Finally, the break points in the game have been tuned. Going back to that exploit I mentioned, people were taking the Phillies' Roy Halladay and repeatedly dropping steep-breaking curveballs high in the zone for strikes. It doesn't happen that way in real life, because of the release point and arm motion. Throwing a high pitch requires an earlier release, which puts less break on the ball, flattening it out and creating the dreaded hanging curve. That will be more accurately represented here. Conversely, breaking balls thrown lower will break steeper and be tougher to keep out of the dirt.
As I pitched the game, I felt connected to the story of the game in ways I hadn't before in this or other games. Florida's Josh Johnson had gotten rapped pretty good with his mid-range fastball, forcing me to shake off my catcher when he suggested that. On the other hand, his changeup emerged as the best out option, requiring me to figure out a way to set it up on my own, as I didn't want to just roll that up every time the count got to 2-1.
MLB 2K12 will definitely place a premium on getting ahead in the count whether you are a batter or a pitcher. For pitchers, though, they'll find that they have to get ahead in the count with a substandard option, especially late in the game. For batters, Ted Williams' cardinal rules of not swinging at the first pitch, not swinging until you get a strike, and not swinging at anything that fools you, take on more importance. A strategy of making a pitcher pitch—and I was able to beat great teams with poor clubs by doing this last year—will pay dividends.
These batter-pitcher matchups have been a strength of the game overshadowed by its reputation and inconsistencies elsewhere. Little, the producer, said the team feels like it's delivered a refined matchup system after a three-year development cycle. I asked, then, if MLB 2K11 was a developmental stepping stone to a better product this year, why someone should pick up MLB 2K12 when its feature promises sound much like ones made by last year's game's. Little, quite bluntly, said that there still is value in having something that reflects the current game: New stadiums, new uniforms and, yes, updated rosters. Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that MLB 2K12 may be a stepping stone to nothing. This may be as good as it ever gets.
The changes to fielding also represent the kind of staged refinement we've seen in other areas of the game, such as the analog pitching controls. Last year, the game introduced a fielding meter that prized timing a throw, rather than just laying on a button or on the stick. It was rough to adjust to at first, and a lot of routine plays ended up with overthrows and desperate saves as gamers tried to get a handle on it.
Now you get a variable meter, which becomes obvious on infield plays. An infielder who is able to set his feet will almost never overthrow the bag. He'll see the dangerous red portion of the throwing meter completely wiped out, and while yellow areas can mean trouble, a fielder with a solid rating isn't going to wing it over the first-baseman's head.
It's in plays where a fielder can't set his feet that you're going to see last year's risks and variables, which really should be limited to these kinds of bang-bang situations. In a Marlins versus Braves game, Atlanta's Michael Bourn mistimed a power swing and hit a slow roller up the no-man's land of the shallow left side of the infield. Jose Reyes, an all-star shortstop, came charging in and barely nabbed the speedy Bourn at first. Had Bourn been swinging for contact, he would have been faster out of the box and probably beat out the bleeder. But had he swung for contact, he may have hit a routine grounder over to Reyes and been out by a mile. The point is that when either side puts in a high-risk/high-reward effort, MLB 2K's developers want the outcomes to be legitimately tense with the threat of a game-changing result. Much of this seems loaded on the fielders, though, so it will need further evaluation when the demo arrives.
A note about multiplayer: While I couldn't test online multiplayer features in my hands-on time with the game, there is an implied change to how those games will now play out, thanks to the mandate of mixing pitches and locations. That's going to depend on lag—basically, there not being any, otherwise it's still hard to time a fat fastball as it is to get around on a legit one. The other big caveat, and I told 2K this, is that the effects on multiplayer gaming mean nothing if MLB 2K12 has the same kind of online multiplayer problems at launch that kicked its highly regarded sibling NBA 2K12 in the pants last October. They have to know they will get killed if something like that happens again, and while NBA can survive it, I'm not sure MLB would.
I didn't get any sense of finality when I talked with Little or with Sean Bailey, a designer I have come to know somewhat in three previews of this game, and a guy whose experience the past three years has been the treadmill sprint of annual sports development under considerably more duress. If anyone should be looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, it's him. This is a game that's been knocked around hard, sometimes deservedly. And each time I go to Sean, he sensibly articulates why they've done something before saying what they've done, and listens to the feedback.
It will take a longer stretch with MLB 2K12 to see if its new pitching system and fielding refinements truly coalesce into the kind of unique experience, game-to-game or even within a game, that gives baseball its tension and drama. From here, it looks like it has a shot.
But I like the fact that, in what may be their last at-bat, Visual Concepts looked for the pitch it could hit hard, even if the game's enduring weaknesses still stare at you like a shellshocked reliever. I like that this is a project centered on refined gameplay, not eye candy, with components that have a chance to live on elsewhere even if the rest of the series does not.
And I like the fact that, to win, you may have to do so without the pitch everyone sitting in front of the TV is calling for you to throw, and that is a fitting metaphor for these developers as they battle to the end.