Major League Baseball 2K10 got many big-picture details right, but still left me with a laundry list of demands for MLB 2K11, which I happily ticked off before getting a preview of the game this week.
More demanding pitching accuracy, for starters. Last year's control set was a delight - I preferred pitching with it over MLB 10: The Show. But the seam of the baseball could nick the outside corner of the strike zone and I got the call every time in 2K10. It was no surprise that the million-dollar perfect game bounty was effectively won on the day of release.
I also wanted to see much stronger visuals, especially in player animations and transitions from event to event, notably leaving the batter's box. And I wanted the CPU managers to be more involved than Mr. Buttermaker from the Bad News Bears.
Yep, yep, and yep, said Sean Bailey, the Visual Concepts designer showing me the game. But the game's most notable change isn't in any of those. It's in the fielding, a risky hand to push one's chips into as it's the third phase of video game baseball that's the most taken-for-granted, and least appreciated.
Part of what made your pitcher so super-effective last year was the automatic manner in which many fielding plays were handled. MLB 2K11 has adopted new animations and controls to make fielding a more involved process. The result will take some getting used to.
Example: Baseball video games typically auto-steer fielders to the flight of the ball for a short moment as the game transitions from the hitting view to the overhead fielding view. That break on the ball has been shortened considerably in MLB 2K11. Playing the field, accustomed to that long break, my player was standing still when he should have been moving while I got a handle on the timing. Getting him to charge the grounder required directional touch as well as timing to make it all look purposeful.
When your fielder gets to the ball, you're now dealing with a throwing meter shaded in three colors from right to left - green, yellow and red, green obviously being the most accurate throw. Poor fielders will have a smaller green zone (for a guy like the Giants' Pablo Sandoval, it'll be only a sliver of green, Bailey said.) A throw in the red isn't automatic failure - if he's a good fielder, the inaccuracy will be less pronounced. But the point is to make players concentrate on the act rather than flicking the right analog and grabbing a sip of beer.
You'll also see more bobbled grounders, depending on a fielder's attributes and the type of drive hit his way, whether it plows through the infield grass or skips off the dirt. But on the back end, position-specific fielding animations, like a third baseman coming full over the top down to first, or a second baseman's scoop-gather-and-pow, have been added to impart more realism. No longer will every fielder do the "Jeter Throw," that undeserved highlight-reel catch and jump for grounders away from the direction of the throw, regardless of context.
Finally, Visual Concepts has added in a pre-play mechanism that approximates a fielder's savvy, or lack thereof. At the crack of the bat, you'll be presented with a white circle that approximates the area to which your player would know he should run. After a pause that's tied to his fielding rating, it will shrink to the precise spot where the ball lands. For some players, the initial circle is small and the landing spot shows almost instantly. For others, it will be an adventure. 2K Sports wants gamers to be thinking about defense a lot more, especially contemplating defensive switches in late innings, a technical move that casual fans don't consider often.
The result of all this is that routine plays still were makeable, but as I got used to the shortened break, throwing meter and on-field guides, I had to hurry to the ball, so they featured things like backhanding routine grounders, harder throws and stretching first basemen, even on outs where the runner was gunned by three steps. Until you get the hang of it, many plays won't look like what you see on TV. Fielding is not harder, per se, but it will look that way through the first few games.
"You're going to need to educate your community on this and manage its expectations," I warned.
That's fielding, the most conspicous gameplay adjustment. Pitching I found was less automatic as well, and there seemed to be a greater difference in your pitch location and effectiveness if you didn't hit the max-pitch circle in the pitching mechanism, introduced last year. At the plate, in single-player mode as a hitter, a new camera angle replaces the cut from the batting view to the field. Now the camera follows the flight of the ball to the outfield, from home plate instead of trailing behind it. You base runners were off camera and managed from the HUD in the old mode anyway. It's an enhancement consistent with the broadcast presentation tuning that, as we noted earlier, features park specific camera angles that mimic those of real life games on TV.
Animation is smoother across the board, with less popping in and out of certain states, and no hanging around in the "defense ready" posture, something that constantly broke MLB 2K10's attempts at realism. The models for the most recognizable players have gotten a much needed overhaul. I think I said Tim Lincecum looked like skinny, brunette Chris Griffin in MLB 2K10. He has a more recognizable body type this year.
A number of player-specific animations also have been added - Sandoval's nutball at-bat ritual, where he enters the batter's box and then appears to charge out of it, is included. So is the crazy windup of the Astros' Samuel Gervacio - who shows the ball to the third-base dugout before each pitch, and has an arms-flailing follow-through. Gervacio will start the year in the minors, but when he comes up, this will be seen, almost like an Easter egg. Finally, those godawful uniform backs have been fixed. The nametape typeface is still a little squared, but for those who enjoyed pitching but not staring at their hurler's back, this will be a welcome change.
As for player management, pitchers now will get a pitch-count range that CPU managers, especially those in the My Player career mode, will watch more closely. No more leaving in a dead-armed hurler whose stamina ran out before he reached the 100th pitch. Situational pitching changes to create more advantageous matchups will also be more frequent, I was told. As to that, when you're hitting, you will see in the HUD whether the history of this pitcher-vs-hitter matchup favors one side or the other, regardless of overall stats. The game will perform accordingly.
The consequences of a bad year in annualized sports gaming are far reaching. It seems reasonable to still include the disaster of MLB 2K9 in the discussion, as it represented a lost year, MLB 2K10 represented a stabilization, and so 2K11 should deliver improvements expected two years ago. The continued excellence of MLB The Show doesn't help 2K's case. Nor, for that matter, does its own CEO, who never misses a chance to complain about the exclusive baseball license his company acquired, and overpaid for, on the rebound six years ago.
At some point, you have to judge a game on its merits and not the intrigue surrounding it. I think MLB 2K11 has earned that benefit of the doubt. In two key areas - pitching and multiplayer - MLB 2K10 was my preferred option. The refinements I was shown by MLB 2K11 speak of a studio that designed improvements to a good game, instead of a team saddled with overhauling a bad one.