I'm thinking of a famous, very touching monologue by Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager of the Baltimore Orioles, talking about cutting players during spring training.
"You call 'em in and say, 'It's the consensus among us that we're going to let you go back home.' Some of them cry, some get mad, but none of them will leave until you answer them one question, 'Skipper, what do you think?' And you gotta look every one of those kids in the eye and kick their dreams in the ass and say no. If you say it mean enough, maybe they do themselves a favor and don't waste years learning what you can see in a day."
If you're a baseball fan who only has an Xbox 360, this is the only Major League Baseball game you can get for it. Viewed as an underachiever, the game rebounded with new controls and a new career mode in MLB 2K10. This year's edition seeks to take as big of a stride with one year to go on its exclusive contract.
Hitting: This game is by far the preferred option if you are a hitter, and I mean a hitter, not someone who just swings away. MLB 2K11's batting view is still the best for recognizing pitch type and trajectory and reacting to it in real time. After the ball is struck, a new in-flight-camera gives a truer sense of where the ball is headed and how hard it was struck, helping you make aggressive baserunning decisions earlier and more appropriately in the play. With these, and the simple application of fundamentals, you can still level the playing field against the CPU with a superior team. With the Astros, the fifth-worst hitting team in the game, I went against the Giants, the best pitching side, determined to make Matt Cain work. I did and the 2-1 victory, stitched together with a couple walks and a timely hit and run, was deeply satisfying. Against Aroldis Chapman, the Reds' 105-mph blowtorch, I still chased him in the fourth inning because I made him pitch to me. (See the video) It feels very realistic and very connected to the idea of getting a good pitch to hit. Even against the best starters, they will come.
MLB Today: Like the analog hitting, this is something that carries over from last year but is still a distinguishing enough feature to merit praise. With it, you may choose from the real-life games on the day you are playing, with their real life starting pitchers and rosters all ready to go. For fans who want to relive a win or replay a loss, or feel more a part of their team, MLB Today will supply plenty of enjoyment as a 162-game season plays out.
Multiplayer reliability: Multiplayer baseball is not my cup of tea, but there are those who find its anything-goes nature very appealing and can adjust their timing to win within it. For them, MLB 2K11 is the preferred baseball game, suffering from nowhere near the lag or connection issues the MLB 11 The Show faces. You're still dealing with a delay in your commands and for a sport so heavily built on precision, it won't look familiar. Loads of strikeouts, overthrown pitches and wild tosses to the bag are common if you don't have much footing in this side of the game. It's difficult to do well with an average team, so expect to see a lot of the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox when you go online.
Presentation and Commentary: Again, one of the game's strongest virtues is a long-standing feature. The commentary of Gary Thorne, Steve Phillips and John Kruk is first rate. In 2K11 you will hear much stronger interstitial commentary, the context that makes broadcast baseball feel like a conversation, than in MLB 11 The Show. Coupled with MLB Today, or going deep into a season simulation, the game is constantly placing the performance in a larger context. It was perceptible even in the spring training games I played over the past week. The overlays, bumpers and park-specific camera angles integrate into a high quality broadcast production.
Unfortunately, what's on the other side of the lens has serious troubles.
Terrible Visuals: This is, to be blunt, an ugly game. Still is. We are two years removed from the meltdown of MLB 2K9 and the series has made only incremental improvements in a bedrock necessity of sports simulations, the graphics and the animations. I don't really care that hundreds of new animations, many specific to certain positions, have been introduced when they are integrated this poorly. Players still glaringly pop from one animation to the next and many plays, particularly foul balls, end with someone standing in the "defense ready" posture for a good two seconds. Bizarre-looking double play throws are unfortunately common; so is a first baseman firing full overhand, point blank at a pitcher running to cover first, four strides from the bag. I repeatedly saw invisible batters, bats waving, walking to the plate or warming up in the on-deck circle. Swinging strikes have a nasty hitch in the back end of their animation. The ball never seems to leave a pitcher's hand in a smooth trajectory. Replays and some in-game transitory animations will sometimes have a comical sped-up quality that looks like an old Babe Ruth newsreel. Players, uniforms and stadium textures remain decisively previous-generation compared to the competition. Something in this production is, quite evidently, not getting the resources it needs to make this a game that meets expectations.
Poor Fielding: Whereas the controls for batting and pitching feel tightly connected to the act, fielding feels random and very far from deterministic. That's a bad sign for something touted as this year's new focus. The meters are too small and fill up too fast to execute throws that look as routine as they should be. Fly balls are now handled with a two-stage process, beginning with a white landing area whose size is relative to the fielder's defensive awareness. It completely obscures a yellow target, marking where the ball will land, until the white spot disappears. As a result, many can-of-corn flies end with a lunging grab as you get the fielder into proper position at the last minute. You still get the other guy out, but too many fielding plays look like little leaguers cavorting on the sandlot.
Shows Little Improvement: MLB 2K11 falls short on another fundamental of sports game, and that's making a compelling case to get this year's version instead of staying with last year's. The addition of 40-man roster management, injury management, and dynamic player ratings (where a player's skills are boosted or gimped if they've played above average or below average over the past two weeks) are nice concepts but don't deliver much punch. While hitting in the major leagues is a joy, with developing players it was a real struggle even when you apply plate discipline, so pitching is still the preferred M.O. for My Player. The sales points for this game are largely carried over from last year - and then the dreaded "roster update," plus a current season of MLB Today to play. That's just not good enough given how much improvement stands to be made here.
MLB 2K11 has a couple key ingredients of a seriously enjoyable baseball game, but serves them up in a fashion that is unbearable to watch. I cannot shake a nagging feeling that what I played at a preview in January and what shipped last week are not the same game. That had some confidence behind it. This rather sullenly serves up retouched visuals and keystone kops animations, perhaps feeling like no matter what it does, people will still hoot and rip it.
I haven't been one of those guys. MLB Today is an outstanding concept, especially for the sport with the longest season. The pitching last year and the hitting camera angles over the past two years are bona fide innovations. But I feel like I am still wasting years learning what others have seen in a day. MLB 2K11 is a disappointment because I believe in this game. I just wish Take-Two Interactive did, too.
Major League Baseball 2K11 was developed by Visual Concepts and published by 2K Sports for the Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC, DS and PSP, released on March 8, 2011. Retails for $59.99 on Xbox 360 and PS3. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all modes, both singleplayer and online multiplayer, using a wide variety of teams and lineups.