Review: Major League Baseball 2K11

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Major League Baseball 2K11 is an acceptable, if sometimes flawed, baseball title that won’t elevate 2K Sports’ franchise above its reputation for falling short of greatness. The game is like a journeyman player who can play a role in the big leagues, but is not ready to start any All-Star Games.

But for some gamers, 2K11 is the only option for a baseball title. PlayStation 3 owners can try the beloved MLB: The Show franchise, and The Show’s 2011 edition is also in the marketplace. I’ve played a little bit of MLB 11 and it works. I’m approaching this review, however, from the point of view of an XBox 360 owner whose choice is between 2K11 or nothing.

From that perspective, 2K11 is OK for gamers who really want an MLB title, but frustrating moments and an over-complicated control scheme prevent the game from being as stellar as it could have been.

I’ll begin with what works. I’ve read many of the horror stories about 2K9 and have also read that 2K10 was an improvement. The franchise’s 2011 edition boasts smooth animations, and it can be mesmerizing to watch a pitcher windup and hurl the ball toward home plate. The lighting and weather effects are also a plus, albeit a minor one when it comes to the gameplay experience.

And that’s where I don’t understand the decisions 2K Sports’ developers make in designing a baseball title. The “Total Control” system requires players to manipulate their joysticks, a la “Street Fighter” to throw a pitch. For example, to throw a two-seam fastball, the player has to move the analog stick up and then make a half-circle in the direction of the pitch’s movement. Similarly, the default batting controls require the player to push the analog stick up to swing, or to hold the button down and then push up for a power swing.

Some players may prefer this approach to the old-fashioned just-push-one-button-to-swing style, but I’m not one of them. Personally, the control style seems like a way to be different just for the sake of being different. I would prefer to keep the controls simple and concentrate on the strategy of pitch selection and location, and a “Classic” control mode provides that option. I switched and my enjoyment of the game increased immensely.

The downside to Classic mode is that the game seems to penalize the player for preferring an old-school control scheme. Striking out the CPU is next to impossible in Classic mode. Hitting in either mode is pretty hard too. I almost always tend to swing to early, but I’m not quite sure if this is the sign of the game’s timing being off, or if I’m just getting used to the system. To be fair, I may end up liking the pitching system with more play. I’ll update if I change my mind.

The game’s fielding experience ranges from outstanding to extremely frustrating. On one play, I’ll turn a double play and the animations are beautiful. On another, a ball will be hit to the outfield and the player I’m supposed to control is off-screen. The outcome? Slow guys can hit triples.

And that will make your pitcher nervous. Despite featuring Philadelphia Phillies star hurler Roy Halladay on the cover, 2K11′s designers gave the game’s pitchers nerves of aluminum foil. Whenever my pitcher surrendered a few hits, the aim controls became as shaky as an over-caffeinated chihuahua. It becomes nearly impossible to aim the ball, and you’ll have to call the manager out to the mound to settle the poor pitcher down. I’m not used to seeing Major League managers visit the hill when their starter puts a few guys on during the first inning, but the in-game announcers see nothing weird about this and practically instruct the player to make a mound visit.

The game’s announcers are generally OK, but they will at times make the wrong calls. For example, if a player beats out a throw to first base, an announcer may exclaim that the fielder made a throwing error, even though that didn’t happen. Another problem is repetitiveness. I’ve only played a handful of games with the Dodgers so far and I’ve been told in each game that first basemen James Loney is “a model of consistency.” On the other hand, my favorite part of the commentary is that the in-game voices will comment on a player’s performance in the previous game. Those moments add variety to the soundtrack and add to the illusion of a real season.

Besides franchise and single-game modes, 2K11 also brings back the series’ My Player mode. My Player lets players create their own avatar who begins his career as a first-round draft pick in Double A. The challenge, of course, is to reach the Majors and even the Hall of Fame. The My Player mode puts players in control of at-bats, baserunning and fielding opportunities without having to play through a full game. It’s like a mini-RPG. Getting hits and making defensive plays allows players to earn points and improve skills. It’s a decent addition, but not something I would personally want to play as much as franchise mode.

I like to think that some of my criticisms, such as the announcing gaffes and fielding difficulties, can be fixed in a patch. I generally enjoyed playing the game and would like to see 2K Sports replicate its success in basketball simulations with baseball. I don’t think I have seen anything but praise for NBA 2K11, not only for the gameplay itself but the nostalgia factor that came with playing as Michael Jordan against old opponents like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

I can’t help but wonder if some key refinements in gameplay, plus a similar attempt to evoke baseball’s rich history, could bring 2K Sports’ baseball series to the next level. As it is, I cannot say Major League Baseball 2K11 is a must-buy or don’t buy. It’s a decent pickup for an XBox 360 player who really wants a baseball game, nothing more.

Major League Baseball 2K11
2K Sports
Nintendo DS/Nintendo Wii/PC/ PlayStation 2/ PlayStation 3/XBox 360. (Reviewed on XBox 360)
Rated E for Everyone