I have to admit, I'm at best a fair weather baseball fan. I haven't played a baseball game in a couple of years, mostly because I heard nothing but bad things about Major League Baseball 2K11. Apparently it didn't work particularly well on a technical level, so you'll understand my hesitation with Major League Baseball 2K12... I wasn't sure what to expect. I have to admit though, I was curious about the possibility of winning a million bucks. For those of you not in the know, the first person to pitch a perfect game last year won a million dollars! Well, I'm happy to report that I encountered only a few bugs that, while none of them were game breaking, caused some raised eyebrows and a few chuckles. Sadly, pretty much everything else: the core mechanics, graphics, animations, and controls (apart from the pitching) are just plain poor.
Since it's been a while for me, I wasn't used to the pitching mechanics of the 2K series. I think they are pretty clever. It works like this: pick your pitch, choose your placement with the left analog stick, then make a prescribed, two-part motion with the right stick. The first motion controls the speed as the reticule fills up. The second controls the movement. For a fastball it's pretty basic, pull back then push straightforward. The opposite is the case for a change up, but things get more complicated with breaking pitches. A proper curve ball involves moving the stick to the side first, then rotating it around to a point on the other side.
It sounds overly complicated, but once I got used to it I actually enjoyed my time on the mound. It all comes down to timing. Of course, as your pitcher gets tired, or more importantly rattled, the margin for error shrinks. You have less time to make the correct movement. If the reticule overfills then you will overthrow the pitch, resulting in a loss of control. Not performing the proper movement results in a "bad gesture," which I just think sounds funny, but also further diminishes accuracy. It's a well-conceived balancing act that is more true to the actual game of baseball than any other part of the 2K12 experience.
I say that because the batting, fielding, and base running are all less than stellar. Using analog sticks for batting is a great idea, and can be incredibly rewarding when executed correctly. Therein lies the problem. I'd take part in batting drills just to practice pulling hits or going to the opposite field, but I never really felt like I was in control. They say batting in the majors is the hardest skill in all of sports, but I doubt any pro would tell you it feels like luck when you get a hit. Unfortunately, that's ultimately how batting in 2K12 feels.
Fielding is a similar vexation, but that's more to do with poor animations than anything (more on that later). Having said that, the base running is absolutely maddening. Getting players to round first base after a hit into the gap never seemed to work properly. If there is more than one guy on base, trying to get one to hold on and one to advance is damn near impossible. It's rare that I'll resort to looking up how to do something that should be obvious, but the fact is even after checking in the insert, I double-checked because it still wouldn't work as advertised. That doesn't even include the times that I would clearly tell everyone to advance and they simply wouldn't.
The game is easy enough to pick up and play, and you have a whole host of different modes to get your fix of America's pastime. You've got your standard exhibition matches, home run derby, playoff runs, and franchise modes. These are all stock and standard. However, 'MLB Today' is a new season mode where you pick your favorite team and, very literally, play along with real life. It takes into account who's hot and who's not, injuries, call ups... pretty much everything. If you're huge into baseball this is right up your alley! I like the idea, it's like getting to change history as it happens. Of course, once the real season is over, so is this part of the experience.
The 'My Player' mode is the way to play for fans of create-a-player. It's pretty fun: working your way up through the minor leagues to play a pivotal role for your chosen organization. You create your player choosing everything from appearance to team to uniform style to what kind of key role you want to play. That last bit are basically preset stat bonuses to start off your career. Want to be a slugger like Albert Pujols? There is a pre-build for that just as there is for a contact hitter, ground ball pitcher, or a closer. You garner experience by actively contributing on the field, but gain more by completing in-game tasks. Here's an example: strikeout a batter and you get forty skill points to spend on leveling up, but if you strike out the batter when your manager tells you to, you get one hundred points. I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from playing well, thus earning more experience to level up and therefore increasing your chances of performing even better. Finally earning the right to play in the majors is great!
It's fun to play a single position and bat (or pitch, depending on what you like), plus it speeds up the game time considerably! However, 'My Player' still falls victim to the same flaws that plague the regular game, plus some of its own. Batting can still be hit and miss (sorry for the bad pun), but can be especially frustrating when you first start out because your stats are so low. The camera for fielding can sometimes move wildly around and be disorienting, not to mention that everything is inherently backwards because you are looking from the fielder's perspective. Lastly, be prepared to play at least one full season in the minors, probably more. It takes a while to not only build up your player to a level where he can compete with the big boys, but also achieve the goals set for you by the organization. Patience is rewarded for those who put in the time, which I suppose is just like real baseball.
The commentary stands as a highlight. The trio of Steve Phillips, Gary Thorne, and John Kruk provides some of the best play by play I've heard in a sports game. They must have spent ages in the studio considering the sheer amount of dialogue and stats they come up with. This is made all the more impressive by just how contextually accurate it is. Considering how long a baseball season is, I was pleasantly surprised how often I'd hear some new nugget of statistical info regarding a particular batter's performance versus my team last year. My only real complaint is that there isn't any commentary in the minors.
Graphically, Major League Baseball 2K12 is unimpressive. I feel like the level of detail is... lacking. From the players to the crowds to the stadiums (which is usually the easiest thing to get right), the entire experience just doesn't look sharp. Most of the star players are pretty well represented, but that all falls apart because the facial animations look terrible. Created players (or those from the minor leagues) look more like wax sculptures left out in the sun. The shadows in particular look terrible. When standing in the batters box on a sunny day, the shadows cast by the player look more like a staircase built in Minecraft, all corners and edges. It's almost funny, but at the same time, unforgivable in this day and age.
The poor graphics are only made worse by the laughably bad animations. Almost everything looks slightly mistimed rather then fluid. The best example is the crowd animations. You'll see fans leaping unrealistically for foul balls; either way too early or way too late. It's funny the first time, but again, like the shadows, it looks unnatural and removes you from the experience. Ultimately, I found myself cringing every time I fouled one off just because I was borderline insulted by the lack of effort put forth.
I'd be able to look past some of the less important fluff if the gameplay held up. Sadly, the animation issues pervade the experience on the diamond as well, in some cases directly affecting the outcome. It comes down to the fact that the animations don't sync properly with the action. It seemed like almost every time you try to field a fly ball you would slow down like you're caught in some quantum singularity until the ball gets close, at which point you speed up and catch the ball. It's surreal, and it happens constantly.
Also, there is definitely a disconnect in the transition between fielding and throwing. I could never tell if it was lag from the controls or just animations playing out. After the slow-down/speed-up animation to actually get the ball into the glove, the fielder would simply stand for a moment before the animations would start up again and then he would throw to first. Let me stress that this did not change if I pressed the throw button before or after the ball was in the glove. It felt more like the fielder had to follow a predetermined animated path, but there were too few paths to chose from so various situations weren't differentiated dynamically. The result is the player making the wrong animations at the wrong times. Other times it seems like the computer wanted to take an extra step here or there. Those extra, unnecessary movements often cost double plays. I was literally yelling at the TV, "Come ON! Throw the ball already!?"
It's even worse on the base paths as the animations seem to take a while to kick in. I had some surreal moments when I wouldn't round the bag properly, get stuck on second base before finally taking off for third after the relay throw had already come in. Cursing the baseball gods, I'd be caught in a rundown, only to have the third baseman inexplicably let me slide in before attempting to apply the tag. And here's the kicker: this happened more than once.
Apart from the sub-par graphics and mistimed animations, I also ran into a whole host of weird technical glitches. Finding yourself viewing the action from under the bleachers occurred occasionally as the camera randomly decided to go on walkabout. My first ever home run was slightly marred by the fact that I ran into the shortstop as I rounded second and proceeded to push him halfway to third. He completely locked up; it was like pushing a mannequin on wheels. That's just one example of several which made me wonder; did anyone actually beta test this before it went out?
As I said initially, I'm not the biggest baseball fan in the world, but I definitely know enough about baseball to know why Major League Baseball 2K12 falls short. This game is passable at best, and for those on a Xbox 360, it's their only option. I appreciate the idea of following your own team all season long in the 'MLB Today' mode, and I also enjoyed 'My Player.' Working your way up through the minors to make it to the big stage fills you with a suitable sense of accomplishment. However, that's only if you can stick through the crappy animations, imprecise controls, poor graphics, and technical glitches that make the actual in-game experience more a chore than anything. Honestly, you might be better served taking the year off, saving your money, and maybe seeing a game in person... you know, so you can see how baseball is supposed to be.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Major League Baseball 2K12 provided by 2K Sports.