Major League Baseball 2K5 is a big step in the right direction for Take-Two's (formerly Sega's) video game baseball franchise. Last year's game, to be kind, was full of bugs and had modes that didn't actually work as advertised. The best thing going for it was the incorporation of the ESPN license, which was mainly used in the form of informational overlays and replays. All of the modes in this year's game work like they should and there seem to be hardly any bugs, although the few you will probably run across do have the potential to be very annoying. Furthermore, the ESPN license has been used to conjure up new in-action camera angles, and this new feature has even been incorporated directly into gameplay in the form of new pitching and baserunning control schemes. Meanwhile, the graphics, the audio, the depth of play, and the number of available online options have increased significantly since last year.
The ESPN license is obvious, both in replays and in the pitching and baserunning interfaces.
What sets MLB 2K5 apart from other baseball video games is how great it looks and sounds, at least from a purely technical standpoint. The polygons and textures used to put together the players and the stadiums are crisp and clear and really do justice to the high-resolution 480p progressive scan modes offered by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. Batting and pitching use the same behind-the-hitter viewpoint, but action in the field is shown from a variety of different camera perspectives. The ESPN license is clearly evident in the graphical overlays and transitions, particularly the K-Zone and Web Gems instant replays, which look just like what you'd see during an ESPN baseball broadcast or an episode of SportsCenter.
The developer borrowed a page from EA Sports' MVP Baseball franchise and incorporated picture-in-picture baserunning windows. However, here the concept is taken further by placing the window for each runner in a separate corner of the screen (instead of cramming them into a single cluster at the top of the screen), and making it so the size and location of the baserunning windows change depending on what needs to be shown. When you're up to bat with runners on, the PIP windows are large and enable you to see both the base runner and the closest fielder, as well as how lengthy of a leadoff your runner has. Once the ball is put into play, the PIP windows grow smaller and either follow the runners, or relocate to the bottom of the screen so that they're never obscuring your ability to see the play or to see where the ball is.
Player bodies and faces are remarkably accurate, and there's a fair bit of expression evident in the eyes and mouth. Squinting, gum chewing, confident grins, rapid eye movements, and pained grimaces are just some of the many little touches to watch out for. The animation for player movements, specifically for swinging, catching, and jogging, is extremely fluid. Meanwhile, you'll also notice that uniforms gather dirt and grass stains based upon what happens on the field, and that the camera will often focus in on a player cleaning the dirt off his uniform right after a slide. If there is one drawback in this area, it's that the variety of different animations for certain plays isn't very high. Specifically, liners and pop-ups are hit toward the outfield. After playing a few games or so, you'll start noticing that line drives and pop-ups tend to go to the same locations and that the players go for the ball the same way every time. Fortunately, there are plenty of different animations for grounders, bouncers, and infield plays.
Stadiums are another high point. Not only are all 30 MLB parks (and 9 old-timer parks) accurate, but also they're outfitted with a variety of dynamically updating scoreboards and animated signage. When the score is 3-1 in the sixth inning, you can actually see that reflected on the outfield scoreboard, usually along with the hitter's portrait and batting stats. Familiar ballpark landmarks, such as the big glove in SBC Park (San Francisco) and the fountains at Kauffman (Kansas City), are present and look exactly as they're supposed to. In order to put so much detail into the inside of the park, the developer had to skimp somewhat on the scenery and buildings located outside of the park. The camera angle is usually set low enough so you don't notice how sparse the outside world is, but if you take a good look, it's pretty obvious that most parks are missing the parking structures, office buildings, and freeways that are usually seen above and beyond the outfield walls. That's an acceptable trade-off though, considering how absolutely beautiful the stadiums and their innards are.
The crowd inside the park is pretty impressive too. Each spectator is an individual polygon model and he or she is usually dressed up in team gear. The models can independently stand up, clap, and react to plays on the field. You'll notice individual spectators sometimes holding up rah-rah signs or flipping over strikeout placards in the outfield, while large groups of spectators can often be seen standing up and cheering together. This is especially obvious in the seventh inning, when the camera focuses in on a section of fans as they sing along to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Furthermore, the spectators in MLB 2K5 aren't all carbon copies of one another, which has often been the case in baseball video games in the past. The stands are full of people of different sizes and ethnicities, all wearing different clothes and reacting to the game in their own unique way.
It's not just the scoreboards and crowd that give MLB 2K5 such a natural feel either. All of the different camera angles, transitions, and replays help give the video game an atmosphere that's similar to that found in a live TV broadcast. For example, when you're teeing off on the CPU with a runner on base, the game might switch views and you'll see the play from the outfielder's perspective, from the perspective of a fan located along the lines, or it might be a snazzy fly-cam shot that follows and pans around the base runner. When a pitcher notches a strikeout, the game could show an overhead replay, a replay using the K-Zone display, a close-up reaction of the hitter, or it could just show one of the spectator's adding a "K" to the tally in the outfield. You'll constantly see an assortment of field views, reaction shots, crowd shots, replays, and graphical overlays, and it certainly keeps the action lively.
Authentic stadiums, crowd reactions, and replays.
Lively and lifelike are also good ways to describe the audio. The sounds of the ball hitting the catcher's glove, the cracking of the bat, and the players sliding into base are a bit exaggerated, but not unrealistically so. Stadium PA systems announce the hitters, call out pitching changes, and sometimes chime in with advertisements for fictitious sponsors or promotions. When a batter is up at the plate, the loudspeaker usually pipes out some sort of traditional baseball cheerleading sequence, especially if there are men on base or a rally is in progress. What's really impressive here is that individual spectators will respond to the PA by cheering on or insulting players after they're announced, and then as a group they'll clap or stomp when the loudspeaker plays a familiar tune.
Even more striking is that the commentary turned in by ESPN analysts Joe Morgan and Jon Miller actually reflects the tone of the crowd and the pace of the game. If the crowd starts chanting for a certain player or the boobirds start up, Joe will say something like, "They're really showing him their love," or "The crowd wasn't happy with that play." When an exciting play happens, the level of animation in Jon's voice will pick up the instant the fielder catches the ball or the runner squeaks in safely, which is exactly what you'd want an enthusiastic announcer to do while calling a game. Just in general, Joe and Jon do a good job of the play-by-play. The variety of different calls, background anecdotes, and interjections is exceptional. Furthermore, the friendly rapport that the two have in the booth comes across in the game, thanks to all of the personal banter that was added along with the standard commentary.
Baseball Tonight host Karl Ravech provides team summaries before the start of each game, although his comments really only get interesting if you're in the middle of a season or franchise, because then he'll actually comment on specific player streaks or situations that the teams need to address. For a final touch of ESPN flavor, the game incorporates familiar ESPN segue music and themes for its camera transitions and menus.
Pitching incorporates the ESPN K-Zone display.
For the most part, Major League Baseball 2K5 plays like a simulation-style game as opposed to an over-the-top blastfest, although it certainly does have a number of juiced nuances. Ultimately, how much you like the game will depend on your own preferences with regard to the various control schemes, as well as how annoyed you are by a couple of minor, albeit potentially annoying, bugs that slipped through into the final product.
You can take your pick from five different pitching interfaces. The default setup, called K-Zone, is named and patterned after the graphical replay that's often shown between pitches on ESPN television broadcasts. It uses a combination of aiming cursor, power indicator, and crosshairs to let you select a pitch, aim it, put strength behind it, and then tweak the accuracy of the pitch. If you don't like the K-Zone interface, you can pick from four other pitching setups, which include two classic schemes: a simplified K-Zone and a meter setup that's identical to the one used in MVP Baseball 2005.
Here's how K-Zone works. Each pitcher has anywhere between three to six pitches, which are mapped to buttons on the controller. The available selection of pitches is shown onscreen in a cluster, which also shows the effectiveness of each pitch along with how much stamina the pitcher has left. To initiate the process of tossing a pitch, you first need to pick a spot around the strike zone by using the left analog stick to position a ball-shaped aiming cursor. Then you press the button associated with the pitch you want to throw. When you push the button, a large circle appears where the aiming cursor used to be. This circle represents the strength of the pitch, and it shrinks in size based on how long you keep the button pressed. The longer you keep the button held, the stronger the pitch will be and the smaller the circle will become. That's important, because the circle is also the target area for the next phase of the K-Zone process. After letting up on the button, two long crosshairs appear with that circle smack-dab in the middle of them. A dot then begins to move downward along the vertical crosshair. Using the same button, you're supposed to stop the dot in the circle. That starts a dot in the horizontal crosshair moving, which you're supposed to handle in the same fashion. If you land the dots inside the circle, you'll throw the pitch where you aimed it. If the dots land too far outside the circle, the pitch will end up somewhere within that margin of error. It sounds complicated when put into words, but the whole process really only takes just a few seconds and three button presses.
Hitting comes in two flavors, which are labeled in the game as "video game" and "pure baseball." The video game setup is the default and relies mainly on timing, whereas the pure baseball setup also incorporates the use of a large cursor for aiming. The two hitting setups actually aren't all that different from one another, since the video game scheme also makes use of a hidden, albeit very forgiving, cursor of its own called the "batter's guess." In a nutshell, the batter's guess feature allows you to position your swing through areas of the strike zone by pulling the analog stick in the appropriate direction. Generally speaking, you'll make better contact and get more hits by getting the timing right and making use of whatever aiming scheme is used in the hitting setup that you chose. Both control setups let you choose between contact or power swings by mapping each type of swing to its own button.
A new and particularly controversial addition to the hitting interface in MLB 2K5 is something referred to as "the slam zone." Sometimes when a pitch is made the action will freeze and the location of the pitch will be revealed, ever so briefly, by the appearance of a tiny baseball graphic in the strike zone. At the same time, a targeting cursor will appear that can be moved using the left analog stick. If you can move the cursor over the ball before it disappears, you'll activate the slam zone, which is basically a button-mashing minigame that allows you to sit dead red on a pitch and jack a monster home run. Obviously, some people will like the added thrills that slam zone offers, and some won't. Thankfully, slam zone, while enabled by default, is an optional feature that can be disabled in the settings menu.
The fielding and baserunning interfaces in MLB 2K5 are similar to those found in other baseball video games, specifically MVP Baseball 2005, but with a couple unique twists. With regard to fielding, the left analog stick controls fielders' movements and each of the buttons on the controller lets you throw to a specific base on the diamond. The right stick lets you activate diving catches and jumping grabs, which you can also use to climb the wall and rob a home run if you time it right. Instead of incorporating a throw-strength meter for making throws, which is what MVP Baseball has, MLB 2K5 lets you make a hard throw or give your fielder a brief hit of speed by pushing the right trigger button. On the baserunning end of things, you can take leadoffs and preload stolen base attempts by using the shoulder buttons and the digital directional pad, respectively. When the ball is in play, you can select and take control of individual base runners by pressing the button on the controller that refers to the base that player is about to leave. If a runner is near the next base and you want to have him slide a certain way, you can command him to do so by pushing a direction on the right analog stick. Again, these controls are very similar to those found in EA Sports' MVP Baseball 2005. The difference here, as was the case with fielding, is that you can also have a runner kick in his afterburners by rapidly pressing the button shown next to his name.
On-command baserunning lets you take control of an individual runner.