Baseball America recently received 2K Sports' newest baseball installment, Major League Baseball 2K11 for Xbox 360. I went over to Nathan Rode's house to test out the game recently, and here are my early impressions of the game with grades—as you could only expect from Baseball America—based on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The first thing you notice about playing Major League Baseball 2K11 is that hitting is hard. Really hard—just like in real life. Unlike a lot of baseball video games, the fastball velocity is spot on. Fastballs come in fast, the movement on the pitch is accurate and you find yourself swinging late when you're facing flamethrowers like Aroldis Chapman or Stephen Strasburg. In the first game Nathan Rode and I played against each other, there were 22 combined strikeouts in the game. Granted, the game featured Felix Hernandez against Justin Verlander, but still. . . it shows how difficult hitting can be for someone just picking up the game. The hitting is done with the thumb sticks. You direct where you want to hit the ball with the left thumb stick—and again, just like in real life, it's easier to pull an inside pitch or hit an outside pitch to the opposite field. You swing with the right thumb stick, simply flicking it forward for a regular hit, or rocking it back and then flicking it forward for a power swing. It can be a little frustrating at first, but it's an intuitive system and is a lot more fun and satisfying that just pressing a button to swing.
Pitching takes more than just the press of a button, as well. You choose which pitch you want to throw by pressing a button but, just like hitting, it takes both thumb sticks to execute each pitch. You choose the location of the pitch with the left thumb stick and then execute the pitch "gesture" with the right stick. Gesture is an odd word for it, but that's what they call it. . . which can get kind of annoying when the game keeps flashing the words "bad gesture" when you don't execute the pitch moves properly. For a fastball, you move the right stick down and then up. For a changeup, it's up and then down. Breaking balls require more difficult movements, like twirling the thumb stick in a half-circle. The movements are similar to executing skateboard tricks in the Skate series, which I enjoy, so it made it easy for me to pick up. If you don't execute your pitch correctly, the location will be off, the movement won't be as sharp or you can throw a wild pitch, depending on the severity of the blunder.
While hitting is difficult to master and pitching takes some finesse, the steepest learning curve in Major League Baseball 2K11 is the base running. For me, this is true with most baseball video games for a couple reasons. With pitching and hitting, you get a few attempts to practice those skills each at-bat, at your own pace. With baserunning, there's always different situations and everything is happening fast—oftentimes with runs on the line.
Fielding is also a bit of an adventure. The infielders have quick reactions, but even if you let your infielder steady his feet, too many throws pull the first baseman off the bag. With outfielders, fly balls are tracked with a small yellow dot within a larger, white circle and it's sometimes difficult to tell where the yellow dot is because there isn't a lot of contrast between the two colors. Outfielders are sluggish and sometimes get cut off by poor camera work. Very few plays look routine—it looks like the fielders are always trying to make the flashy play, which waters down the effect and makes everything look sloppy.
Announcers on sports games are typically even more redundant and annoying than their real-life counterparts. But I was pleasantly surprised by the level of detail the announcers (Gary Thorne, Steve Phillips and John Kruk) went into during the games I played. I didn't get to play enough to see if their banter became annoying over the course of an entire season, but I found their commentary to be refreshing and informative. They would recite interesting facts like how the two teams playing did against each other in real life in 2010 and they had interesting details about players that even hardcore fans would find useful. The sound effects were pretty standard.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, lacks both depth and substance. It won't take long for players to tire of the 13 songs on the game, especially when there are only a few real gems. For comparison's sake NBA 2K11 had more than twice as many songs. Pearl Jam and Joan Jett are most recognizable artists on the soundtrack and they deliver with "Rearview Mirror" and "Bad Reputation," even if the latter seems a little out of place in a baseball game. The soundtrack has a lot of generic college rock, but there's some heavy hitters mixed in with Five Finger Death Punch and Corroded. The Willowz were the breakthrough artist of the group for me. While they get docked points for the unnecessary Z, they have a good sound, similar to The White Stripes. It would also be nice if players had walk-up music.
For the most part, players' faces and stances were very realistic. If you didn't know who was up and couldn't see their name or number, you could typically figure it out by getting a glimpse of their face or even by their stance sometimes. And the developers were aggressive with making the game true to life. Even young players like Carlos Santana have accurate replicas of their batting stance.
The ballparks look brilliant, right down to the minor details and there are other nice touches, like shadows that actually move over the course of a game and clusters of fans standing up when a foul ball is hit to their section.
Many things already mentioned contribute to the realism of the game—the speed and movement of the pitches, the difficulty of hitting, the impressive graphics and the stances and mechanics of the players. Other things already mentioned also take away from the realism, like sluggish outfielders and too many errant throws to first base—but those could be fixed with a patch.
A new addition to this year's installment of the game is that the strike zone is a little more random than in years past, which also helps make the game feel more authentic. Another new addition is called Dynamic Player Ratings, which boost the ratings of players on hot streaks and tone down the ratings of players on cold streaks.
Most of the player ratings seemed to line up, but I was surprised that Brandon League had more pitches in his repertoire than Roy Halladay. There were also a few minor things that I noticed that could be better to make the game feel more real. I didn't notice any ballgirls or mascots during the games, I didn't see any broken bats and the players wear helmets during the home run derby.
Many things add to the fun of Major League Baseball 2K11.
There are the typical game modes—quick games, dynasty seasons, different drills to help you brush up on your skills and online play. Taking a page out of the competition's playbook, the My Player feature allows you to create your own player and have him play his way up through the minor leagues before cracking the big league roster.
There are cool highlight packages after each game, lots of realistic alternate and throwback jerseys to choose from and two teams (American League and National League) of legendary players
2K Sports also brought back the $1 million challenge to the first player to throw a perfect game, which is an incredibly fun gimmick.
Although the controls are a little difficult to pick up immediately, it didn't detract from the fun of the game at all. I left Nathan's house wishing I could play longer and I would definitely buy the game if my Xbox 360 wasn't broken.
OVERALL GRADE: 60—Major League Baseball 2K11 is an above-average offering, but some improvements could make it a potential Hall of Famer.