Take Two and Visual Concepts have been struggling to make baseball fans happy since they won exclusive rights to the Major League Baseball a few years ago. Starting with Major League Baseball 2K6 and heading on through all the way to 2K8, the franchise has become known for glitchy gameplay, iffy graphics, and horrible presentation. Does Major League Baseball 2K9 follow in the steps of its predecessors or is it a much needed step forward?
MLB 2K7 had pretty nice graphics, for its time, but the series took an unexpected step backwards in the visuals department with last year's iteration. MLB 2K9, however, reverses that trend and surpasses any of the previous MLB games. Player models are very well done and stadiums are re-created in beautifully realistic detail. The fans in the stands also look much better than previous attempts. Instead of using seven or eight models and repeating them again and again throughout the stadium, Visual Concepts created a few different fan models and then allowed them to be dressed in varying outfits so, even if their faces look similar, their clothing will not be. To round it all off and add a bit more realism, the dynamic lighting system has improved greatly and shadows on the field look better than ever as they grow during those late afternoon games.
There are still minor glitches, though, that do prevent the game from earning a perfect score, in regards to the graphics. The infield dirt uses noticeably low resolution textures that stand out during the closest shots and the borders between the grass and the dirt are defined by an oddly tall ridge. Shadows that appear on player faces also tend to be a bit blocky and players will sometimes clip through the bat boy or other players when they are out of play (e.g. walking back to the dugout).
For the most part, the in-game audio is well done. The sound of the ball off the bat varies much more greatly than it used to and a home run will never sound like a short fly ball. The stirring of the crowd is also realistic, though their applause can often sound like three people clapping their hands into a microphone in a studio instead of thousands applauding in a wide open space. On the default "TV Broadcast" setting, the commentator volume tends to be a tad low while the umpires are too loud, though these problems can be corrected in the options.
Presentation has always been a huge issue for the 2K series. Poor announcing and odd camera angles have plagued the franchise since 2006. By and large, and thankfully so, these issues have finally been corrected.
The much complained about duo of Joe Morgan and John Miller has been replaced with ESPN commentators Gary Thorne and Steve Philips. Unlike the former duo, Gray and Steve won't lull you to sleep or repeat the same story four times a game. The new team is on point and will stop their in game banter to give the play-by-play when something happens on the field.
The in-game camera angles are also much more useful this year. The camera will pan further back (than previous years) when a ball reaches the outfield and will pan smoothly when you throw the ball across the diamond. You will still get a few close-ups that are a little too close, but it's rarely an issue this year.
MLB 2k has always been a strong contender in the gameplay arena through its use of the analog sticks, though frame rates have always been an issue and continue to be so this year.
The use of the right stick to both hit and pitch is unique and rewarding. Unlike other games, where a simple press of a button commences the action, you have to time yourself and mimic the motion of a real player. Pitches, such as the curve ball, will require you to pull back on the right stick and then snap it forward in a curving motion, as if you were snapping your wrist as a real pitcher would. Hitting requires you to pull back on the right stick to take your step and then push the stick forward, with the power and speed of your swing being affected by how quickly you push the stick. These controls have been refined this year and slightly simplified. While the simplified pitching will make it less likely for your online opponent to make a mistake, it's a much less frustrating experience than last year.
Fielding is also improved after being a weak point in the gameplay for a few years now. You have complete control over the fielders and can choose to dive whenever you want by pressing the 'X' button. This same button lets you climb the outfield wall, when you are near it, so you can attempt to rob someone of a home run. You won't be doing that five times a game, anymore, either. It's much more difficult to catch a ball over the wall, but rightfully so. The fielding feels very tight and responsive and, most of all, realistic. Faster players will get to more balls that slower players couldn't realistically reach. The difference in outfielder speed is more noticeable this year and it makes things a little more interesting, in a good way.
Frame rates, though improved greatly over last year, are still an issue, as mentioned before. While the camera will pan smoothly, there are still instances where the frame rate will become noticeably low. Ground balls tend to cause the most slow down during single player, for some odd reason, though it's not detrimental to your ability to get to the ball in time. Though it occurs more often online than off, anything hit down either of the lines also tends to cause a drop in the frame rates, presumably as the game struggles to draw the action on field while also animating the crowd. Unfortunately, on fly balls, the drop in frame rates can affect your ability to position your outfielder under the ball with enough accuracy to catch it.
MLB 2K9 is what Take Two and Visual Concepts should have put out for years. It's not a perfect experience and the frame rate issue is still a cause for concern and a problem that needs to be addressed, but when things are running smoothly, as they do most of the time, MLB 2K9 can be a very enjoyable and well done experience. If the few remaining frame rate issues can be patched up, there will be absolutely no reason for baseball fans to pass this one up. It's been a long four years, but the game is finally there. You can, at last, spend the $60 and know you won't have the desire to throw your controller across the room like a 98mph fastball in the bottom of the ninth inning. Just don't yet expect things to be absolutely perfect.