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March 6, 2009 at 2:45 pm ET
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Bats and Bytes Review – MLB ’09: The Show vs. Major League Baseball 2K9

This is a bittersweet day here in the Bortone house. After years of dedication and loyalty to 2K Sports (despite all of the reasons they’ve given me to jump ship), I have finally found the definitive baseball video game.

…The one that makes people do a double take whenever they walk by the flatscreen…

…The one that continually offers something you haven’t seen or heard before in every session you play…

…The one that makes you say, “I don’t care if the baby’s been crying for 90 minutes – I have to play just…one…more…game!!!!

And you ain’t gonna be playin’ it on no Xbox 360, friend.

Oh sure, Xbox gamers have their own game to play this year in MLB 2K9 — and it’s a pretty good one, too. But after spending some quality time with both, I have no qualms about saying it — Sony’s MLB ’09: The Show may just be the finest slab of digital rounders ever put on disc.

PS3 owners rejoice. The system has finally shaken off those sports game cobwebs, and given you an exclusive title to be proud of. For the Xbox-lovin’ sports gamers (present company included), The Show may be the game that makes you reconsider saving a few extra ducats to buy Sony’s big black box.

Let’s find out why, shall we?

Presentation
In life, many say “the devil is in the details.”  At Sony, details prove to be a more heavenly addition.  On the surface, MLB ’09 appears to be nothing more than a polished, updated version of last year’s edition — a decent game in its own right.  But once you spend a little time playing around under the hood, you’ll quickly see that this isn’t just an update, but a complete reinvention of the franchise.

From dugout animations to pitchers ducking underneath seeing-eye liners, The Show takes all of the little nuances from an actual baseball broadcast and puts them — ahem — in the game.  At one point, I even noticed the second baseman putting a pair of fingers in the air to alert the outfielders that there were two outs. Is this a be-all, end-all addition to sports gaming?  No.  But it is indicative to the attention to detail that Sony slathered all over this game.

Likewise, 2K9 represents the biggest overhaul of the series to date, as the engine was built from the ground up after repurposing the last few iterations. No longer do we have to watch stilted, choppy animations or endless replays from bad angles.  By moving the camera to a higher, upper-deck viewpoint, the game spends less time transitioning from one shot to the next, affording the engine time to position you under the ball.  There were too many instances in 2K8 where I found myself momentarily lost from a sudden camera switch, which caused me to get bad jumps on playable balls. Not anymore.

Still, despite the new look, there are still a number of moments where you’ll see runners magically vaporizing through first basemen, and balls disappearing through walls, only to bounce out again.  Hell, in one strange occurrence, I actually had two guys in the batter’s box at the same time.  Last time I checked, that was against the rules.

I’m sure there’s a patch waiting for me on Xbox Live — but why should it have to come to that just to make a game more presentable?
Edge – MLB ’09: The Show

Graphics
As eye candy, The Show is the 2009 sports game to beat. Stadiums look amazing. Player models are smooth, accurate and move in a lifelike fashion throughout the game, not just in preloaded videos.  If you’re a fan of a particular team or player, you won’t have to read chyrons or jersey numbers to know who’s batting.  While this might seem like a purely aesthetic benefit, it’s actually crucial to the game’s realism.  In other titles, guys may have appeared to be different sizes and shapes, but ultimately, the strike zone was a predetermined size, removing the need for perfect pitch placement.

In The Show, pitching inside to a guy like Prince Fielder ties him into knots, and climbing the ladder on Dustin Pedroia forces him to chase high and away. Just like in real life.  Other games have hinted at this, but even MLB 2K9‘s updated pitching scheme can’t touch these details.

Another item of note — the fielder reaction to balls in play is second to none. There are no herky-jerky animations or unnecessary lunges for grounders. Instead, the players do exactly as they should, getting smart, realistic breaks on balls in play. Either Sony did extensive research on this, or the game engine is just that good. Either way, the end product is as true to life as we’ve seen to date.

MLB 2K9 is a pretty game — just not as pretty as it’s counterpart.  For years, 2K has been providing gamers with the best player models in any sport it touched.  They are detailed, move realistically most of the time, and are relatively size proportionate.  The game’s visual problems lie in its inconsistencies.  Guys like CC Sabathia and Vlad Guerrero look so lifelike, you’ll do a double take after seeing their closeups.  But for every one they nail, there are others that look so unanimated and lifeless (once again, David Wright takes his lumps) that they border on creepy.

At least Big Papi isn’t slim and 6’10” anymore.

Otherwise, the game is a looker, with nicely animated crowds and picture-perfect stadiums. There’s even a working scoreboard…well, it works most of the time, anyway. Good luck getting created players to appear on there. Still, this is hardly a dealbreaker.
Edge – Draw

Audio
Most sports game commentary tends to be a throwaway series of one liners and play-by-play mishaps. The Show‘s long-running team of Dave Campbell, Matt Vasgersian and Rex Hudler sound good, but chances are you’ll tune them out soon enough. Still, it’s more than decent, and doesn’t detract from gameplay the same way Joe Morgan and Jon Miller have done in past seasons in 2K.

There will be times where you wish you could replay a previous comment, just to hear the trio wax poetically about an in-game event.  They sometimes provide some of the most ridiculously on-point analysis ever heard in a video game, but then ruin it by improperly calling a foul ball or giving us delayed, improper statistics. In short, they’re good, but not great.

Sony took the interactivity a little further this year by adding a user-created fan taunt feature.  If you have a USB microphone, you can record your own (keep it clean, freaks) cheers and jeers to be heard during specific game situations.  Want to boo A-Rod by asking him why he dumped that hag Madonna? Go right ahead.  Feel like making a steroids joke to JC Romero? Feel free! It’s a small, but fun addition to the experience.

MLB 2K9 continues its overhaul by introducing a new team headlined by butter-voiced Gary Thorne.  That’s right friends — no more Joe and Jon to cure your insomnia. Of all the improvements made to this game, the commentary may be the most notable.  The team calls the plays accurately and seamlessly, and never once sounds like a series of patched recordings.  If the animations were as smooth as the commentary, 2K9 would be a runaway champ this year.

(Okay, maybe not. But it would be closer…)

Stadium sounds are a mixed bag. Taunts and individual fan voices are clear and funny to listen to.  But, as was the case last year, the fans still don’t seem to know exactly when to cheer like mad, and when to politely clap. It’s such a small element, but inappropriately riotous applause during a routine grounder really takes you out of the experience.

It’s a shame, really, because what works here, works well.
Edge (slightly) – MLB ’09: The Show

Gameplay
This is where the similarities end. Though it’s a matter of player preference, as an avid gamer and unbiased member of the journalism community (no really, I am…) there is only one game out of the two that provides a seamless interface, removing any instance of fluke plays or unwanted button presses, and it’s MLB ’09: The Show.

When Sony introduced its diamond-shaped, four button control scheme all those years ago, baseball gamers practically wet themselves with joy. Finally, each base could be represented by its own button, removing the need for an old-fashioned “aim and pray” throwing mechanism.  It has worked for years, and thus far, has not been topped, regardless of how interactive those stick controls claim to be.

The Show‘s designers refused to concede to the modern trend of placing all controls on analog sticks, and though it seems old-fashioned on paper, during gameplay the simple interface allows players to enjoy the smooth fielding and lifelike presentation all the more.  Each button is pressure sensitive, meaning that a harder, longer push will result in a stronger throw. Accuracy of said throw is dependent on player ratings and the fielder’s position when releasing the button.  For example, if Raul Ibanez is running toward the wall when he releases the ball, it will be a less accurate throw than if he was standing still.  It’s simple and very effective.

Pitching also follows the same mechanic. Use the face buttons to select a pitch type, aim, and measure your pitch’s accuracy and power through use of those same buttons.  That’s it. If you want Pedro to try and recreate 1999 by overclocking his meter, so be it. Just prepare for a wild toss to home plate.  The better the pitcher’s ratings, the more accurate he will be.  Again, simple, effective and much more enjoyable than the competition.

2K9 introduced all-analog throwing and pitching last season, to mixed reviews.  Some praised the higher level of interactivity that the new scheme provided, while others just wanted to play ball without worrying about whether or not their thumbs made the right motions.  Though pitching has been revamped to be more accessible for more users, the Street Fighter-esque stick motions still require a level of finger gymnastics that barely resemble actual pitching.  If you master it, it can be rewarding, but you’ll still spend more time looking at the controller than the screen, which actually removes me from the game, rather than improves it.

Throws in the field use the same controls, which means that a throw from right to home can either be a beeline or a 17-bounce lob, all dependent on how well you can move your thumbs and read a meter during the heat of battle.  Thankfully, 2K9 allows you to “roll-back” to classic controls, and call me old-school, but I’ll take the buttons, please.

The all-analog batting in 2K9 — unlike the throwing — is actually a better scheme than the standard button controls in The Show.  More realistic hit and power totals make the stick swing the only choice for sim-hungry gamers.  Baseball video games will always be a little less accurate than the real thing, but the stick controls make you think twice before blindly swinging away at that curve in the dirt.

Again, this decision will ultimately come down to player preference.  But given the sheer amount of visual goodness that The Show provides, it seems wasteful to spend half a game looking at your hands just to hit a relay man. And I think you’ll agree.
Edge – MLB ’09: The Show

Everything Else
Both games feature a similar set of features, including online play, roster updates, mini-games, etc.  For the most part, they draw even on the amenities, except for one major area — the franchise mode.

2K9 brings you a clean, effective franchise option that allows you to manage GM duties, player happiness, budgeting and the like.  In other words, nothing you haven’t seen done before, but nice all the same.  Had they taken the lame Front Office Manager and made it the franchise mode in 2K9, this would be a much closer race. However, Sony has outdone itself with its version, “Road to the Show.”

More of an in-game RPG than standard game option, “Road to the Show” involves you in every aspect of managing a player, and a team. You will now have to deal with a slew of options over and above what is typically offered in franchise. Now, competing teams will now try to make sneaky maneuvers, players will attempt to leverage good seasons into better contracts, and the minor leagues are now a major part of the game.  I can’t get it all into this paragraph, but sim-junkies can stop their search now – it’s in The Show.

One nice addition to 2K9 is the “Living Roster” feature that continually updates teams to accurately resemble real life.  Though you can’t use this feature during franchise mode, it’s nice to know that you won’t be seeing A-Rod on your Xbox until June.
Edge – MLB ’09: The Show

In the end…
Regardless of what you read online or in your favorite “Really sir, I’m buying this for my kid. I prefer National Geographic” game magazine, MLB 2K9 is not a bad title, and is a marked improvement over previous entries in the series.  Yes, they may have “dumbed-down” the analog controls a bit to make the game more accessible, but this actually serves to improve the overall experience, rather than hinder it.  If you’re too “hardcore” to deal with such minutiae, I recommend updating the rosters on 2K8 and using the extra cash to buy Fallout 3.

Ultimately, MLB 2K9 falls victim to the same nagging little bugs that have haunted the series since making the jump to the current round of consoles.  Hiccups in animations, questionable computer AI and lagged online play all plague this game. Sure, the patches will come fast and furious, and eventually, 2K9 may become a sim-gamer’s dream. For now, as good as it is, it’s clear that it could be better.

Still, if you’re an Xbox’er like me, you have no choice but to get this game. And like me, you’ll enjoy it immensely, in spite of all its flaws.

However…if you are a Sony die-hard, run, do not walk to the nearest store and buy MLB ’09: The Show.  It’s not quite perfect, or the most “next generation” choice out there. But it is the most accurate digital rendition of this sport seen to date.

The Show brings the best in modern graphics (yes, this bad boy is beautiful), alongside realistic gameplay and a proven control scheme to give you the most immersive digital baseball experience ever made.  Perhaps a more modern control scheme would appeal to some gamers, but never before has baseball seemed so real.

Sony, it took you a few years, but you nailed it.  Let’s hope this drives 2K (or whichever company wins the MLB license in ’10) to up the ante even further.

Now, if you don’t mind, I have to go sell a kidney on eBay to buy a PS3.

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4 Responses to “Bats and Bytes Review – MLB ’09: The Show vs. Major League Baseball 2K9”
  1. meech.one says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Bortone. I was a 2K loyalist until this year.

    My favorite part of the game so far was when we (me & the Phillies) played the Braves and Chipper Jones walked to the plate, the Citizens Bank Park crowd would chant, “LAAAAAAA-RRRRYYYYY, LAAAAAAAA-RRRRRYYYYY”

    I almost teared up. It was so damn realistic!

  2. Thanks Brad

    After reading this, I don’t even want to go out and buy 2K9 and spend the next week while the wife is away playing baseball!

    Now what the hell am I going to do with myself?

    (Great reviews as always my friend…)

  3. Brad Bortone Brad Bortone says:

    You guys don’t work here anymore…

    (But thanks… :)

  4. Matt says:

    The Show is absolutely awesome. I’d had 2k the last 2 years on the 360 but wanted a blu-ray player and The Show, bought myself a PS3. It was worth it just for this game for me, really, as sad as that sounds. It’s pretty much MVP Baseball in 1080P. The “Road to the Show” feature is badass. If you’re a baseball nut, do everything you can to get your hands on this.

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