As the last title in the 2004-2005 sports season, Major League Baseball 2K5 had one gigantic hill to climb out of any sports game this year. It was the closer to one of the most tumultuous years of the gaming industry, which saw many leagues parceled up and sold to the best bidder. It had to bear the loss of the ESPN brand to the enemy, which bolstered the look and feel of the franchise significantly. Furthermore, it still needed to come up with the yearly improvements that every sports fan expects from the genre. Well, guess what. Major League Baseball 2K5 steps up to the plate and sends those problems out of the park.
First of all, let’s take a look at the improvements that make 2K5 stand out from other sports games. In most games, pitching has always been a matter of gauging the timing of your throw within a sliding meter. While this is somewhat responsive, there’s something about it that doesn’t seem realistic. Enter 2K5’s revamped pitching system, which centers completely around the strike zone. Once you’ve selected your pitch and where you’re going to throw the ball, you then have to line up the “accuracy” of the throw by matching up two sliding crosshairs. Get the crosshairs close to or near the selected area, and your throw will cross the plate exactly where you want it. Deviate from this, and your pitch will start to veer off in a different direction, possibly becoming a ball or even a wild throw.
The hitting mechanic hasn’t really changed from previous years – there’s still two separate buttons for hitting the ball. You can hit the contact button to simply connect with a pitch, or smack the power button to swing for the fences. While this setup still feels somewhat unnecessary (considering that a large determination of homers are based on timing, the pitch and the player’s strength), the two-button scheme does add a certain amount of strategy to the offensive side of the game. Similarly, 2K5 allows batters to guess where a pitch might be going, allowing them to put more power behind a swing.
However, augmenting this concept is the Slam Zone, a feature that takes the pitcher/batter showdown to new levels. If the batter guesses the throw correctly (or if the pitcher is really tired and throws sloppily), the game enters a slowed down arcade-style sequence where the player mashes a button quickly. The faster the button is pressed, the farther the ball will go if contact is made. At the same time, the pitcher is slamming their button to reduce the strength of the batter. It’s a creative addition to the game, and it can be turned on or off if purists object to its inclusion.
Once you’ve started running the bases, you’ll also notice a few subtle changes to the base paths. First of all, the icons for the bases themselves have been expanded from the commonly occurring field diagram seen in most games to the corners of the screen. Not only does this help give you an idea of how much farther a runner has to go to get to the bag, it’s a much more visual indication than a small dot reaching a little square on a diagram. Apart from the larger icons, players can add a turbo boost to their players running by pounding on a button to spur runners on. This can sometimes be the difference between being an out and safely beating the throw.
Finally, players have the option to take over any baserunner, directing their attempts to steal bases or head for home personally. This can occur at any time when a runner has reached a base, meaning that you can load up the bags and then take over the third baseman, potentially stealing home at an opportune moment. When you exercise this option, you essentially operate from that player’s perspective, providing “orders” to the batter to bunt, make contact or be selective with incoming pitches. That way, you can focus more on advancing your players than worrying constantly about throws being sent your way.
Apart from these gameplay tweaks, the most impressive feature is the visual presentation of 2K5. Packed with plenty of signature ESPN touches, like the K Zone or the Web Gems for highlights or replays of special moments, 2K5 accurately recreates the feel of a broadcast game. Along with the flashy in-game graphics that accompany play-by-play, character models are nicely rendered, with apparent attention paid to capturing each player accurately. This is bolstered with improved animation, so diving catches and slides into bases, for example, are extremely slick. Even the minor touches, like changing facial expressions, personal rituals and bullpen interactions seem natural. This attention to detail doesn’t remain solely with the players; even the crowd has specific movements that they can make, from holding signs to jumping up individually on big plays. While there are a couple of moments where the animations are somewhat sticky, the overall sense of the game is one of the best ever presented in a sports title.
Fortunately, the graphics don’t rest solely on their impressive laurels. As any sports fanatic knows, commentary can make or break any game, whether on TV or on a console. 2K5 features in-studio analysis by Karl Ravech and one-two commentary by Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. Not only do Miller and Morgan play off each other well, they manage to field and respond to the action going on in the game, varying their intensity based on plays being made in the field. This means that a mild anecdote can turn into an excited comment as a player steals a base or narrowly makes the throw to get someone out. The banter between these two guys also feels natural, and there’s very little repetition in the game, which is a constant pitfall for many sports titles.
Additionally, the crowd has an increased number of chants and heckles they can throw out. You’ll hear stadium rocking cheers if the bases are loaded, or loud jeering if your opponent is at the plate. Musically, aside from the rousing chorus of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” 2K5 has a decent soundtrack, although Xbox players will probably find themselves taking advantage of the custom soundtrack option to provide them with additional boosts of adrenaline as they step up to the plate.
Online play is extremely stable (based upon a solid connection), and gives you a number of options, including stat tracking and league play. It’s a pretty nice feature, and gives an additional level of replayability to the game. In fact, perhaps the weakest section of the game is the franchise mode – or should I say the relative lack of complexity within the franchise mode. Apart from the standard franchise section, where you essentially take control of a club and control it, there’s a secondary mode called GM mode. Here, you perform the same tasks within Franchise mode, although there are other tasks that you’ll be asked to perform based upon the demands of the club owner. Some of these are simple, like making it into the playoffs or winning a certain number of games. Other tasks are a bit trickier, like trading a player who’s costing the club too much money for their playing performance.
However, even though there is a certain amount of interesting play within this GM mode, part of it feels ineffectual. For instance, you’re not really doing anything in this game that hasn’t been covered in other titles. Here’s where 2K5’s main competition from EA pulls ahead, with its option to tweak stadiums, organization prices and other facets to actually make you feel like a GM. Here, you come across more like a paper manager, making decisions that don’t necessarily seem critical. Even deciding the coaches to train your players, which can have a significant effect on your player’s stats during the off season, seems limited. Are you seriously implying that a good pitching coach isn’t going to improve the bullpen with methods over the course of a season? Unfortunately, boosts like these are solely restricted to training camps, which doesn’t feel right, particularly if you put out a lot of money for the best coaches available.
Even with the limited franchise feature, 2K5 is still one of the better sports titles on the market today, and extremely affordable for any baseball fans. Personally, I’ve found myself playing more games of 2K5 than doing work for other reviews at times, which can speak to the addictiveness of the gameplay. If you’re a fan of the sport, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Major League Baseball 2K5. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking around for a hot dog vendor at home.