MLB Power Pros 2008 Review
Kids should love baseball. It’s America’s pastime and despite the steroid nastiness that has revolved around the league for the past few years, at its core, there’s a distinct semblance of good old-fashioned U.S. purity and passion. Hence, it makes perfect sense to target youngsters with certain baseball games, which is why Konami and 2K Sports have stepped forward yet again to deliver a new MLB Power Pros entry. Granted, with a release date of July 29, it’s a little late, but most kids won’t really care. And at the very least, this is a much better option than the extremely mediocre and technically unpolished Backyard Baseball 09, which suffered from all sorts of glitches and control issues. MLB Power Pros 2008 is certainly better in just about every way, thanks mostly to the higher level of realism, full MLB rosters, and depth. There are a few annoying drawbacks we had difficulty dealing with, but all in all, this is one title that won’t disappoint young baseball fans.
The graphics are about what you’d expect; they don’t leap off the screen, but they suffice for the goal at hand. Essentially, 2K took the same cutesy character model, then took certain attributes of professional ball players and superimposed them over the aforementioned model. This is why Vladimir Guerrero’s crazy stance is accurate and why Manny Ramirez’s hair looks just about right. It shows the developers went to some effort, and all in all, there’s an appropriately charming sensation given by the presentation. They even have all the big league parks – even though we certainly could’ve used more detail in that area – and a decent amount of player animations. The camera angle can be a little iffy at times, but that’s more of a control and gameplay issue, and it’s highly unlikely that the target audience will be disappointed with the visuals. Still, in all fairness to other PS2 games, MLB Power Pros 2008 does sit on the slightly lower side of the quality spectrum.
The sound is passable, although the stadiums and players are strangely quiet throughout much of your experience. Furthermore, they only use one announcer for the game, and while he’s fine, he gets very tiring after only a few hours of play. Furthermore, the commentary is often inaccurate or just plain confusing, as we’ll hear, “the Athletics might try to put it away right here!” when there’s a runner on first in the third inning with a 0-0 score. The soundtrack fits the atmosphere but that’s the best that can be said for it, and the only reliable and solid aspect of this category is the effects. While you’re on the field, a home run procures an audible crack while a little nubber off the end of the bat is fittingly muted. There is some inconsistency in regards to the music blending with the sound, but it’s rare and really not worth complaining about, and for the most part, the game sounds quite pleasant. It doesn’t exhibit the professional level of sound accomplishment we find with bigger-budget games, but that’s okay.
First and foremost, if one wishes to create a baseball game for the younger crowd, it’s essential to generate a simple and accessible control scheme. 2K manages to do that with this game, even though it runs into several significant problems due to questionable button mapping. For example, it was a big mistake to assign special actions in the field to the same buttons used for throwing to a certain base. For example, Triangle throws to second base but it also causes the player trying to field the ball to jump. So if you want to catch the ball and quickly throw to second, if you don’t wait until the ball is caught, you’ll likely jump right through the ball. The same goes for Circle, which goes to first but also causes the player to dive. Therefore, you will frequently find yourself unnecessarily diving in the infield in your haste to press the circle button to go to first…and the results can be downright infuriating. And before we start with the good stuff, let’s deal with the other major flaw that frequently plagues baseball games.
It’s the issue of the half-auto, half-manual fielding mechanic. Obviously, it’s essential that the first baseman cover first on a ground ball; you can’t be expected to control both the first baseman and the shortstop on a grounder to short, now can you? But what if the ball is hit in the direction of first…? Yeah, you see where I’m going with this. With men on first and second, the third baseman will automatically cover third, but if the ball is hit towards third, you’re likely out of luck, as the ball will roll through the normal position of the third baseman. We’re really not sure what steps should be taken to fix this problem – because it’s borderline crippling – but perhaps they should allow the player to issue temporary AI orders of some kind. It’s just a suggestion, and we understand the inherent challenge involved, but this is the kind of thing that gets really frustrating, especially during close games. But thankfully, as we just said, the control really is relatively smooth and accessible. Just about anyone can pick it up and play, and that’s a huge bonus.
You move your fielders with the left analog (really hated having to hit the Start button to change fielders, though), and as mentioned before, you treat the face buttons on the PlayStation controller as the baseball diamond. That shouldn’t need to be explained. You advance runners by simply pointing towards the desired base with the left analog and pressing the circle button, and you have the option of many different pitches, bunting, and “Big Swing.” When pitching, you’re given multiple options depending on the hurler, and after selecting the pitch, you can press X and direct the pitch with the analog. You’ll want to aim for the corners, obviously, but when the pitcher begins to tire, you’ll miss more often and you’ll lose velocity. When at the plate, you need to try to follow the faint outline of the ball before the pitch (you have to be quick), and then swing when the fat part of the bat is in line with the ball. It can be tricky, but baseball should take practice. You’ll need a steady hand on the analog and good timing, so it might take a few games before you feel comfortable.
All of this works exceedingly well, and we were surprised the batting was as realistic as it was. The game proceeds at a good clip and there aren’t excessive run scoring or constant pitching battles; the game’s balance is really very good, as you will soon learn a great deal about the classic sport. But despite the authenticity, we did detect a decided sense of rubber-band AI. Those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s the catch-up scenario, programmed in by the developers to keep things competitive in arcade-based sports titles. For example, if you and your opponent remain scoreless for the first three innings, and they have yet to hit a ball out of the infield, you should feel good about your starter. Then, in the fourth, you score five runs…only to watch the other team score six in the bottom half of the fourth, as your previously brilliant pitcher suddenly and inexplicably develops a case of arthritis, or something. This is a shortcoming in our estimation, because it almost negates the purpose of forming a Dream Team of sorts. It’s an option in the game, but when a standard team can almost always catch up to your Dream arrangement, than what’s the point?
But speaking of options, there are a grand total of 15 modes to toy around with in this game, and that’s good news. There’s everything from the standard stuff like Exhibition, Season, League and Home Run Derby to the special modes like MLB Life and Success, which start you off as a minor leaguer as you attempt to make it to The Show and solidify your greatness in the annals of baseball history. You can also create an All-Star team by selecting all the best players in the league, or you can create your own player and jump into a number of different gameplay modes. All of this is fantastic for the new owner, simply because there’s always something to do. On the down side, modes like MLB Life aren’t anywhere near as deep as one would hope; you can select whichever player you like for this mode, and then embark on the career. This involves everything from preseason to training to the World Series. You’ll have your own place, hobbies, special training sessions, and you’ll even do interviews with the MLB Power Pros News crew.
But all you really do is step into a game when it’s your turn to bat. That’s it. You don’t actually train; you just hit a button and it automatically happens. You don’t even play the field, and because you have to go through every day of every season, this entire process becomes outrageously tedious and boring. Success isn’t much better, and many of the other modes seem more like filler than anything else. Most players will probably end up sticking with the traditional modes; if you want the most out of the game, just choose Season and be done with it. Therefore, we’re forced to conclude that despite the seemingly huge amount of depth – especially for a game geared towards kids – a lot of it isn’t worth your time, and it’s almost like fabricated depth for the sake of saying “hey, we have 15 gameplay modes!” But while that is a major complaint, we have to admit, we did have plenty of fun during our play time with MLB Power Pros 2008.
The pacing is good, the controls are solid and responsive, the balance of the sport is excellent (save the annoying rubber-band AI), kids will easily recognize their favorite character in cartoon-y form, and the process of pitching and batting works very well. The experience is realistic enough to remain authentic-feeling without overwhelming the target demographic, and best of all, success relies on both your understanding of the sport and your ability to master the controls. Unfortunately, with the fielding auto/manual snafu, the odd button-mapping choices, some questionable camera angles, and more than a few modes that don’t cut the mustard, the game falls short of “great.” It’s okay, and even good for young fans, but we have to be as honest as possible. If we wanted to give in to the cute pick-up-and-play aspect, we could just ignore these things, but we’re professional reviewers around here (oh, stop laughing). So in the end, this is how we see it:
It’s probably worth the purchase if you’ve got a kid who happens to be a big baseball fan, and that means that 2K and Konami hit their goal. …kind of.
8/31/2008 Ben Dutka