The best-looking sports game ever made

Seeing as how it’s the All-Star break and fantasy baseball crazies (not that I’m one *cough*) have a deep void for three days, I thought I’d do a roundup of the latest baseball games.

Like many sports games lately, baseball games have been boring me for a while. It’s less that they’re all the same at base (like pretty much every sports game from year to year) and more that they amplify the slow pace and chopiness of baseball — constant cutting from pitcher to batter to fielder to other fielder, unlike basketball (which is constantly moving) or football (which stops after every play but each play is continuous) — and make pitching as unrealistic as possible (compared to the Wii’s motion controls, pressing buttons twice as a meter moves feels like … pressing buttons twice, not pitching). For all the realism of recent games, I still prefer old-school RBI Baseball and Baseball Stars. They may not be spot-on simulations, but at least they’re fun to play.

Two new baseball games continue in that rut. MLB 07: the Show for Playstation 3 is a typical baseball video game: It semi-faithfully captures the sport yet leaches most of the beauty, verisimilitude and fun out of it. On first glance, MLB 07 looks pretty great. The player motions are good enough, and the graphics advanced enough, that it’s sort of almost like watching baseball on TV. But after a little while, the video-gameness shows through.Pr22

When the batters do that slo-mo warmup swing as they step into the batters box, their arms seem to move independently of their shoulders. On some shirts where the sleeve is a different color from the rest of the jersey, the movement stops at that color line. After one batter got rung out on strikes, he stepped out of the batter’s box — directly through the catcher, as if the batter could morph like the T-1000. On instant replays, the players move in herky-jerky motions and clearly seem like a bunch of polygons, the video game equivalent of the movements in the Hall of Presidents. When fielders turn a double play, there’s a slight pause as they square and throw to first.

Each of these things is small, but added up they constantly pull you out of the situation and remind you that it’s just a video game. Of all the team sports, baseball is most focused on the movements of individual players, so realism is key to a good baseball video game. But when the wonder and how-did-he-do-that fluidity of a second baseman’s diving backhand stop and quick flip to the pitcher covering turn out looking like an Audio Animatronic (albeit a very advanced one), one of the most unique and appealing aspects of the sport — its aesthetics — is lost. Combine that with a same-old pitching system — you can either use a power meter, although there are no instructions about how it works, or just aim and throw — and MLB is just okay.

The Bigs doesn’t bother with realism. It’s an arcadey game meant to evoke the quick fun of the old RBI games and the craziness of NBA Jam and the newer NBA Street games. You gain points for each strikeout, hit, double play, etc.; earn enough points and you can activate a power swing or pitch and basically get an automatic home run or strikeout. But even in a game meant to be overexaggerated, the lack of realism is fatal. Not the flaming fastballs, but the basic movements and feel of the game: when you try to stop a fielder, he keeps going for a few steps as if he were a cartoon running so fast his feet were a blurred circle. Whenever a fielder makes a leaping or diving catch, the camera slows down to make the play dramatic. But the way the player dives or jumps never looks right geometrically — according to the initial path of the hit ball and the place they leap from, they should never make the catch — and the view is always from below, so you end up looking up into this frozen visage that’s supposed to be Jose Reyes but just looks creepy (though when players are coming up to bat, the Bigs has the most recognizable faces of the three games). The field seems weirdly disproportioned; routine grounders to short become close plays way too often. And some teams’ uniforms are bizarrely colored, so it looks like the Mets and Giants players have been covered in Tin Man body paint. It’s fun for a game or two, but that’s about it.

The real problem with both games is they seem to be on the cutting edge of late 2005. MLB 07 would have been fine in the first wave of Xbox 360 games, but a year and a half later that doesn’t cut it. Major League Baseball 2K7 for the Xbox 360 shows what happens when game companies have time to get used to a new system: It’s by far the most realistic looking sports game ever made, and possibly the best of any game I’ve seen at capturing the nuances and reality of human movement.

In MLB 07, the players seem to exist on their own plane, as though they’re superimposed on the background. In Major League 2K7, it looks like the players are in the real world: the sun shines off folds in their jerseys, the wind blows on them, the camera gets handheld-shaky and blurs the background as players step up to bat — like an actual person is filming. David Ortiz’s tummy is proportioned correctly to his giant thighs. Pitchers’ squat-and-stretches before the game look like real people limbering up, and their quick ducking on a pitch hit up the middle accurately captures instinct’s reflexes.

Mlb2k7_b_2 So few games, sports or otherwise, get human movement right — the mass of it, the way muscles and tendons and synapses all work together, the non-robotic liquidity of it. An instant replay of a stolen base in Major League 2K7 gets the lengthening stride, the springy popup slide. The holy grail of video game physics (at least where individual characters is concerned) has been a system where movements occur naturally and on the fly based on the moment’s context, as opposed to one where all movements are preprogrammed. Major League 2K7 comes extraordinarily close to achieving this. Not a single fielding play looks canned; each takes into account the placement of the hit, the location of the fielder, his momentum, the speed of the ball. Compare that to the Bigs’ slo-mo dives, which in addition to being creepy and mathematically wrong all seem to feature the same diving motion.

Major League 2K7 has two flaws that keep it from perfection. The biggest problem, and only real gameplay flaw, is the pitcher’s mound seems like it’s 6 feet-6 inches rather than 60-6 away. This makes batting overly reliant on reflex and guessing, and it can get frustrating. (Then again, that’s probably how it seems to real major leaguers, so in theory it’s bonus realism points. In reality, just frustrating.). The other issue is a graphical glitch: the wind making players’ jerseys ripple generally looks great and helps the whole environment seem real, but sometimes it blows a little too much and the shirts constantly flap. Definitely not realistic. Other than that, though, Major League 2K7 is a great baseball game. Even the pitching is fun; you aim toward where the pitch breaks, rather than where the catcher’s mitt is set up, so it adds more of a video gamey aspect to each pitch. That’s not exactly realistic either, but at least it’s fun.

MLB 07: the Show (Playstation 3): C
The Bigs (Xbox 360): C-
Major League 2K7 (Xbox 360): A-

— July 10, 2007

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