MLB Power Pros 2008
Publisher: 2K Sports
Release Date: July 30, 2008
In my preview of MLB Power Pros 2008, I noted that I was one of those that had to be converted to the original game that came out over here; I thought it was a “kiddie” title by looking at it, and didn’t do my homework on it. One humorous anecdote I can think of is when we were deciding what was going to be the sports game of the year for 2007; I named the usual contenders, but felt that there should be separate awards for regular sports titles (like FIFA, Madden, NHL, etc.), and a category for alternative/extreme sports titles (think the Tony Hawk/Skate games). I had recommended – without playing it – that Power Pros should be Alternative, and Alex proceeded to look at me like I grew a third eye.
After having played it, I can figure out why.
Now, I’m reviewing the newest version, which threw all of the good things from last year’s game into a package that includes a new, even deeper RPG mode. And the PS2 version that I’m reviewing is $20.
For comparison’s sake, Major League Baseball 2K8 – from the same developer – was $40 when it came out, and was a bug filled bag of dung. The $60 360 and PS3 versions were even worse.
Now, a game like PP ’08 is hard to review. On the one hand, it’s very much meant to attract younger players and Japanese freaks with it’s cutesy look, oversized heads and eyes, and lighter presentation. On the other hand, the developers of the game make very proud boasts that this game is deep enough as a baseball game to gain the attention of the hardcore baseball fan. These two groups are mutually exclusive most of the time, so seeing if this year’s game would apply to both sets of gamer – something I didn’t really think about last year – was an interesting quest.
Therefore, in a bout of self-induced schizophrenia, much like how I learned how to drive by watching old Disney cartoons featuring Mr. Walker and Mr. Wheeler (a motorist!), this review will be seen through the eyes of two different versions of me:
* Bus-san is a closet otaku who grew up on JRPGs, loves Fushigi Yuugi, reads manga and loves the cheeky, cartoony look of most Japanese games. He grew up on sports games such as Tecmo Bowl, Baseball Stars and Blades of Steel, and takes the liberties they took with realism in stride because hell, they’re fun!
* Mr. Bowen is an elitist jerk who doesn’t so much “enjoy” sports games as much as he dissects them. He is the type of person that simulates ten straight seasons of Madden, finds that the NFL wide yards per carry in Madden is a good half a yard off of real NFL averages over the past ten years, and sends a frothing, 10 page letter to the offices of EA Sports, knowing to put down a different return address as the EA offices already know to blacklist his normal address. He didn’t so much as come upon stat-heavy games like Football Manager and Baseball Mogul as he evolved into them, having grown up with Strat O’Matic Baseball, also known as the Dungeons and Dragons of the jock set.
With that in mind, both parties were impressed at the amount of modes this game contained. Exhibition Mode is standard, as is a season mode (allowing for 10 years of GM play as long as you don’t lose all of your money), but there’s also a miniature “League” mode allowing you to have a miniature league among friends or CPU opponents. There’s an Arrange mode that allows you to create a new team using a real team as a base (meaning 2K lied to me; I was under the impression that this mode would allow trades between teams, but that’s not the case, drawing raised eyebrows from Mr. Bowen), and a My Data mode that allows you to edit any player in the game on any team however you want. The player editor is actually very robust, allowing you to change anything from a player’s appearance to stats, with plenty of options, as well as special abilities they might have. The one thing it doesn’t let you edit is a player’s personal data such as their date of birth and location of birth. While Mr. Bowen bemoaned this slight oversight, Bus-san was gleefully trying out different eye, facial hair and voice combinations; he hasn’t quite been like this since he first started playing around with Miis.
The real weight of the game is within two separate RPG-like modes: Success Mode and MLB Life Mode. Success Mode was in last year’s game, but this year, it continues the storyline from the first game and has both your player and his sidekick Marvin have now made AA baseball, and are trying to make the Major Leagues. Along the way, many different characters come along, the story fleshes out, and along the way, you will improve your player’s statistics, buy items, and try to woo some ladies. You have to have a certain number of scout points in order to advance to the next level; if you don’t have them by December, you’re “fired”, and the game ends. Essentially, you have to perform well in game situations to get scout points, and as long as you do that, take advantage of other situations that come along (such as minigames, or selective training) and don’t get injured, you’ll be OK.
As for building statistics, you can use points you get in games, during events and in training to build up stats and skills in a style similar to another Konami title, Tokemeki Memorial. Though Bus-san was giddy, having played Tokemeki Memorial (as well as some, ahem, less reputable games in the genre), Mr. Bowen noted that in actual execution, getting scout points and doing well in games, save the very last game of the mode, is almost exclusively reliant on offencive skills (save for pitchers), so increasing defencive skills will quickly lose priority to most players. Mr. Bowen also noted that the story itself requires a serious suspension of disbelief – it reads like a kid’s manga – though Bus-san reminded me that the story was still enjoyable nonetheless, and full of good drama.
The only other problem with this mode – which isn’t really it’s fault – is that this is the only way to truly create a new player. Oh sure, you can go into My Data mode to edit an active MLB player, but you’ll be doing that at the expense of another player; in other words, if you want to be the starting third baseman of the Yankees in exhibition mode, you can’t just create a version of yourself and upload him to the Yankees, you literally have to edit Alex Rodriguez. And while it’s a fun mode, and you can build a great player in two seasons, having to go through a two to three hour long story mode just to be able to create someone is a massive, unnecessary time drain. Bus-sama and Mr. Bowen both recommend the ability to create players normally next year for those that would use it.
The benefit of having your player get through this mode is that you can use them in all other modes as a major leaguer, including in MLB Life mode, the other major RPG mode and the only thing in this game that’s truly new. In this mode, you have a choice of taking an active MLB player (on a team; no free agents), the player you made in Success Mode, or you can create your own player from scratch, which isn’t as good for statistics – and means you’ll almost definitely start in the minors – but could give you access to a couple of more difficult skills; everyone can pretty much agree that going in as someone you made in Success Mode is the most “fun” way to do it, though you have the option of starting with a wife and children if you pick a pro. Ostensibly, My Life mode is what would happen if MLB ’08’s Road to the Show mode and Superstar mode from Madden had a love child. You have chances – on off days, before and after games – to increase your statistic experience, but you can also use that time to do hobbies – each of which have their own competence level – or talk to friends/coaches/your agent, and try to woo the ladies (or if you’re married, talk to your wife). You can also purchase items that range from energy drinks to workout aids to houses and cars. Over twenty years, you can build all of your stats up to become a well-rounded superstar, which helps you at contract negotiation time, and if the team tries to trade or release you, if you have enough fans, they can literally cause a revolt. This mode is insane, and lets you do just about everything a major league player would want to do. Sadly, “cleaning the vessel” is not an option for Alex Rodriguez.
Bus-san fell completely in love with MLB Life mode, and all of the things you could do, though he did complain that his statistics weren’t really forgiving of bad games. Stats are affected by both good and bad games, so if you go 0-4 with a couple of Ks, you’re going to lose contact points, as well as some skill points for some skills. However, the punishment for bad games seems to be a bit disproportionate, in that a couple of weeks worth of contact hitting work can become invalidated by a bad game or two. Also, Mr. Bowen noted that building up power ratings is a massive pain in the ass. Every statistic range in this game goes from 0-15… except power, which goes from 0-255. That’s a huge discrepancy, which is adjusted for when building the stat in Success Mode with power points being so cheap to acquire, but in MLB Life mode, power is built like every other stat you have; in other words, you can go a few months to get to the next level. Unfortunately, the next level gives you only one point, and while that’s fine when the range is 16, when it’s 256, that’s not so good, so that leaves you with the choice of either disproportionately altering your power stats in Success Mode, taking an MLB player that already has strong power stats, or resigning yourself to the life of a slap hitter. That said, both of our participants noticed that power didn’t seem to matter if your condition was down. Condition is measured by a face that can either be ecstatic and bounding, or completely dead and stressed, with levels in between. That’s fine, but there’s a disproportionate difference in your play between the two extremes. If you’re at top condition, the ball jumps off of your bat to the point where 500ft. home runs are possible. But if you’re at low condition, don’t even bother swinging for power, because even if you get a good piece of a ball, it’s going to be little more than a fly ball out. This affects MLB Life mode because condition is completely cyclical; you’re going to have a month of top condition, then a month where your condition gradually gets worse, followed by a month at the bottom, with a month of going back up; rinse, lather, repeat. Unless you have “Practise” available as an option – which is only possible if you have an off-day in the minors, in the majors, you don’t have the option – then you have absolutely no way to affect your condition. It means that you can have an entire month bombing balls all over the universe, then a month where you do virtually nothing, power wise. It skews statistics, and it becomes unsettling to know that you’re going to be a punch-and-judy for a month before you can become a real player again. If Konami can fix this next year, this mode will be an unequivocal winner; as it stands, it’s still a winner, but it’s a split decision.
That all said, I have to say that I personally enjoyed MLB Life mode more than the other “life” modes that I mentioned earlier; it’s not only exceptionally deep, but there’s a cheerful innocence to it that makes it fun no matter how you’re playing. Also, being a single player that is only in control of your own actions, believe it or not, actually immerses you, as the player, deeper into the game. If you’re playing a standard game and strike out with a batter, no big deal; you have eight more spots, twenty-six more outs to do something, plus defence. Here, you’re only responsible for yourself, and if you’re a hitter, then that means you’re only able to affect a few at-bats in a game. During a routine at-bat, that’s one thing, but if you have a tight situation late in the game, it can affect the decisions you make. Let’s say there’s no outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on second base, and you – a good player – are up. What do you do? Do you do the “right” thing, bunt the runner over to third, and give your teammates two outs – including a sac fly chance – to get him home? Or do you try to be the hero, swing for the fences, and risk a strikeout or a popup? If you’re controlling the whole team, then bunting the runner over isn’t a problem because you’re confident you can get the next two people to get him the final ninety feet, even if it involves a pinch-hitter on your part. But as you only control yourself, do you trust the computer, and your AI manager to do the job? Finally, doing something outstanding, like a walk-off hit, is an exhilarating experience compared to how it is normally; in a regular game, I might pump my fist, but in this situation, I legitimately celebrated whenever I won a game in this way; I was completely immersed.
So the modes are all good, but that doesn’t matter if the gameplay itself doesn’t hold water. And that’s the main question most serious gamers are going to have: how does the game perform on the actual diamond?
Bus-sama first noticed that the players were not only incredibly cute, but moved well in action; motions are smooth, and though there’s a few jaggies (and runners have a bad habit of sharing the same place as fielders, especially on bases; clipping issues, ahoy!), the few graphical niggles never got in the way of the game, and were unnoticeable most of the time, especially when players make normally inane actions – such as looking back at an umpire on a called strike that was borderline – look incredible; the look of this game truly adds to the enjoyment, and I can’t even describe what it’s like watching fifteen other chibi players bouncing up and down and beating on the head of a player that just hit a walk-off homerun while the player looks out helplessly from the pile of overjoyed humanity. I think Bus-san even used the word “kawaii” to describe it, which gave Mr. Bowen an involuntary facial twitch for a moment. But Mr. Bowen got over that once he saw just what gameplay was like. In short, Power Pros is an exceptional baseball game covered with a cute veiner. Gameplay is simple enough – especially if you use recommended settings – but controls impeccably, and the ball does exactly what you expect it to do, weather it’s with bunting, or hitting (done with a cursor, with a varying sweet spot depending on weather you’re hitting for contact or power, and your hitter’s skills towards that). The complaints Mr. Bowen had about the way the game played were minor; for one, baserunning can be a bit annoying in the fact that the runners, if left to their own devices, have problems recognizing weather a fly ball is going to drop or get caught, which means players used to games like MLB ’08 (like me) will get doubled up a few times until they learn to use the controls available to hold runners. Secondly, the ball cursor that shows where the pitch is supposed to go is actually a distraction, because sometimes, pitchers will screw up and serve up fat balls that go over the centre of the plate at 70mph; these tee-balls would be begging to be hit under normal circumstances, but since it’s natural for the eyes to follow the ball cursor, it usually leaves the player bringing the bat back, and either missing a crushable pitch because they were setting up low and inside, or worse, hitting it poorly and popping it up. There were also some AI issues, especially with the computer on defence, as the computer often goes for the lead runner, even when it’s not recommended to do so (like ground balls to the right side with a runner on second). Another annoyance for Mr. Bowen was his complete inability to draw a walk; simply put, the computer doesn’t walk anyone unintentionally, which isn’t very realistic (and something that MLB ’08 nailed perfectly). Finally, backdoor breaking pitches (example: a slider thrown by a righty that starts out like it’s going to hit a right-handed batter, then breaks over the inside part of the plate) have a bit too much curve to them, making them exceptionally dangerous to use in most situations, though that complaint is so anal-retentive that when he heard it, Bus-san attacked Mr. Bowen with a wooden sword he used for cosplay some time. That said, Mr. Bowen had special praise for how this game does the little things – take-out slides on double plays, knocking the catcher over that’s blocking the plate, and other minor touches – and noted that all said and done, this was a solid baseball engine. I’d even go as far as to say that while Bus-sama will play a game like this for awhile and then move on, Mr. Bowen – the realism freak – will be playing this game longer than Bus-san, simply because the engine is that good. To prove that point, I needed to take some time alone with the game, so after giving Mr. Bowen an analysis of Moneyball to occupy him and forcibly sedating Bus-san to bring him down from his Pocky high, I played this game on a Saturday for this review, figuring that I had to get some play in on my only day off, with real life kicking my ass lately. I was banking on eight hours; I played for fourteen hours, and would have played longer if I didn’t have other things to do. That says a lot for this game’s addictiveness.
The main question for a guy like Mr. Bowen is: is the engine as good as MLB ’08? I’d have to say no; MLB ’08‘s engine has been polished to a near-perfect shine (save a bug here and there, which Power Pros is thankfully without; as a matter of fact, the Power Pro team could teach the programmers of 2K’s other baseball franchise a thing or two), and it generally plays a smarter, more realistic game of baseball. But I have to admit, the debate is closer than the naked eye would ever think.
Finally, the kicker: all of this – two deep RPG modes, great customization options, a full-fledged franchise mode, and other assorted, time-intensive yet entertaining modes – is available on the PS2 for $20. Let me repeat that: TWENTY DOLLARS. That’s absurd, especially considering this is a better baseball game than even the 360 version of 2K8, which retails for the full $60. This package could have gone for $40, and I’d still recommend it; at $20, any baseball fan has no excuse not to pick it up.
Sound: Below Average
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Balance: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Above Average
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME
Short Attention Span Summary
Let me first state that when it comes to personal preference, I still prefer MLB ’08: The Show; the things that I prefer to see in a baseball game, it does better. I’m more Mr. Bowen than Bus-sama.
That said, this is the baseball game of the year, and as of today, the sports game of the year. Konami and 2K took a great game last year, polished it up well, added an incredibly deep mode that justifies a new purchase for even those that have last year’s game, and gave us a spectacular package that will please fans of all ages and ability levels.
MLB might be the my own personal cup of tea, but when it comes to showing a baseball game to someone like my mother or my fiancée, I’m showing them Power Pros. No baseball fan should skip this game, regardless of it’s price.