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Play ball! Hands-on with Major League Baseball 2K6

Play ball! Hands-on with Major League Baseball 2K6

After six long, fruitless months, the baseball season has begun, and it's plenty apparent here in the CNET offices. When we're not attempting to stream Mets games via the Slingbox (without the express, written consent of Major League Baseball), we're anxiously awaiting this year's crop of hardball video games. We've already seen Sony's impressive MLB '06, but those will remain exclusive to the PS2 and the PSP. 2K Games is publishing Major League Baseball 2K6, which will come out this week for the PS2 and the Xbox, as well as midmonth for the Xbox 360, the GameCube, and the PSP. I got a chance to try out the Xbox 360 and PSP versions last week.

2K Games isn't resting on the laurels of semiexclusivity; it's the only third party that's licensed to put out a Major League Baseball game, which explains why EA Sports is going the college route. 2K is infusing a lot of new features to MLB 2K6, some of which are welcome and innovative, while others could use another season in the minors. The most striking change is the batter-pitcher dynamic on the Xbox 360, particularly in the single-player mode. Quite simply, the catcher is given a far more prominent and much-deserved role in the process. Your backstop calls and places pitches, and it's up to the pitcher to put them in the right spot. The pitching method is fairly intuitive, consisting of picking a pitch and a location, then timing the throw correctly. Unfortunately, the oversimplified batting isn't quite as enjoyable. Taking a page from the golf genre, the hitter's swing is determined by pulling back and pushing forward on the analog stick. As long as the pitch is in the strike zone and you've timed it correctly, the ball will be in play. While I'm sure it'll become more amenable with time, fans such as myself, who like to have a little more control at the plate, may be disappointed.

Along with the standard "all 30 teams and every player except Bonds" deal, 2K Games is including some sweet new licenses this season. There's the World Baseball Classic, which is looking decent, considering how recently the whole tournament came together. There's no international stadiums, and rosters are incomplete--but can anyone outside of South Africa name a player on the South African squad anyway? The other, better-implemented license is from Inside Edge, the scouting agency that provides reports for MLB clubs and media outlets. Before a game, you're given a certain amount of Inside Edge Points that you can spend scouting particular players--better ones cost more, natch--allowing you to neutralize a nemesis on the plate or the mound by revealing a batter's weak spot or a pitcher's favorite pitch. There's no minor league play, which is a bit disheartening, seeing as how nicely EA had been using it before the company lost its license.

Surprisingly, the game looks amazing on the PSP and is, quite frankly, a bit better in the gameplay department. The 360 version looks pretty good--particularly the shading and grass on the field--but the player models could use a bit more detail, as they lack the vibrancy of the NFL and NBA games. That's what a lack of sweat'll do, I guess.

So while there are a couple of minor annoyances in Major League Baseball 2K6, the hour or so I got to spend with it wasn't enough to see if they were the kind that go away with a little familiarity. Expect reviews of the first two versions rather soon from an editor who has significantly more than four innings under his belt.