Review by DDJ

"Simple, but enjoyable."

Review in Brief
Game: A simple, novice-friendly baseball simulation.
Good: Extremely easy-to-learn controls; a simple, flexible structure and interface; an understanding of the DS's audience.
Bad: Lack of depth or complexity; some missing features like online play and touchscreen usage; prone to boring repetition.
Verdict: Simple, enjoyable, and playable by anyone, but won't satisfy hardcore fans.
Rating: 7/10
Recommendation: Fine for anyone of any age interested in a baseball game, but lacks the depth to appeal to long-time fans of baseball games.

"Simple, but enjoyable."

Prior to this review, I reviewed Pro Evolution Soccer 12 3D, with the verdict that while the game was great for experts and people who would put in the time to learn the game's complex controls, it was far too complex for beginners. Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS provides a very interesting contrast to that; it has relatively little to offer experts of baseball games or huge fans of baseball in general, but it's simple enough that nearly anyone can pick it up and play it with ease.

Although Major League Baseball 2K12 for other consoles might be a game that would attract experts and huge baseball fans (the million-dollar challenge for a perfect game comes to mind), the designers have gone the completely opposite way with Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS, and I, personally, wholeheartedly support that decision. It reflects an understanding of how the DS's audience differs from that of full consoles, as well as a willingness to work within the constraints of the more limited system. Not only does the game have a larger overall audience, it also lacks the hardcore contingent (in my opinion). So, while Pro Evolution Soccer 12 3D succeeded by going all-in on its niche audience, Major League Baseball 2K12 devotes all its attention to developing an accessible game for everyone.

That, of course, will leave some people wanting. If you're a big fan of deep, complex baseball simulations, Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS isn't for you. But with the DS's audience what it is, I believe it's going to strike a chord with a much larger audience thanks to this focus on accessibility and simplicity.

The Game
As the title suggests, Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS is a baseball simulator for the Nintendo DS. It comes with the standard selection of game modes: "Play Now", Season mode, Playoffs mode, a training/tutorial mode, and a collection system for in-game achievements. You can choose any team to play as, manage your substitutions among your roster's current players, and play games of varying lengths. The game lets you control the season length (10, 20, 40, 81, or 162 games), playoff length (1-1-1, 3-3-3, 3-5-7, or 5-7-7), and game length (1 through 9 innings). You can also choose from four different difficulty levels and manual vs. automatic fielding.

Within the game, the systems are controlled through relatively simple systems. For pitching, you select a pitch for three to five pitches, hold down the button until the right moment for maximum power, and press it again at the right moment for maximum accuracy. For batting, you press the 'swing bat' button at the appropriate time, and can direct the swing with the control stick to maximize your power. The shoulder buttons allow you to send runners or bring them back. There are quick time events for close plays. Fielding can be done automatically or manually, though there's no benefit that I've seen to doing it manually.

The Good
The main good features of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS come from how easy it is to just pick up and play. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in simplicity. It's simple enough to hand to younger kids or older, less game-savvy adults alike.

Easy Controls
Most of that comes from the incredible simplicity of the controls. I described the controls a bit above, but I'll go into more depth here. The game can be distilled out to four main systems: batting, hitting, base-running, and fielding.

For the batting system, the camera sits behind the plate looking at the pitcher. The pitcher winds up and you press either A or B to swing at the appropriate time (A for a power swing, B for a normal swing). In addition, you can use the control stick to direct the swing in one of the eight directions (Up, Up-Right, Right, etc.). If you correctly direct the bat where the ball was heading, you'll hit the ball further (supposedly -- I honestly never noticed the difference, but it all happens so fast that it's hard to tell). It's basically exactly what you feel like you should do.

For the pitching system, your pitcher has between three and five pitches to choose from. Usually these are some of the basic pitches -- fastballs, sliders, change-ups, sinkers, curveballs -- as well as one or two special pitches that differ from pitcher to pitcher. Each pitch is assigned a button. To throw a pitch, you press that button and hold it down to determine the power. Release when the power meter hits its maximum to maximize your speed. Then, the meter will shrink again; press it when it's at its smallest to maximize your accuracy. Before throwing the pitch, you can choose where to aim it, with the strike zone outlined. You don't need to know in advance what the pitches are: throw each one a couple times and you'll see the difference. It's a very simple and pleasantly rhythmic way to do the system; soon you'll find yourself getting into a rhythm with throwing fast, accurate pitches.

Base-running is simple, although it has one annoying inconsistency. Press the L button to make your runners all run; if it's before you swing, they'll steal, and if it's while the ball is in play, they'll just run. Press R button to make all your runners return to their bases; that could be canceling a steal, running back on a fly ball, or canceling an attempt at extra bases. The game will handle base-running for you if you don't interrupt it as well, so usually you don't have to worry. You get more fine-grained control if you press a button while pressing L or R: you can direct only the player on 2nd to steal, for example. The inconsistency is that to direct the player on first, you press X (the button at the top of the diamond of buttons); second base, you press Y; third base, you press B. It rotates 90 degrees from the way the bases appear, which is annoying.

Lastly, there's fielding. Fielding can be set to automatic or manual mode. In automatic mode, everything is done for you, which might sound boring, but let's be real: on 99% of baseball plays, there is one discrete best decision. The game animates the fielding on a flat field with a bird's eye view and circles with numbers running around; it's a very simple animation that gets the job done, but might be considered a little lazy. If you're in manual mode, you'll control one player with the control stick, and can throw to any of the four bases with the (properly-mapped, this time) buttons. The running system is annoying since usually you need to already be moving by the time it shows the field in order to get the ball, and manual doesn't really get you anything. An ideal system would be a hybrid with the players running automatically but leaving the throwing in the hands of the player, but oh well.

In addition to those, the game also has quick time events, but before you go running for the hills, they're actually fairly well-implemented. On close plays -- either close calls at a base or difficult catches -- the game goes into slow motion and prompts you with buttons to press. Press them fast enough and you'll make the catch, reach the base first, or tag the runner out depending on the situation. It's actually very well done and takes some of the frustration out of seemingly arbitrary calls.

Good Flexibility
Another positive feature of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS that enhances the accessibility of the game is the flexibility of the game options. Baseball games are long, baseball seasons are even longer; chance are, most people don't want to play 162 9-inning games. Still, it's common to want the experience of playing a season mode. Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS caters to this with an abundance of game options. You can choose one game for quick playing, a full season, or just the playoffs for just the icing on the season-long cake.

In addition, you can choose games that are between 1 and 9 innings long, and seasons that are anywhere from 10 to 162 game long. The playoffs can be tweaked to be all 1-game series, all 3-game series, or longer series like the real MLB. All that means is that most people can find a mode that will expand or shrink to match how much they want out of the game. Even experts or huge fans could play an entire season, although the lack of depth elsewhere in the game would likely make that an undesirable option.

Well-Suited to the Audience
The most important positive feature of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS, though, as mentioned in the introduction to this review is that its design fits the audience it's likely to find on the Nintendo DS. The Nintendo DS is the best-selling console of all time, and it's owned by people of literally all ages. It has a much broader range than the standard consoles, or even than its portable competitors. At the same time, the console lacks the hardcore gaming audience that other consoles have, largely simply due to system constraints; it can't provide the kind of experience that would appeal to hardcore gamers.

The design of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS reflects an understanding of this audience. The game is simple enough for a 6-year-old to pick up and play, or for a 65-year-old who's never played games before to understand with some reasonable level of training. It appeals to the audience of the console it appears on. It's not a soaring epic RPG on the Nintendo Wii or a minigame-suite party-game on a PlayStation 3; it's a game whose design matches the console that plays it, and that's a symbiosis that shouldn't be underestimated.

The Bad
The simplicity and accessibility of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS doesn't come without a price, though. The game lacks the depth, complexity, or features to appeal to bigger fans of baseball games. Although it's good that the developers created a game that appeals to the DS's audience, they could have also included features that would appeal to a deeper segment as well without messing up the original formula.

Little Depth
The biggest problem with Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS is that, partially as a result of the simplicity, it lacks any real depth to it. Baseball is a very deep and nuanced game, but there's no indication that the game accurately simulates the complexity of pitching decisions and substitutions, the variety of strategies, or anything that separates Major League Baseball from playing stickball in the street.

For one, the game supplies four difficulty levels, but I'll be darned if I can tell the difference between the four. I tried the easiest, the second-hardest, and the hardest, and I didn't observe any major differences; in fact, the best game I had was against the second-hardest difficulty level. I didn't seem to hit any less often, or get hit off of any more often. I think the quick time events might get more complicated in higher difficulty levels, but I never observed that directly, and it would be a minor change nonetheless.

The simplicity of the game also makes it difficult to tell if you're getting better, why you're getting better, and how your decisions map to the on-screen results. I got pretty good at batting, but there was no good indication about why the ball when one way once and the other another time. You're aware when you're doing well, but you're not aware why, and I suspect that's because how well you're doing does not tie solely to your decisions.

So, in short, the game has a shallow learning curve, which is good, but its learning curve also ends very quickly; there's only so good you can get at the game, and it comes pretty quickly. That contributes to the problem of...

Quickly Repetitive and Boring
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a huge baseball fan. I find it pretty boring in general, so it's probably pretty natural that I find a baseball video game somewhat boring as well. That said, I feel like Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS misses some opportunities to avoid the repetitiveness and redundancy that I think affect baseball games in particular.

The problem with baseball in general -- for me at least -- is that the number of things that can happen is relatively finite. At each at bat, it's a single, double, triple, home run, or an out -- strikeout, fly out, groundout if you want to get more specific. When there's such a limited number of things that can happen, intrigue has to come from somewhere else; there has to be some complexity behind what happens when. As described above, I don't see that happening in Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS, and as a result, the game can get very repetitive very quickly, making it very boring.

However, that might be as much a criticism of baseball in general as it is of Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS. Maybe I'm overestimating how complicated the game really is, and this actually does a good job of simulating it. In which case, big baseball fans might not find it boring; but when you have so few decisions and actions to take and so much of the game is on "auto-pilot", it's hard to be entertained for very long.

Missing Features
Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS is also missing some features that it might be reasonable to expect a game to have nowadays. Two of the main ones here are online multiplayer and touchscreen usage.

Online multiplayer is the obvious one. Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS is a game whose structure lends itself just fine to multiplayer; in fact, it might be even better since synchronicity isn't at quite as high a premium. The lack of it is somewhat glaring. There's not much more I can say about that.

Now, I do oppose games that use the touchscreen solely out of a sense of obligation. That said, I think Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS missed a legitimate opportunity here. As it current stands, there is a very finite number of swings the player can make: they choose power vs. regular vs. bunting, one of nine directions, and the timing. That leaves relatively few possible swings. The touchscreen, on the other hand, could have been used for a much more flexible swinging system. The same can be true for pitching; the touchscreen could have been used for directing the pitch, determining the power determining the accuracy, or anything else. Those wouldn't be contrived usages of the touchscreen because the translation between the buttons and the actions is already rather contrived.

I also would have liked to see an intermediate fielding mode allowing the player to choose what base to throw to while the computer continues to handle driving the fielder along the shortest path to the ball. But hey, that's more minor.

Somewhat Lazy
The last criticism I have about the game is that there are certain places where there's some definite developer laziness that comes out. There are three of these in particular that spring to mind, although one of them is half-justified. First of all, the graphics for some team logos are incredibly pixelated. It's minor, but it's silly: putting higher-quality graphics in isn't exactly a high order, and they get it just fine for a lot of teams.

The second issue comes in the menu interface. That's the interface surrounding selecting teams, selecting options, etc. The entire thing is just very lazily implemented. It's laggy, forcing you to wait over a second between switches when browsing teams, meaning it could take almost a minute to find the team you want to play as. It's jumpy, the bounding boxes for touch input are off, and it just generally feels very amateurish.

The last lazy bit comes in the animation of fielding. As mentioned above, the fielding animation presents a flat bird's eye view of a field with circled numbers, a ball, and runners moving around it. It's like the mini-map view for a full game. There's something somewhat nice about it, but I also can't help feeling that it was just a lazy excuse not to implement a full animation for fielding.

The Verdict
Generally, Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS does a great job of designing itself for appeal to the majority of the DS audience. Its simple interface is easy to pick up and play, both in terms of choosing what your game mode is and in terms of actually playing the game. The game guides you along as you play, and the pause screen explains each of the four main game modes easily. It's an excellent beginner's baseball game.

Unfortunately, it doesn't get any deeper than that. It would have been possible to have this simplicity on the surface and scaffold the player down to more complex strategy and play styles as the difficulty increases, but the game doesn't do that. It doesn't even introduce the need to do that since the difficulty levels are seemingly meaningless. That, combined with the natural redundancy of baseball, equal a game that quickly gets boring unless you're a big fan of the sport.

My Recommendation
If you're at all interested in a baseball game and aren't looking for something too deep, Major League Baseball 2K12 for DS isn't a bad pick-up. Any age can play it, but if you're looking for a deeper experience, it probably won't satisfy you.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 03/22/12

Game Release: Major League Baseball 2K12 (US, 03/06/12)

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