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 choppiness of baseball and make pitching as unrealistic as possible.
Two new baseball games continue in that rut, while a third breaks out of it.
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 graphics are advanced enough that it's almost like watching baseball on TV. But after a little while, the video-gameness shows through.
When the batters do that windmill warmup swing, their arms seem to move independently of their shoulders. After one batter got rung up on strikes, he stepped out of the batter's box - directly through the catcher, as if the batter could morph like the T-1000 in Terminator 2. When fielders turn a double play, there's a slight pause as they square and throw to first.
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 sidearm toss to first looks like an audio animatronic (albeit a very advanced one), one of the unique and appealing aspects of the sport - its aesthetics - is lost.
The Bigs doesn't bother with realism. It's an arcadey game meant to evoke the quick fun of the old RBI Baseball 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 diving catch, the camera slows to make the play dramatic. But the way the player dives or jumps never looks right geometrically - according to the initial path of the 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 the New York Mets' Jose Reyes but just looks creepy.
The real problem with both games is they seem to be on the cutting edge of late 2005. Major League Baseball 2K7, on the other hand, is 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 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 like an actual person is filming. The tummy of Boston's David Ortiz is proportioned correctly to his giant thighs. Pitchers' quick ducking on a pitch hit up the middle accurately captures instinct's reflexes.
An instant replay of a stolen base gets the lengthening stride, the springy popup slide. 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.
Major League 2K7 has two flaws that keep it from perfection. The biggest problem is the pitcher's mound seems like it's 6 feet, 6 inches rather than 60 feet, 6 inches away. This makes batting overly reliant on reflex and guessing, and it can get frustrating. The other issue is a graphical glitch: The wind on players' jerseys generally adds to the realism, but sometimes blows too much and makes the shirts constantly flap.
Other than that, 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 a more video-gamey aspect to each pitch. That's not exactly realistic either, but at least it's fun.
Josh Korr can be reached at email@example.com.
How the reviewer grades them
MLB 07: the Show (PlayStation 3): C
The Bigs (reviewed on Xbox 360): C-
Major League Baseball 2K7 (reviewed on Xbox 360): A-