In the eighth inning of a pivotal early-April “Major League Baseball 2K8” franchise game, Tigers pitcher Fernando Rodney’s digital alter ego took a line drive to the face courtesy of a virtual Boston Red Sox slugger. Virtual Rodney went down. The virtual ball bounced into foul territory. The virtual Sox scored a run. My virtual Tigers gave up the lead. But goddamn if it wasn’t the coolest thing I had ever seen in a baseball videogame. Unfortunately, I was soon notified that my setup man was out with a concussion, and I would ultimately find out that he was headed for the virtual DL, not unlike his real-life counterpart. Suddenly, the virtual ball-meets-skull incident wasn’t so awesome. And that was more or less emblematic of my experience with “Major League Baseball 2K8” for the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360. Certain aspects of the game are intriguing at face value, until you find yourself concussed two hours later.

Brian Merlos
Prince Fielder has never been this skinny … Ever. (Courtesy of 2K Sports)

As the only baseball simulation to be released on both the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 this year, “Major League Baseball 2K8” is charged with satisfying a lot of a fans. While the Wii version puts a premium on motion controls and interactivity, the 360 version is more detailed and visually pleasing. Unfortunately, neither version satisfies its intended purpose particularly well. The Wii’s motion controls are limited and don’t register manipulations of the Wii Remote in a 1:1 manner like baseball in “Wii Sports.” And the 360 version introduces a few notable developments by utilizing the analog sticks for nearly everything. But wonky framerates, horrible load times and sterile in-game environments prevent it from being truly worthwhile.

Both games aren’t a total wash though, as each version does a few things right. Neither title is perfect, but somewhere in the two games is one pretty decent game. Here’s how the titles stack up.

Batting: If there’s one thing the Wii version of “2K8” should have going for it, it’s batting. “Wii Sports” – the Wii’s glorified tech demo – hinted at the system’s potential for pulling off a groundbreaking baseball sim by using 1:1 batting controls that would translate every movement of the Wii remote on screen. Sadly, it’s been 16 months since “Wii Sports” was released and no one has come close to touching “Wii Sports” ‘s basic control scheme. Instead, swinging the Wii Remote in “2K8” is more-or-less the equivalent of tapping A on a GameCube controller. Swinging the remote merely activates a canned animation, and it doesn’t feel like you have much control over what actually happens. Surprisingly, the 360’s control scheme one-ups the Wii by utilizing a more predictable, analog-based scheme. Hitting in the 360 version involves drawing the right analog stick back right before the pitcher releases the ball and pushing it forward to swing. There’s more potential in the Wii version, but the 360’s more traditional mechanics are just better.

Pitching: Like SNES-era golf games, most baseball sims have stuck to a meter-based pitching system where players tap a button to stop and start a meter to throw the ball. The good news is both versions of “2K8” tossed the basic pitching meter aside. The bad news is both systems need work. In the Wii version, players use the Remote to point where they want the ball to go and flick their wrist forward to throw the ball when a pop-up meter enters an optimal zone. But the “throwing motion” – if you can really call it that – is basically no different from tapping a button and falls into the same trap that batting does on the system. Additionally, playing against another person is not really an option since whoever is batting can see exactly where the other person is pitching. The 360 version doesn’t have this problem because the analog stick is always centered in the middle of the strike zone so it’s possible to tell where you’re pitching based on how far you move the analog stick. But since the Wii uses the Remote to point, it’s necessary to see exactly where you’re pitching. “2K8” for 360 introduced an analog-based pitching scheme where different pitches have different motions that are broken up into a windup and a follow-through. The 360 scheme works fairly well, but throwing each pitch is overly time consuming and pushes games past the 60 minute mark.

Visuals: This one is tricky. While the 360 version looks a hell of a lot better than the Wii – which is pumping out low-level GameCube visuals – framerate issues just about ruin everything the 360 has going for it. It’s not uncommon for the game to slow down and become choppy while the ball is in play in the 360 version, and the pre-batting animations consistently generate multi-second load breaks while the system catches up with the overtaxing software. The 360 version also falls into a strange trap that’s common among many next-generation sports titles, where the player models are almost too accurate, but in a strange, mannequins-playing-games sort of way that appears wholly unnatural. The Wii’s visuals are unquestionably worse, but at the same time its presentation won’t scare small children and doesn’t get in the way of the actual gameplay, while the 360 version does.

Game Modes: Both versions of “2K8” are decently featured, but in a change of pace from past multi-system sports titles, the 360 version slightly edges out the Wii in terms of their overall feature sets. Both versions have the requisite exhibition, home run derby, franchise and tournament modes, but only the 360 version features online gameplay and roster updates. The 360 version also has a trading card system – resembling the “Madden” trading card system but without any discernable purpose – which is absent from the Wii version, although that’s not necessarily a detriment.

Fielding: Fielding might be the only facet of gameplay where the Wii tops 360. In the Wii version, players’ movement is controlled with the Wii Nunchuck, while flicking the Remote throws the ball to the optimal base. It’s true that the flicking motion is hardly different from pushing a button, but it’s as complicated as it needs to be. Unlike the Wii version, the 360 version makes throwing the ball unnecessarily difficult. It’s not that the Wii controls are by any means great, but they’re relatively better than 360’s. In the 360 version, players push the right analog stick in the direction of the corresponding base and hold it until a pop-up meter reaches its optimal zone. But it’s just too difficult to miss the desirable spot in the meter and five-plus error games are too common for a game that’s already fairly challenging.

Bottom Line: If there’s a quality argument against dolling out exclusive videogame contracts to specific developers, it’s “MLB 2K8.” “MLB 08: The Show” racked up decent reviews, but it’s only available on Sony systems and it wouldn’t hurt if another third-party developer had been given a shot at developing a baseball sim for the other platforms this year. “2K8” ‘s Wii and 360 installments both introduced important changes to the stagnant genre, but neither are completely worth purchasing. The 360 version is the one to play, but it comes with as lukewarm of an endorsement as almost any sports title this year.

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