Last weekend at Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners dropped three out of four games against the Oakland A's. They were outscored 16–10 and mustered only 21 total hits. It was, as series go, not very pretty.
That same weekend at Steinbacher Field—home to exasperated girlfriends and leafy substances of dubious legality—those same Seattle Mariners thoroughly cleaned the clocks of Oakland's pitchers to the tune of 26 runs in four games, all while allowing just three runs total the entire series. Pitching phenom Felix Hernandez came close to tossing perfection, and Ichiro pounded a very un-Ichiro-like six home runs in three games. Even Adrian Beltre was a hitting machine. It was, as series go, very, very pretty.
The Major League Baseball 2K franchise has long led the pack of baseball video games, offering quality presentation, sharp controls, and an attention to detail that has helped it rise above its competitors. This year, however, they're the only game in town, having inked an exclusive deal with Major League Baseball, one that effectively crippled rival Electronic Arts' competing MVP Baseball franchise. It was a shrewd business move (and a spiteful one, since EA penned a similar deal with the NFL a couple years ago); creatively, though, it appears to have been stifling, as Major League Baseball 2K6 isn't much of an improvement over last year's version, and in some places has even taken a step back—the equivalent of going from 90 wins to 70 wins after some misguided roster tinkering during the off-season.
Game play remains, for the most part, solid. Batting can be handled via either the analog stick or classic button mashing, and each swing feels fluid and natural. Pitching is all about precision, with pitch selection and pinpoint accuracy ruling the mound, and hurler fatigue providing a decent amount of strategy. And though fielding can occasionally feel sluggish (and routine pop-ups can sometimes be dropped), it's not enough to drag things down too severely.
Where things do get dragged down, however, are in player intelligence and presentation—two elements that are normally 2K's standouts. On the A.I. front, 2K6 relies far too heavily on unforced errors to keep games competitive; passed balls happen too frequently and conveniently, and CPU opponents routinely nail clutch hits no matter what you throw at them. As for presentation, the series lost its partnership with ESPN this year, and though both Jon Miller and Joe Morgan continue to provide play-by-play, the game's overall production is at best on par with regional Fox Sports coverage—bland and second-rate.
Still, these grievances aside, Major League Baseball 2K6 offers enough for those of us obsessed with baseball—and obsessed with playing baseball during baseball season—to enjoy. It's not perfect, by any means, but as the oft-spoken lament goes, there's always next year—especially since 2K7 is already in production.