When I think about baseball, I don’t think about the wonders of stats. I think more about the individual oddities, not just Barry Bonds on steroids and the strange ESPN show “Bonds On Bonds.” I think of it as Roger Kahn wrote in the seminal “The Boys of Summer.” And sometimes, I think of baseball as the perfect quirky non-fiction meets fiction, something out of Paul Quarrington’s freak-filled “Home Game.” I wonder what could go into a killer change up beyond a good eye and a good arm. I wonder about mindset—if a player lost in poker on Bodog.com before the bat is thrown angrily after a strike out. I think about the influences of the catcalls of fans, about streaks and complexities, and little things that no one but semi-obsessed baseball fans thing about.
And so, when I first checked out MLB 2K6 for the Xbox 360, I was initially pleasantly surprised. As I strode to bat as Derek Jeter against the Chicago White Sox, I began to hear the intricate sounds of the stadium. Beyond dullish but stalwart announcers Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, there was the tinny blandness of the stadium announcer. There was a boy yelling at Jeter and there was the layered hum of the crowd. Amazingly, the minds at 2K Sports had come up with a way of presenting these screams and huzzahs that make them seem three dimensional. In other words, the sounds seemed to come from all around me on my cheesy stereo speakers within my non-HDTV. I’d never heard sound so full and hearty in a game, and it freaked me out.
I really was ready to love MLB 2K6. They’ve put a lot of work into this game and they’ve even added the somewhat specious “World League” as an extra (which is not as good as, say, the Negro Leagues that were added to All Star Baseball 2004). Still, the ability to play as the Cuban team is a delightful extra.
But as I tried to get Jeter to hit a ball using the right controller stick as a bat, I missed. And then I missed again. And then I struck out. Here’s the reason. There are too many attempts at innovation in 2K6. After nearly a half hour, I still couldn’t get the swing of things to get a big hit. After 45 minutes, I got one double: totally frustrating. The controller stick is supposed to act like the real swing of a bat. But it’s just too hard to make it work smoothly and accurately beyond Rookie Mode. (Full disclosure: to a lesser extent, I had this problem with EA’s Fight Night Round 3, but in that boxing game the controller options let you use a combination of buttons and the stick).
In MLB 2K6, I had no such problems with trying to pitch. In fact, the game rewards you with momentum boosts when you are on roll and pitching strike outs. That’s a real thrill. But great baseball isn’t all about pitching. It’s about defense. Unfortunately, strange things happen when fielding, too. In the first game I played, I threw a pitch from first to second in effort to get a Chicago player out. But Jeter—Jeter—missed the ball, which unpleasantly rolled out toward right field. Then, the game had graver problems along the way: it froze my 360, and I had to reboot. Additionally, the faces of the players don’t look real enough. Mind you, this is the Xbox 360 version of the game. It costs $10 more that the regular game. For $60 on a next generation platform, you expect near photorealism.
One thing is clear: MLB 2K6 should not have been released without far more intensive and careful beta testing. Since the maker of this game bought all the Major League Baseball rights, Electronic Arts can’t use real players’ names anymore in its game. And the Sony game, MLB 06: The Show, is tight and solid, but not that intriguing. Hopefully, 2K Sports will get things right next year. Sadly, this year, there’s no baseball sim that hits the ball out of the park. Mighty Casey has struck out.
In a last great orgasm before an E3-enforced detumescence, a plethora of games have been released that are like powerful little super-sperm. Play these suckers and you’ll be screaming in ecstasy. So turn up the volume: you don’t want the neighbors to hear your rapture. Truth be told, I can’t recall a late March/early April period in which so many good and occasionally great games were foisted upon the market. This week, a trio of good-to-great games jump the bones.
The long-awaited and long-delayed Kingdom Hearts II has finally landed. With synchronicity that often isn’t seen between Hollywood and game makers, Disney has teamed up with the RPG magicians Square-Enix, the people who make the Final Fantasy series. They’ve lent everyone from Mickey Mouse to Johnny Depp as crusty Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean to unleash a really thoughtful and deep adventure story. It makes the delay completely worth the wait.
This is a game of full of modern myth, Disney style, in which you travel between various worlds to help the local hero, whether it’s Mickey or the Little Mermaid. From the voice acting (which includes James Woods as the big-voiced ruler of Hell) to the soundtrack which includes the Little Mermaid‘s Jodi Benson, the game is full of pleasant surprises. You’ll also meet some of the greatest characters from the Final Fantasy series. Plus, Square-Enix has made some terrific graphics on the soon-to-be-old-school PlayStation 2.
The only game play problem I can see is that to access various abilities and magic gleaned from hanging with the Disney characters, you have to scroll through various menus. This slows down the action. And you sometimes encounter problems with the camera angles, a game development challenge that’s generally too ever-present in the world of video games. But the story, full of everything from fairy tales to sword and sorcery magic, makes you feel like kid again. To really understand the worlds of the game, you might also buy the original Kingdom Hearts, which you can get online for as little as $13.
Developer: Ubisoft Romania
Although it’s been criticized as not quite deep enough, I like Blazing Angels for the Xbox 360. Here, you’ll “feel like a pilot in a great WWII movie.” Sure, it’s got great graphics from a pilot’s eye view, and you’ll love flying over London and Big Ben as you battle. But with 42 different kinds of aircraft and the ability to play with 16 others online, the word ‘intense’ becomes an understatement. I went out and bought a mouth guard to stop grinding my teeth from the tension I encountered. If you haven’t played an arcade-like WWII war game before, try renting the game before you buy. With attackers coming from every direction and good graphics that are sometime great, you’ll have a lot of fun with Blazing Angels.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal/Crytek
The best buy of the week is Far Cry Instincts Predator. Not only does the Xbox 360 game include the original (albeit wonderfully enhanced) Far Cry Instincts, the brand new Predator comes with a wild story that leans toward horror and sci-fi. It’s full of action and shooting as you make your way through mysterious islands full of mercenaries, pirates, and warriors. Your character, Jack Carver, has decided to move to the islands for a life of ease and margaritas. Instead, he’s injected with a mysterious serum that gives him the power of various beasts. You’ll enjoy Predator even more if you have online capabilities. Online, you’ll be able to create your own game by editing maps that essentially make for a player-defined game. All three of these games will keep you occupied for weeks on end. Are they better than sex? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, that depends on what the meaning of sex is.
The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
You know that jones. You know it too well. Sometimes you gotta have a full pound bag of Skittles; sometimes you gotta drink coffee until you grind your teeth. And sometimes you gotta play until you drop. That’s the way it is with Oblivion. And that’s because the developers, Bethesda Softworks, have carefully crafted their Elder Scrolls games since 1994. Beyond craftmanship, they have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to using new technology seamlessly. So when Oblivion, the lastest installment in the series, was postponed for the Xbox 360, gamers everywhere drew heavy sighs of sadness. Without doubt, it would have been the killer app when the 360 was released last fall.
Two weeks ago when Oblivion was finally unleashed, palpable joy was everywhere. Not only is Oblivion filled with the most beautiful graphics to date for Microsoft’s next generation hardware, it’s rife with compelling play that takes the RPG genre to a new level. That’s why it’s the top selling game in the country. That’s why bloggers have moved from ecstasy into rapture when they talk breathlessly about it.
For me, what matters most in Oblivion is its compelling story and the way it unfolds. After an opening movie full of expansive scenery and massive architecture worthy of Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings, you start out in a dingy cell being browbeaten by a prisoner whose body you can’t see. Suddenly, the embattled emperor of Tamriel (who looks a little like Sen. John McCain after he’s made nice with Jerry Falwell) appears with an entourage, and they move through a hidden tunnel in your cell to run from assassins. Although you’re told not to, you follow through creepy, catacomb-like recesses beneath the prison. You can almost smell the dankness.
After you choose the kind of character you’d like to be, you’ll begin with a tutorial that shows you how to kill: You start with an RPG staple, giant rats. They die easily, but their bites do cause wounds. (By clicking the right controller stick, I moved from the first person perspective to the third person just because it’s easier to see the rats attack.) You’ll find a bow and arrow, and you’ll learn how to shoot. And you’ll cast magic spells full of wild animation.
The key to enjoying the rich experience of Oblivion is to have a wide-eyed sense of discovery and a nagging need to explore everything. Because of the circuitous routes you take, you’ll probably get lost now and then. The game itself helps you to find your way with everything from a compass to various maps. You’ll also encounter zombies and goblins early on, and the way they pop out of the darkness frightens you in the way the Doom 3 did. As you move forward, you’ll end up in Sancre Tor, which is full of the undead. Ghosts here will help you, and scare your pants off, too. Tip: To fight off the ghosts, you can’t use just any weapon. You’ll have to find a silver weapon.
If you’ve never played an RPG before, this really is the one to buy. You’ll also want to search the Web for some needed help when things get tough (various walk-throughs are available, and so is a guide you can purchase in bookstores). Oblivion is truly immersive adventure of sword and sorcery. Novices who take the time to play will be hooked in about an hour. And the hardened gamers? Your hearts will melt as your quest becomes more and more complex and graphically intense. You will play until you drop, and when you get up, you’ll play until you drop again. Even when it’s done, it’s not done. As George Carlin mused, “Just ’cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”