Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Beaten with a stick


I love baseball. A lot. I keep close tabs on my Seattle Mariners no matter their record, which was abysmal again this season. I also watch a majority of the Braves games that are on TV as well as Sunday and Monday night baseball on ESPN. This obsession also carries over to the virtual diamond. I'm a huge fan of Sony's MLB: The Show series and, to a lesser extent, 2KSports MLB2K games.

You can imagine my delight when I learned that an Xbox Live Arcade baseball title was set to release today called MLB Stickball. I figured the game wouldn't be sim based but could provide some fun arcade style baseball for a cheap price. I was wrong.

The game features 120 MLB players with 4 representatives from the leagues 30 teams. The rosters are pretty well done for the most part. I was pleased to see Manny Ramirez on the Dodgers. However, some of the choices are just plain bizarre. Daniel Cabrera over Orioles' Ace Jeremy Guthrie? Ivan Rodriquez as one of the four Yankees? At least they didn't include Erik Bedard.

Only 30 players are available initially. The rest are unlocked through buying cards with the points you earn during a game. Fifty points will net you a pack of 3 cards. You are given the option to trade in 3 duplicate cards of one player for any other MLB star. I really like this system because it offers replayability while allowing the gamer to unlock the players he likes best.

Stickball can be played with up to four players online or off. Regular exhibition games can be played as well. The meat of the game is called Tour, which is an eight team schedule made up of random computer opponents. Why is there no choice to play all 30 teams in order like in the old NBA Jam games? Unacceptable.

Let's move on to the game. The first order of business upon selecting a team is to set your lineup. You will choose four players and the order in which they hit/pitch. I usually put my two best arms at the top since the normal game length is 6 innings, which allows them two innings of work. There are generic players that specialize in certain categories that you must choose before unlocking all of the teams players. Power hitter, power pitcher, control pitcher, control hitter and all-around player are some of the choices.

The problem lies in the fact that ratings seem to mean nothing in actual gameplay. I've hit just as many homers with people with low power ratings than those with a near capped rating. It makes even less sense on the pitching side. I seem to have more success pitching with Adrian Beltre than J.J. Putz, despite the players having ratings that should prove otherwise. Not to mention the fact that I was almost no hit by a combination of B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford. Actually I did get no hit by them, but the 10 runs I scored off Scott Kazmir put me ahead for good. It doesn't make sense and it pretty much ruins the game.

The hitting/pitching mechanics are surprisingly solid, but could definitely use some work. On offense you have the choice of regular and power swings. You can also rotate your batter to change the direction they will hit the ball, which is dumb. They simply should have allowed for pushing and pulling the ball to be mapped on the left stick. On the mound, or manhole cover in this case, you have a four pitch arsenal that includes a fastball, curveball, lob and bounce pitch. You simply tap the button to start the pitch and then hit it again at the desired power. There are no fielding controls due to the nature of the game. It's an automatic out if the batter fails to get the ball past the mound. Any hit that a defensive player cannot catch is a single, unless it hits one of the objects on the field, goes over the fence or goes into foul territory.

The six field locations make MLB Stickball more frustrating than any game needs to be. For example, the Brooklyn field takes place on a narrow street. The fire truck at the end of the street will net you a triple if you hit it, and a homer if you go over. There are also several cars that provide doubles when struck. However, it's an automatic out if you hit a window on any of the houses. All of the other playing fields feature similar obstacles that provide either positive or negative bonuses, so you will need to alter your style in order to take advantage of each level.

It's that strategy, along with the minor chess match in selecting the right lineup, that makes MLB Stickball worth a shot for fans of baseball. The problem lies in the limited amount of in-game options and the seemingly useless player ratings. I strongly urge anyone interested to play the free demo before laying down the 800 MS points to unlock the full version. I'm going to give the game a generous 2.5/5 buttons.

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