When trying to pick a video game team to spend a few seasons controlling in franchise mode, it's never a bad idea to take charge of the franchise's coverboy. It's not like they write in a few lines in the cover contract that guarantees a certain cyber bad-assness to their polygonal doppelganger, but from what I've found, the producers take care of those who take care of them. Especially when that guy is National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, a pitcher whose nasty repertoire is even harder to hit in video game form in 2K9 thanks to an hour-long motion-capture session where the man they call everything from The Freak to Seabiscuit broke down every pitch to the production team.
But that's not the only reason I'm playing through 2K9's franchise as the Giants. There's also a little thing I like to call the Fred-factor. You see, last year I wrote a piece for ESPN The Magazine about Lewis and how he hated his character in the game. He complained how slow he was, how his friends and relatives made fun of him because he couldn't ever steal a base in the game. So now when the producers of 2K9 demo the game, they actually use the Giants and made sure to point out that they "fixed" Fred in this year's game.
So in my opinion, that means they probably overcompensated and made Fred Lewis a five-tool threat who can't be stopped. OK, maybe they didn't make him the second-coming of Ken Griffey Jr (still, the greatest virtual baseball player of all time), but let's just say I plan to steal every chance I get with Lewis because 2K doesn't want another article where he disses their game.
It also never hurts when you have Lincecum himself giving you pointers on how to play as the Giants.
"You have to learn to play a lot of small ball," he tells me when I ask advice on how to win with his squad. "I know we're not a big power team so it's all about doing the right things in certain situations. You'll need to move runners over when you can, and even though this is a video game, that doesn't mean it's all about the home run.
"Think of it this way: If you have runners on base and you hit a double instead of a home run, it might keep the rally going and you'll score even more runs. Sometimes home runs can actually kill momentum. That's how you have to see things from our side. Like I said, it's all about playing small ball, playing the ball right, getting bunts down, and getting runners in when you're supposed to."
And in the weak NL West, if I follow Lincecum's advice (and take advantage of the Fred-factor), I think that could mean playoffs for my Giants.
First thing I notice when I enter franchise mode is how clean it looks. MLB 2K9 is being developed by Visual Concepts this year and they brought over the guy who built NBA 2K9's Association mode to make things right for baseball. And if you've played NBA at all, you'll feel right at home as MLB 2K9's Franchise was built from the ground up, adding and improving on things gamers have already praised from the NBA title. The game now features stats-based player progression where younger players no longer improve by just sitting on the bench. You actually need to work them into the lineup if you want to see them get better over time.
Other improvements of note: The trade logic is brand new as is the game simulator, and you can even play Franchise with 30 user controlled teams if you're such a freak that you need to tinker with every aspect of your league.
But one team is enough for me, so I select the Giants and hope my coverboy/Fred-factor theory pays off.
When I go to pick the Giants, the game breaks down the team with the following ratings:
Like Lincecum said, small ball is definitely the way to win with this team.
Next option is what tasks you want to control and what you'd like the computer to automate. What's nice is that you can choose to control everything from injury management to the lineup and pitching rotation on the major league level, but you can also choose to automate all of those options for your minor leagues so you don't have to be bogged down with too much. And that's exactly what I do, as I decide to control every aspect of the Giants major league roster, but I'll leave my minor league squad up to the computer in order to save time.
The Franchise interface is MLB.com and the game reports news from around the league like how Milton Bradley is angry at being snubbed for the All-Star game. There are over 200 types of headlines (more than NBA 2K9), and the headlines even track players across the league as they approach and break MLB records. MLB.com also keeps you up to date on trade rumors, hot and cold hitters, and ever predicts who might win awards like Rookie of the Year.
And for all you stat geeks out there, MLB 2K9 also includes Sabermetrics to track all of your players including runs created, extrapolated runs basic, secondary average, equivalent average, isolated power, linear weights, marginal lineup value, stolen base runs, and range factor for all hitters. For pitchers, the stats are pitching runs, quality starts, game score, VORP, and range factor. This is a cool feature in the game and really helps you understand the value of each player in your lineup in a more detailed way.
As I look over my team, the Giants pitching staff looks pretty awesome. Lincecum is a 96 overall, Cain is rated 88, Wilson is 86, Randy Johnson is 82, and Sanchez is 81. In terms of my position players, just as I suspected, Fred Lewis has 94 speed at the top of my lineup. I'm going to try and turn him into the virtual Ricky Henderson.
First game of the season is against the Brewers. Before the game, I purchase the Inside Edge scouting info to help my catcher call the right pitches against the Brew-Crew, then I head into opening night.
The first thing that strikes me when I start the game is how cleaned up the screen is. Last year, there were so many boxes, so much clutter when you were trying to pitch, it just looked out of place. This year, when the catcher calls your pitch, you're given the right stick movement you need to make in order to throw it, but that's it. If you want to see the rest of your pitches, you can click a button and check out your full repertoire, but it's nice to see the game focus more on the players this year.
And in terms of pitching in the game, a lot of people complained that 2K8 was too hard. I thought it was actually a great idea to put pitching on the right stick rather than on the buttons as it forced players to practice. And while it did offer a steep learning curve, it really paid off if you worked on mastering the controls. In 2K9, the "Street Fighter" pitching is still here, but it's been simplified by eliminating the release aspect at the end of the throw. For example, to throw a fastball in this year's game, you press the right stick back, hold it until the yellow meter in the strike zone fills, then press the right stick up to throw the ball. Last year, there was an additional step added on at the end of the pitch to get the prefect release and that's what seemed to complicate matters for most folk. Even though I was a fan of last year's mechanic, the elimination of the last step is brilliant as you are still forced to use the right stick to pitch (and you still throw Street Fighter-like fireballs to throw the curve), but now it's much simpler to use. You can still go back to the old way of 2K8 in the options menu, and if you use the third step in the game, you will pitch with a bit more accuracy (still delivering that learning curve if you want it), but I think once people try this new two-step process, you'll never want to pitch by pressing a button again.
The other thing I notice about the game right off the bat is that the majority of frame-rate issues have been solved. The bugs are still being worked out of the preview copy I'm playing, so there is still the occasional hitch when the ball is hit into the outfield and the game will slow down like 2K8, but producer Jeff Thomas pretty much guarantees that the issues will be solved and that the game will run at a smooth 60 frames-per-second when it's released.
I start the game on the mound with Lincecum and after two strikes, Mike Cameron bloops a single into right field. Cameron then takes off and steals both second and third base in the next two pitches. Wow, the computer sure is playing aggressive. I like it.
Ryan Braun knocks a single up the middle and I'm already down 1-0.
Prince Fielder is up to bat next and when he fouls the ball into the crowd, about ten people in the crowd all jump out of their seats and try to catch the ball. Pretty sweet visual and it's little touches like this that really help add to the atmosphere of the game.
The Giants turn two to get out of the inning and it's time to try out the new hitting mechanic in the game.
Last year, when you were up to bat, you had to press back on the right stick, then jerk it forward to swing, but it always felt strange because if you pressed back too early or too late, it messed up the whole rhythm, and to me, I could just never tell exactly when I was supposed to press back. In 2K9, they solved the issue and really made hitting feel a lot more natural. This year, press back at any time before the pitch and it just gets the batter into a ready position, then when the ball is pitched, you can press forward to swing. The timing is so much simpler to get down, and as you swing, you can also try to aim your hits to the right or left side of the field by pressing up and to the right or up and to the left when you swing the stick.
If you're looking for more advanced batting, you can also add in zone hitting to the mix. Here, you aim the bat cursor while you swing to the area in the zone where the pitch is headed. If you hit the sweet spot of the cursor, you hit the sweet spot on the bat and your hit gets some bonus power.
Lewis and Winn ground out, but then I smack an 0-2 fastball over the wall in right-center with Rowand to tie the game at 1-1. So much for small ball.
Next two batters stroke doubles into the gap, but then Mike Cameron makes an unbelievable diving catch to end the inning. Man, two steals and now the glove ... Cameron is a beast in this game.
When the lineup gets back up to the top, Lewis strokes a single and I get to try out the new base stealing mechanic. Press the left trigger to take a lead, hold the trigger down and the controller vibrates letting you know he's about to steal. Lewis slides in safely for his first steal of the season. Rowand knocks him in two batters latter and the Giants have finally found their small ball.
The game goes back and forth until the Giants take a 6-5 lead heading into the eighth. I bring in Jeremy Affeldt out of the pen to try and shut down the Brewers, but after he gives up a couple of singles, Milwaukee pinch runs for the runner on second, trying to get that little extra speed to bring home the tying run.
With one out, I hit the next batter by accident, loading the bases with Prince Fielder up to bat. This is when the Giants deliver the most exciting play of the night.
With the game on the line, Fielder bounces a dribbler up the first base line. Ishikawa grabs it, throws it home for one out, then as my catcher throws it back to first, he hits Ishikawa while he's running back to the bag and he beats the base runner to the bag for out number three. Crazy. That actually made me jump out of my chair it was so bang-bang close. It's also one of those moments where you realize you're really into the game you're playing.
In the ninth, I bring in Wilson who mows them down 1-2-3 to get the save and the Giants start the season 1-0. After the game you can check out highlights of the top three plays, watch the great grabs throughout the game, and even watch signature highlights of anyone who played.
Two of the replays stand out. The first is on a triple by Winn, the throw was wide of third, and the Brewers third baseman caught the ball, then dove at the sliding Winn to try and make the play. The other was a ball hit to second baseman Kevin Frandsen. He was running to his right, put a glove on the ball, bobbled it, then bare-handed it off the dirt and threw off balance to still make the play at first. I save both replays using Reelmaker, then exit out of the game.
Lincecum gets the win, Fred Lewis finished 3-4 with a double, a steal, and three runs scored, and I'm feeling pretty good about my team ... and the direction of MLB 2K9.
Check back to ESPN Videogames as the Giants season continues and we explore trades, the sim engine, and various other new features in MLB 2K9.