MLB 2K5 marks the last of the big baseball titles that I've had to cover this year, and it's also the game that's been the hardest to pass judgment on. Kush Games took over for Blue Shift for the game's development this year, and that change is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the game is very much improved over last year's effort and Kush also really seems to have perfected the art of the ESPN presentation style—even if MLB 2K5 is the last Take Two game to benefit from the ESPN alliance. The curse is that just like many of Kush's other games, bugs have made it past the final testing stage and into the final product, causing some annoying situations and leaving gamers to wonder how such things can end up in the retail version of a game.
Let's touch on the good stuff first… because there's a lot of it. First and foremost, the addition of "K-Zone" pitching works well and actually makes pitching in MLB 2K5 slightly more addictive than pitching in MVP 2005. Instead of a pitching meter—which both MVP 2005 and MLB 2006 use—MLB 2K5 asks players to use an aiming reticle to determine the location of a pitch. Once this dot is set, a pair of crosshairs appears and these lines intersect at the aiming reticle. Then, dots appear, which move towards the reticle; players then need to press the pitch button to stop these dots as close to the reticle as possible in order to set accuracy. In order to set speed, players must simply initially hold down the pitch button. The trade off is this: the longer players hold down the pitch button, the smaller that the reticle becomes—and the tougher it is to be accurate. It sounds complex, but after a few batters, it becomes easier and really allows you to spot your pitches nicely. There are other pitching options available (including the now-standard pitching meter), but this one is truly the best of the bunch.
How about batting? Everyone loves offense, and MLB 2K5 does too. Much like MVP 2005, MLB 2K5 tends to move away from batting cursors and instead relies on a player's timing to make contact with a pitch. As in previous years, there are two distinct hitting buttons: one is for standard (contact) hitting… and the other is for a power swing. Individual players may or may not like this setup. Some players may just consistently use the power swing button, which does admittedly lead to more home runs; however, this is also dependent on each player's attributes, so don't expect Pokey Reese to hit 40 homers is a year for you. Players can aim their swings to pull pitches, go opposite field, or hit fly balls. This doesn't seem to work quite as well here as it does in MVP 2005, but it's serviceable enough. Be warned, though, that the game does have a nose for offense at its default settings; sim-minded players may want to adjust a few of MLB 2K5's many gameplay sliders to tone this down.
Speaking of offense, there is one feature that many purists are going to hate: The Slam Zone. The Slam Zone element happens randomly, usually if the opposing pitcher misses his spot while trying to make a pitch. When Slam Zone becomes active, two cursors appear: one where the pitch is going, and another that players can move to match up with the eventual pitch location. If you can match the two up, the commentary and crowd sounds fade and the batter goes into a "zone". The action slows way down and the camera zooms in on the ball. At this point, players have to mash the power button as hard as they can, and then swing when prompted. If all goes according to plan—which it usually does—the batter crushes the pitch, usually for a round-tripper. It's a cool addition which doesn't happen very often, but it's also very gimmicky. If you're not a fan, you can turn it off, so it can't be construed as a negative.
Fielding seems to have the MVP feel to it, as the right analog stick is the key to making some big plays in the field, such as diving stabs or homer-saving wall climbs. The CPU tends to make plays a lot seem a lot tougher than they really are, leading to multiple "Web Gems" replays. Throws are made to their respective bases by using the appropriate face button on the controller. Using the default settings, errors tend to occur a bit too frequently, so this is yet another gameplay slider that you may (or may not) wish to adjust.
As for running the bases, perhaps the best addition is the ability to mash on the buttons to make your players run faster. Legging out an infield hit is especially satisfying when you know that you helped get that player to beat out a throw by a half-step. Just like MVP 2005, advancing or retreating runners is done by pressing the face button that matches the base that he's currently on, then using the D-Pad to determine which base he should run to. There is one option that MLB 2K5 has added, in which players can assume control of a runner instead of the batter, allowing for more base-stealing or hit-and-run strategy. It's a nice idea, but sometimes leaving the hitting to the CPU is a pretty uncomfortable thing to do.
There's certainly a lot of replay value here, which is attributed to the various gameplay modes MLB 2K5 has to offer. There are two separate franchise modes, including a GM mode which will test your mettle as you're forced to do your owner's bidding—even if it's to the detriment of your team. The SkyBox is also back, waiting for players to fulfill challenges and earn points to buy some pretty cool stuff. Unfortunately for fans of Take Two's other ESPN games, many of the unlockables and minigames are all repeats from past games. Speaking of player challenges, MLB 2K5 has a whole slew of tasks to be fulfilled during gameplay… some are easy, and others aren't so easy.
So… what's the problem, you ask? Bugs will rear their ugly heads as you play the game. The most notable bug occurs mainly in the middle or late innings of a game, with runners on base. Inexplicably, no matter who the pitcher is, he tends to get really wild and will throw multiple wild pitches in the span of an inning. If this happened a few times, it'd be one thing, since runners in scoring position—especially in a close game—certainly represent a pressure-packed situation in real life; unfortunately, most MLB pitchers don't suddenly go Rick Ankiel and throw pitches away in these situations. Other bugs range from having no night games while playing on the West Coast to seeing outfielders getting credit for pitching wins in simulated games. It's a matter of needing stricter bug testing before getting these games out to market; hopefully, now that Take Two has sewn up third-party exclusivity for MLB and the MLBPA, they can take more time and ensure that stuff like this doesn't happen anymore.
Turning to MLB 2K5's presentation, it is solid; in fact, it's easily the best of the three available PS2 baseball games this year. For starters, Joe Morgan has (thankfully) replaced Rex Hudler for color commentary, and the chemistry between Joe Morgan and legendary play-by-play man Jon Miller is unmatched. From timely statistical observations and player analysis to remarks about the crowd or the conditions, MLB 2K5's commentary is by far the best I've heard in a baseball game. The crowd also gets into the swing of things, with player-specific chants and catcalls and generally sounds like a decent crowd should, especially in Dolby Pro-Logic II. The music is pretty solid, and doesn't try to beat you over the head with licensed acts like EA TRAX does in MVP.
As good as MLB 2K5 sounds, it looks almost as good. There's more than a decent amount of detail here. From the player models to the uniforms to the stadiums to the ESPN-driven stat overlays and camera angles, MLB 2K5 screams detail. Facial models are considerably more accurate than they've ever been, although there's still a bit of work to do in this area. The one noticeable issue that players will likely have with MLB 2K5 versus MVP 2005 is that MLB 2K5's frame rate is considerably less smooth than MVP's. Yes, it's at the cost of detail, but it's still very noticeable… and some of the in-game cutscenes can also see frame rates all over the place. It's not so bad for players of the older games in this series, as frame rates have always been right around 30 frames per second… but MVP has consistently run at 60 frames per second, with far fewer skips or interruptions in that area.
Scoring this game proved to be a dilemma. At first, the game was impressive… the stellar presentation, the new pitching engine, the commentary, the SkyBox and player challenges all drew me in quickly. In fact, initially, I preferred MLB 2K5 over MVP 2005. Unfortunately, extended time with the game unveiled its problems. There are too many bugs. The frame rate is acceptable, but could be better. The Franchise modes just don't seem as fun or as in-depth as MVP's. A lot of what MLB 2K5 offers seems drawn from MVP in some way. Despite a lot of good things, MLB 2K5 just isn't the overall package that MVP 2005 is. There's a great foundation here for next year, and considering that EA is out of the loop, Take Two and Kush Games have a really good shot at delivering a superb baseball experience without the shadow of EA haunting them. The good news, in terms of 2005's PS2 baseball games, is that you can buy both MVP 2005 and MLB 2K5 for the price of one standard game. I can easily recommend both games, but if you're only looking for one to buy… MVP 2005 is still the pennant winner.