2K Sports isn't saying anything more today about the surprise resurrection of its MLB 2K series. When asked for an interview, a representative told me today's news release is all we're getting for now. So it's time to speculate on what this game may deliver, and my gut feeling is if we see anything more than a re-skinned MLB 2K12, I will be even more surprised than I was this morning.
All signs last year pointed to a project that was mothballed as soon as the ill-fated "Million Dollar Challenge" (which returns this year) threw its last pitch in May. MLB 2K13 never appeared on any list of games Take-Two Interactive planned to release this year, as sure a sign as any that the game was dead. Months of reporting MLB 2K's death practically as fact went unaddressed by either 2K Sports or Take-Two. The game got one (1) title update, the free one that Microsoft gives everybody, and that was it. An email I sent to one of its lead designers bounced as undeliverable three weeks after MLB 2K12 hit shelves, which told me enough. This game was mothballed.
Take-Two Interactive had, for years, been telling Major League Baseball what their position was on publishing another game, in an almost leave-it-or-take-it way. MLB said, "We'll take it." It appears that the league could not accept the diminished prestige of having no presence on the Xbox 360 for this year. And the terms of the semi-exclusive pact it struck back in 2005, which delivered enormous riches to MLB Advanced Media, now hamstrung it from striking a deal with a new developer in time to have a game on shelves this year. It's likely no other developer was willing to make a game under any terms, what with a new console generation likely to be announced at E3 this year. Anyone looking to compete with MLB The Show is looking to catch that game flat-footed during the hardware changeover.
I bring all that up because two things I wanted to ask 2K, though they'd likely not answer, is the length of this licensing agreement and whether it has any exclusive component. My guess is one year (maybe two), and no. Take-Two Interactive, the label's parent company, has aggressively fled costly licensed properties since new management took over in 2007. The only reason it has stayed with NBA 2K is because it is a world-beating quality product that single-handedly made 2K Sports profitable despite the MLB 2K line generating annual losses figured to be as high as $US30 million.
So MLB 2K13 looks very much like a stopgap that keeps Major League Baseball's video game presence alive while the hands the project off to someone who doesn't have to hustle out a game from scratch this year, and then do it all over again on more sophisticated hardware for 2014. It's possible they are negotiating with another label as we speak. It's possible that 2K Sports might want to be the one catching The Show flat-footed on the next console generation, but given the damage done to the MLB 2K brand by years of underwhelming releases, and the company's outward willingness to walk away last year, I find that very, very tough to imagine.
So what we have is a game built almost entirely on Take-Two's terms, and my guess those terms are do it as cheaply as possible and sell as many copies as they can, remembering that there is no competitor on the Xbox 360. This is a series that used to publish on every platform known to man-even the DS-as 2K Sports strove to pry any kind of sale it could out of an extremely expensive licence struck years before under old (and profligate) management. It's now coming out only on the 360 and the PlayStation 3.
Some components of the game were supported by other parts of Visual Concepts' operation still in place-commentary and presentation is an example (and 2K Sports does this very well.) But as so much of that was dependent on a dialogue referencing what players did in the previous year-which means recording those lines in advance-my expectation is that the commentary, something this game did better than MLB The Show will suffer. Developers will have to make John Kruk and Steve Phillips' analyses generic, lacking any new lines. Their pitch-by-pitch breakdown of how a hitter or pitcher handled an at bat should remain intact, but this will have a deep effect on commentary in the game's career modes and in MLB Today, assuming that is brought back. There is very little chance that the game's underwhelming postseason presentation gets much of an upgrade.
This game's visuals have always been found lacking next to its much better-looking competition in The Show. Nitpicky things like player faces and uniform numerals have long bothered fans, and it's unlikely these got either the time, money or development staff to be comprehensively addressed. The game introduced some new behind-the-scenes engineering last year, which opened up greater variables in where and how far the ball travels after it is struck. But repetitive and out-of-place animations, if they weren't fixed in MLB 2K12, are sure to be with us in MLB 2K13.
In short, everything surrounding this star-crossed title and its strange encore point to a plant-the-flag product that saves face for Major League Baseball and time and money for 2K Sports. I'll review whatever releases, of course, but this game is going to face very, very low expectations, that it truly is nothing more than a roster update. And if that's the case, discerning gamers would be better off pulling one of the community-edited rosters from 2K Share, saving their money, and playing MLB 2K12.