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Visual Concept's MLB 2K 11

It's been an uphill climb this generation for the MLB 2K series. But as each year has passed, the developers at Visual Concepts have remedied a lot of the issues that have hampered the franchise commercially and critically. Is MLB 2K11 another step forward? The biggest overhaul from last year is the revamped player models, which are a welcomed upgrade to the series. There's more differentiation between the size of each player and the facial detail has also been given a much-needed boost. Wiry players such as Alfonso Soriano have a more slender build in the game when compared to heavier players like Prince Fielder. It's a step in the right direction but there's still a lot of room to grow, especially with the facial upgrades, which while sharp with some stars, lacked fidelity with some of the lesser-known players.

Visual Concepts added realistic local broadcast camera angles for each of the 30 teams, so when you're playing in Boston, the viewing angle will be different than playing in Baltimore. It seems minor but it really does an impeccable job of making you feel like you're watching a real broadcast. The three-man booth of Steve Phillips, Gary Thorne and John Kruk are solid and provide some good background, but there are some moments of silence that seem out of place. Sometimes, the commentators can go two pitches without saying a word, which rarely occurs in a real broadcast. Despite that, the booth does a good job of keeping up with your progress within a season thanks to the MLB Today feature, which updates the commentary and overlays to reflect what is happening in your season. Analog controls, a staple of the 2K series, return and are as engaging as ever. Pitching is the real star here, as each pitch requires a specific analog gesture that needs to be performed with perfect timing to maximize its effectiveness. If your timing is off or the gesture is inaccurate, the pitch will lose its potency, increasing the likeliness that it will be crushed. This leaves for some tense moments and really deep gameplay. Hitting controls are solid (flick the stick up for contact swing, pull back then forward for more power) and you can also throw in the field using the analog stick but neither compare to the complexity on the mound.

The gameplay in general is a hit-or-miss affair. Some of the fielding animations are spot on, especially in the infield when making plays deep in the hole that necessitate a leaping, off-balance throw. Visual concepts added a throwing meter in the field that provides another level of depth. Releasing your throw in the green area of the meter will result in more accuracy while letting go in the red is more likely to lead to an error. It's a solid addition that puts you in control of another aspect of baseball instead of it being more predetermined. The development team also adjusted the size of the shadow when a fly ball is hit. The shadow's size depends on the fielder's ability (the larger the shadow, the worse his attributes) and affects the time you have to react to a fly ball. It's more difficult to judge where the ball will land with a poor fielder because the size of the landing zone is so large. This tweak does differentiate the average fielders from the elite.

But some visual hiccups do occur, especially during transition animations, which seem to suddenly speed up during certain occasions. After hitting the ball and running to first, the runner seems to be moving much faster than he should be. In another example, David Wright made a diving play to his left but rose to his feet in what seemed to be an instant to make the throw, which makes it seem like the game skips animations. These incidents were rare and didn't hinder the overall gameplay, but when they occur they do break the immersion.

I also ran into a couple of peculiar managerial decisions by the AI. With runners at first and second and no one out, the Mets' No. 8 hitter came to the plate. The AI opted to bunt the runners over with the pitcher coming up. If the AI pinch-hit for the pitcher I would be fine with this move, but it left the pitcher in, which is almost always a certain out and helped me get out of the inning unscathed. Later In that same game I took a 5-1 lead into the ninth. After retiring the first batter, I gave up a single, which brought up the pitcher again. Instead of pinch-hitting here (a move nearly every manager would do), I faced the pitcher, who posed no threat and went down on strikes. These are the type of moves die-hard baseball fans will critique.

My Player mode is Visual Concepts' second go-around with its RPG-style career mode. The player-creation tools are extremely deep, allowing a great level of customization. Everything from your swing, to the type of glove or sunglasses you want to sport can be manipulated. Experience points are doled out depending on your performance and if you reach on-field goals - similar to how other sports titles handle this mode.

After creating an outfielder, I took to the field for the first time. The camera angle when I was in the outfield - though realistic - was difficult to judge fly balls. There is an arrow that displays the direction and how many feet the ball will land from your current position, but the camera angle seemed a little too close to the action, making lazy fly balls an adventure. Lacking the option to fast-forward through base-running situations when you're not the lead runner is a minor gripe, but one that would help speed up seasons.

Online has the usuals - quick play and league play - but the mode does suffer from slight but persistent lag, which really hurts the experience because timing is critical in hitting and pitching. Gestures, both hitting and pitching, seem to register late, which is consistent so it is possible to compensate for the delay. But when you're facing an ace on the mound who has a powerful fastball and devastating offspeed pitch (a lethal combination under optimal circumstances), it can become nearly impossible to make contact. MLB 2K11 does push the series forward with smoother gameplay and solid additions. Minor issues keep this year's game from reaching its full potential, but with a solid foundation in place, the development team has a strong base to add more polish and shore up the online issues for next year's installment.