Some call baseball the perfect game. It blends the beauty and grace of bursts of athleticism with a leisurely pace enjoyed between sips of beer. Each pitch is a contest of wills, the result of which impacts all that comes after it. Take-Two’s MLB 2K12 continues the grand tradition that began in the baseball clubs of New York City in the 19th century, but it’s not exactly 27 up and 27 down. (Sorry, I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ Baseball on Hulu.)

MLB 2K12 slightly improves a few features, and those changes are welcome. There’s a lot more contextual feedback to how you’re doing over the course of a game. When pitching, the rating of certain pitches increases based on how that pitch has performed. Get a strikeout with a nasty cut fastball, and that pitch’s rating will improve by a few clicks. Give up a homer with your changeup, and that pitch won’t do as well later. When that slugger comes up again in the lineup, don’t serve up that meatball or it might end up over the fence. Location is tracked better too, which makes each game feel as dynamic as the real thing. If you throw a lot of the same pitches to the same location, that part of the strike zone will turn black, meaning the hitter will start looking for the fastball down and away. In short, MLB 2K12 encourages you to vary your pitches and strategy.

Hitting doesn’t get as much of an upgrade, unfortunately. The same black box will show up for hitters if a pitcher has been favoring one location, and the batter’s eye feature – a split second notice of what pitch is coming – will improve if the pitcher is getting knocked around like he’s in a slow-pitch softball league. The variety of hits is now diverse, with bloop singles over the infielders, slow rollers, and high-bouncing choppers occurring with much more frequency.

On the defense side of the ball, the new throwing rating for each player is the only significant addition. When you press the throw button, a meter fills up, and you aim to release in the green for a strong accurate throw. Hold it too short, and the throw is either weak or off target, but holding too long will result in the ball sailing over the first basemen’s head for an error. It’s a good system, even though it makes it harder to turn the double play because of the delay of the meter filling. I like that it rewards player knowledge; fielders known to have a good arm should try to gun down the guy tagging from third while outfielders like Johnny Damon with a fish for an arm are better off just hitting the cutoff man. Other than the new throwing system, fielding still has the usual annoyances of weird animations and frustrating controls. Outfielders never seem to settle under fly balls naturally, and throws won’t always go where you think they will.

The chance to develop a young player until he’s called up to the Bigs and eventually reaches the Hall of Fame is a big draw for a lot of people, but this year’s My Player Mode doesn’t do anything special. There should be more small rewards to make you a better player. Hitting the cutoff man, or running on contact with two outs should provide incremental rewards just like working a full count does. Otherwise, just going through the motions of shagging fly balls isn’t that fun. Another strike against the My Player mode, I hit all my “call up goals” and was immediately promoted from AA ball to a starting role on a Major League team, skipping AAA altogether. I know Bob Jinglehopper is going to be a big star, but he wasn’t ready for the big jump in skill level from that deep in the farm system. Also, would it kill Visual Concepts to put some real minor league parks in the game? I quickly got tired of seeing the same roller coaster in the background.

The big mode this year – or at least the only item in the menu denoted with a “New!” tag – is MLB Today. You can start a season with your favorite team and compare it directly to how the real team fares over the course of 162 games by playing the day’s scheduled game. It’s an intriguing idea, and the synch supposedly began when Spring Training started on March 15th. But other than only being able to play the games, the feature apparently won’t be turned on for real until Opening Day. Shame.

Online play has a lot of options, from individual pickup games to robust online leagues. The problem is one that has plagued any game that depends on precise timing, say, like hitting a ball traveling 95 mph. The lag really ruins the experience of playing baseball when a fastball jitters to the plate like a knuckler. The game is still playable, and I’m looking forward to joining a league with my buddies, but unless 2K fixes the lag, don’t expect a smooth online delivery.

I imagine it is difficult for the developer of a sports game with an annual release schedule to meaningfully refine mechanics every year. I can’t fault a studio for not delivering my personal dream game, but I really wish the baseball guys at Visual Concepts became inspired by their brethren on the NBA side of the office. Baseball has had a longer history than basketball, and there are so many famous events to experience and locations we can’t even visit anymore, except in a simulation like a videogame. Wouldn’t it be great to play Jackie Robinson’s debut at Ebbets Field? Or Roger Maris hitting homer number 61 of the season to best Babe Ruth’s record? Or Kirk Gibson’s pinch hit home run in the 1988 World Series? You can refine the features and mechanics all you want, but it’s the chance to play history which will keep baseball fans interested in buying a new game every year.

Bottom Line: Even though MLB 2K12 improves the pitching feedback and the throwing mechanic is a nice feature, the game doesn’t really make a convincing argument for investing another $60 if you bought the game last year, or the year before.

Recommendation: Those of you who need to have the roster update will likely buy MLB 2K12 anyway. Newcomers looking for a baseball game won’t be disappointed, but there may be better options out there.

[rating=3.5]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: MLB 2K12
Genre: Sports
Developer: Visual Concepts
Publisher: 2K Sports
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, PSP, 3DS
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK)

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