Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford has a sweet mustache. The commentary team in Major League Baseball 2K12, Steve Phillips, Gary Thorne, and John Kruk even spend time talking about it when he's on the mound, throwing strikes. Yes, dialogue was recorded specifically to discuss the pitcher's facial hair -- and yet Axford's player model is clean-shaven with some average-joe sideburns.

Like Axford's mustache, something feels like it's missing from MLB 2K12, as if it were a rough version of what it could potentially become. Transitions between player animations feel jarring, fielders especially. In one instance, Chicago Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano gloved a ball at the wall down the third base line. He then proceeded to run in place for seven steps before turning and rocketing the ball to second base, where the runner was already safe. Instances like these pop up in every game, in which fielders in particular look stiff and sluggish, then take a few extra steps between their throws.

These types of gameplay issues appear behind the plate as well. The frame rate occasionally hiccups while the ball travels to the plate, which often causes swings not to be registered. This happened to me mostly while runners were on base. It was rarely a problem, but it happened often enough to warrant a mention. I also caught a first baseman fielding a ball and beating the runner to first, but passing through the runner at the same time.

Outside of these nagging problems, the game's presentation is excellent. As expected, camera angles, stats overlays and stylish wipes between screens elicit a true broadcast feeling. Voice work by the commentary team is excellent, and very rarely do lines get mixed up compared to the action on the field. Steve Phillips has a tendency to mispronounce names, but it's easy to let that slide when the voice work stays interesting through multiple games without much repetition at all.

It's important, however, to differentiate between the presentation and the actual player models and environment on screen. At times, things like the crowd or grass can be rough on the eyes. Players' faces sometimes have a strange scowl (who knows, maybe it helps keep the pitcher off-balance when players get up to bat). Base-runners awkwardly straighten up when running between bases.

The core on-field play of MLB 2K12, thankfully, is well-groomed. Batting feels a bit more genuine this year and, save for those occasional frames being dropped, the timing of hits and where they land is accurate. Pitching is challenging, and gets an added layer of strategy in this year's entry, as the effectiveness of specific pitches evolves over the course of a game. If Albert Pujols swings and misses on a breaking ball to the outside, don't expect him to fall for it the next time. Umpires do exactly as they do real life, calling balls and strikes with a believable amount of error. That level of authenticity, the excitement of dropping a perfect curveball into the outside corner and striking out a top batter like Jose Bautista, is captured well in MLB 2K12.


But then you're forced to field the ball again. While grumbling as your fielder slowly trips through an animation, you have the chance to queue up their throw using a red/yellow/green accuracy meter that is far too easy to screw up. Routine plays become a test of patience, which might become a bout of frustration if you don't learn the odd timing MLB 2K12 demands. While drills help you nail down the intricacies of the control system, the lack of a tutorial mode will have you working hard for your first double play or stolen base. And when it happens, it's satisfying for all the wrong reasons.

The My Player and Franchise modes are good reasons to enjoy MLB 2K12, but they bring little new to the plate this season. Created players, while supposedly being tuned differently based on their strengths at the outset, ultimately progress the same way as in previous years. My Player mode isn't anything special compared to other sports games -- you grind your player's ratings toward different goals in order to work your way up to the pros. It's entertaining, but nothing we haven't seen before.

Franchise mode has a similar effect, but the sheer amount of statistical data available to players is exciting for all the aspiring "Moneyball" general managers out there. Found a AAA-level pitcher with an amazing fastball and a four-star potential? Convincing that ball club to part with him for a couple of spare pieces that are trending downwards in performance is crafty, albeit not uncommon in other sports games. New this year is the MLB Today Season mode, which has players selecting a team and playing alongside their real-life counterparts, comparing stats the whole way through. It's not far off from MLB Today mode in last year's game (note the added "season" in the MLB 2K12, but is a great inclusion nonetheless.

Then there's the matter of playing MLB 2K12 online. Games suffer from a few patches of lag, but nothing serious. As in the offline game, however, frames still seem more likely to drop during the pitch, which is pretty much the worst time for that to happen. Searching for opponents online is still a confusing process, as the strange right-stick menu system from MLB 2K11 is back, and it doesn't help in trying to filter opponents by skill level, difficulty, or number of innings. If those options exist on the online front, I couldn't find them at all.

Like messy upper lip hair, MLB 2K12 is so bad at times that it's good. Learning to play along with its imperfections reflects the sport well, but that doesn't excuse its rough patches. This year's edition doesn't do enough to truly stand out from past games in the series, save for the welcome added strategy in pitching, but MLB 2K12 remains a serviceable way to get your baseball fix.


This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of MLB 2K12, provided by 2K.

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