Baseball is hardly a fixture on the local sporting scene. It lacks the global reach of basketball or the brash appeal of the NFL. To most of us it’s a variation on softball that is fighting for the same niche already held by cricket. However, it’s the American pastime, which means that the impending start of the 2011 Major League season will be celebrated in your local games store by the release of MLB 2K11.

But if you don’t know a split-finger fastball from a sac-fly, should you care?

Well, if you enjoy a good sports game, you should at least be curious. With developers yet to front up with a truly great cricket simulation, it is increasingly hard to ignore how much slicker the leading baseball titles are, and how much better baseball translates as a console game. Certainly, MLB 2K11 makes a good first impression visually. Player appearance and movement have improved from the 2K10 edition, and the myriad of major league stadiums have been superbly rendered. Throw in seamless, situation-relevant commentary and you have an experience that is increasingly close to that of sitting down in front of ESPN to watch a game.

The control set up is initially somewhat challenging, but captures enough of the subtleties of pitching, batting and fielding to offer players the opportunity to develop their own approach to all three disciplines. Batting is a double-stick affair, enabling players to select hit placement and swing style. The fact that power-swings require players to undertake a slightly more complex manoeuver with the right can make it a little challenging to unleash a booming shot... Frustrating, but ultimately realistic.

Pitching is somewhat more complicated, with an array of pitch choices, decisions to make about location, and a specific right stick motion required to fully execute each different pitch type. Most impressively, when pitching in challenging bases-loaded situations, pitch location becomes increasingly difficult as your pitcher’s stress-levels skyrocket. While this is a fairly exhaustive approach to pitching, it is both logical and reasonably easy to come to grips with.

This, of course, leads us to one of the eternal challenges presenting the developers of baseball titles: while pitching is a fairly unrushed, mechanical process, batting’s reliance on a more intuitive grasp of timing, placement and pitch-assessment means it is much less readily mastered. The result is that early games often see the player dominating the opposition batters with fire-breathing pitching displays, while barely getting a hit out of the in-field.

However, with a little patience the difficulty sliders can be tweaked to balance this discrepancy. Get it right, and MLB 2K11 can provide a more convincing sporting experience than most games can offer. Nine inning games yield believable outcomes more often than not, while the structure of the sport itself naturally constrains players from taking unrealistic approaches to batting, pitching or strategy. For those seeking realism in their sports games, MLB 2K11 is a rewarding title.

This is true of two-player mode as well, with evenly matched players completing games that are satisfyingly realistic in their outcomes and statistics. It is worth noting though that the need to provide usable perspectives for two players does limit the “TV coverage”-style presentation found in the singleplayer mode. Online play will therefore be the option of choice for head-to-head competition.

Of course, as befits a sport with 162 games in its season, the core of MLB 2K11 remains the franchise mode which enables you to manage your pitching rotations, trade players and build a champion side. For the uninitiated, aspects of franchise management may initially be baffling but players are able to select their level of engagement in this aspect of the game, saving those less interested in such things from having to delve too deeply into the minutiae of trade deadlines and pitching rotations.

By comparison, the My Career mode is a touch disappointing. In controlling only the at bats and fielding/pitching scenarios involving your player, you miss out on much of the game management and strategy that define baseball as a sport. There’s no manufacturing runs via multiple at bats, no strategising your pitcher substitutions, and none of the other subtleties that make the game challenging.

Where the mode really falls down, however, is in the approach to player advancement. Skill points are awarded via the completion of in-game challenges, but too often these are illogical goals – the achievement of which do not contribute to the performance of your team, nor teach less well-versed players the subtleties of the game. For example, if asked not to strike-out, spooning a catch to an in-fielder on the first pitch you see scores points. Similarly, if asked to hit safely with nobody on base, the equally effective (and more difficult) drawing of a walk will cost you the skill development points on offer. Given the complexities of creating a game like this, it is bewildering and more than a touch frustrating to stumble across such an obvious and avoidable break from reality.

Similarly, it would be hard to comment on this game without mentioning the unnecessarily complicated menus and between-game navigation. It’s not a big problem, but it is an avoidable one.

These gripes aside, however, there is still plenty of satisfaction to be gained from MLB 2K11, for both baseball devotees and curious cricket-fans alike.