Developer: SCE Studios San Diego
Release Date: March 4, 2008
As the nation comes out of the freezer and spring begins, we turn our attention to baseball. The pastoral game reminds us of many things — going to the park with our dads to see our first big-league game; spending lazy summer days with friends, having a few too many beers, and yelling at the right fielder; and the optimism of every Cubs fan come March, when pitchers and catchers report to camp and fans decked in red, white and blue tell you that "this is the year." Sadly, the public's enthusiasm for the game has waned recently, with the taint of steroids and constant investigations casting a dark cloud over the proverbial park just as the game's about to get underway. Thankfully, Sony has given us a way to live out all our steroid-free baseball fantasies with the much-improved MLB 08: The Show.
Those who played last year's installment will remember that the '07 version garnered quite a rough reception, with most critics calling it nothing more than a sloppy, late port of a PS2 game. Honestly, they were right, as there was little in the game's next-gen debut that hadn't already been done just as well, if not better, a few months before. Things are different this time, though, as the team at Sony really put forth the effort to make this game shine, and it shows.
The most significant mode in MLB 08 shares its namesake with the title. Road to the Show is your attempt to create a fresh-faced youngster eager to try out for the MLB club of your dreams with the eventual hope of landing a starting gig and turning in a Hall of Fame-worthy career. You start in spring training, where you get your feet wet and start building up your statistics by spending talent points earned from impressive performances. Once the regular season begins, you'll be sent down to the minors, and your manager will constantly give you a set of advancement goals, which will help you earn your way into bigger and better things. Unlike last year's game, in which talent points were only awarded on offense for near-superhuman feats, this year you can improve on both sides of the ball, with putouts and steals becoming just as important as hits and runs. It's a much more balanced system, and you're actually given an incentive to legitimately try hard on defense and the base paths.
The only real drawback to this mode is that it can take a long time to advance to the majors. Whereas last year's game based your advancement on performance (batting average, RBIs, etc.), this year's game eschews that by simply basing your level of play on raw attribute rankings. Perhaps too many players became frustrated last year by getting sent to the bigs only to be benched and sent back down again, but performing head and shoulders above your peers only to be told you're good enough for the next level … but they're going to hold you here for a while, is even more disheartening. Be proud if you even manage to break into the majors in your first season; most players will spend a couple of years honing their skills on the farm teams before they get their tickets punched.
Those who don't want to take such a long road to the top can go ahead and helm the ship of a real team with MLB 08's incredibly deep franchise mode. If you think you're the one who could finally bring that World Series banner to Chicago's North Side, then saddle up, and let's see your inner Steinbrenner shine through. Much like individual players in The Show, GMs are given a list of goals to accomplish over the span of several years, though it varies from place to place. Contending teams are expected to win the division and make deep playoff runs, while cellar dwellers' goals usually consist of bringing up the team batting average or putting more fans in the seats. This is truly the mode for those who follow every off-season call-up or at-the-wire trade, and the fact that you can take charge of pretty much every on- and off-field decision means that once you conquer this mode, you're probably qualified to at least run the Seattle Mariners.
When you finally pick a mode and get into the game itself, you'll see that a lot has been done to improve on last year's mistakes, particularly the boneheaded AI. While your teammates were only slightly smarter than doorstops last year, this time around, they've been given a complete overhaul. Infielders are quick to scoop up ground balls and turn double plays, the pitcher seems to actually understand when he needs to cover a base, and outfielders are more likely to run up to a fly ball so as to have that extra bit of steam when making a throw home. There's been a lot of work on improving this aspect of the game, and the players now almost pass for legitimate stars.
I say "almost" because there are still a few instances that will make you scratch your head at their sheer idiocy. Infielders still seem to be completely ignorant of how to handle a bunt (which is surprising, considering that the computer will bunt at least four times a game), with the catcher sometimes remaining motionless behind a plate when the ball is tapped right in front of him, or the third baseman repeatedly being unable to pick up the ball barehanded and throw to first. Also teammates, especially at the lower levels, are prone to errant throws and botched grounders. I know these guys aren't supposed to be Alex Rodriguez, but they should at least be competent.
One other issue that bears mentioning is that something must be done to improve base running. The mechanic itself isn't bad, but waiting for the player behind you to get a hit is just downright cumbersome. There were several occasions when I found myself sitting on base and waiting for 10 to 12 pitches as the guy behind me in the lineup kept fouling them off, only to eventually strike out. I know this is a more realistic way of presenting things but since the game fast-forwards everything else, you'd think the devs would find some way to fix this most plodding of game moments. Often, I'll simply try and steal with the hopes of getting thrown out simply so I don't have to go through with it anymore. When I can't steal, I normally just grab a magazine and wait for the crack of the bat that isn't immediately followed by, "… and he fouls off another one."
Occasional AI hiccups and boring base running aside, everything else about MLB 08 is sheer bliss. Player animations are fluid and graceful, while stadiums and cities are given loving treatment. Even more fun is taking a moment in the game to just stop and take it all in, just like you used to do when you went to watch a game. Fans will bat around beach balls and scuffle over a foul ball, and infielders will dally around waiting for a pitch while the substitutes play practical jokes on one another in the dugout. The whole atmosphere just plops you right in the middle of a carefree summer day, and it makes you want to head over to watch the nearest team battle it out in the eternal duel between batter and pitcher.
The audio is absolutely outstanding as well, and the commentators will likely spoil you for the rest of the year. The three-man booth of Dave Campbell, Rex Hudler and Matt Vasgersian is back once again, and these guys provide the insight and thoughtful banter that is missing from so many sports games. Also, every line they deliver is so perfectly timed and seamless that you would swear they're sitting up in a press booth above your couch, watching every pitch on a monitor and getting calls from the production truck about pitching tendencies and previous at-bats. When the boys aren't providing the play-by-play, you'll sometimes hear the barks of a souvenir salesman or the heckling of an unruly fan. Once again, the atmosphere is absolutely perfect.
While it's become en vogue to steer away from timed button presses for pitching and hitting and replace it with analog controls, The Show stays true to its roots. You still choose your pitch with the face button, aim it with the control stick, and then use the power meter to determine the velocity and accuracy of the throw. Also, hitting is once again relegated to contact or power swings, with the flight of the ball influenced by the timing of your swing and the English you apply with the right analog stick. Some may decry this lack of realism, but for traditionalists, there is no shame in tapping a button to throw or hit. The ability to try and guess the next pitch for a power hit makes a return as well, and for the truly hardcore, you can now call up a batter/pitcher status window at any time. This menu is a gift to strategic gamers, as it plots out a pitcher's tendencies and a batter's hot and cold zones, a list of the last 25 pitches thrown, and a breakdown of the action in every pitch in the last at-bat.
It is quite obvious that Sony took all the criticism leveled at last year's game and used it to craft MLB 08: The Show, an extremely fun and addicting title. Nearly all of the bugs have been fixed, with only the occasional AI problem, poor base running, and cumbersome career progression besmirching an otherwise incredible game. During the next seventh inning stretch, run out and pick this one up; you won't regret it.
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