Developer: SCE Studios San Diego
Release Date: March 3, 2009
For everyone who hasn't given up on the steroid-tainted sport, baseball season has just begun. For those who can't stand to watch athletes who may or may not be cheating or folks who just need some digital stickball to supplement the real-life goodness this time of year, it also means that the annual crop of baseball-related games are out. Over the past couple of years, Sony has positioned itself as the golden standard with its MLB: The Show series, and this year, the company is looking to cement its status with the most realistic baseball game ever. While the game achieves the feel of being as close to the real thing as you can get, it comes at a price, and it's possible that Sony might have just missed the forest for the trees this time around.
Ever since MLB '09: The Show was announced, Sony has been trumpeting how this year's game will be the most realistic ever, but when you get down to brass tacks, what exactly does that mean? It essentially means that every player acts almost exactly like his real-life counterpart, from batting stance to fielding percentage. In more practical terms, if you choose a pitcher who's known for his power and then try to paint the corners of the strike zone, you'll likely issue a ton of walks because the control just isn't there. Conversely, put a finesse guy on the mound and try and blow the heat by hitters, and you'll be doing a lot of spinning around and craning your neck to watch meatballs get blasted into the parking lot. Hitting works the same way, as Alfonso Soriano might blast a ton of homers over the span of the season, but he's also going to flail at a ton of bad pitches and rack up the strikeouts. If you set up a game and sim through it, you might forget that you're watching a video game rather than a real matchup, which just goes to show how thoroughly the developers did their homework.
This emphasis on realism also trickles down to the basic gameplay, as myriad adjustments and improvements have been made over previous iterations. Infielders no longer have tractor beams attached to their gloves, so line drives no longer mean an automatic out. In previous games, I saw shortstops and third basemen in particular make some pretty ridiculous catches, but now their abilities (and those of everyone else on the diamond) have been toned back to a more realistic level. Now a hot shot at an infielder's noggin will more likely lead to him ducking and covering instead of calmly sticking up a glove and sending you back to the bench. Even when they do try to make a play, the ball will sometimes simply carom off their glove or pop out, much more akin to what you would see in an actual game. It was a much-needed tweak after the frustration of last year's outing, and while fielders will sometimes still manage to make spectacular plays, it now feels more organic and legit than when they were simply spearing anything within a five-foot radius.
The realism is also conveyed in the hitting, but with decidedly less enthusiastic results than fielding. It seems like the hit mechanic, which is still controlled by the simple tap of a button, is more random than ever, and that kind of robs the game of its fun. You can guess a pitch perfectly, hit it on the sweet spot with perfect timing and still have little more to show for it than a routine fly ball. By the same token, you may completely misjudge a pitch but through sheer luck and happenstance end up blasting a double through the alley. I know that in a real game of baseball, it's considered a success if you so much as get a base hit one-third of the time, but in a video game, the margin for error should likely be a bit greater. While purists will love the added layer of difficulty, it will likely be a surefire source of frustration for everyone else.
When you think about The Show, your mind automatically gravitates toward the title's two most distinct modes: Franchise and Road to the Show. Franchise is truly the ultimate baseball simulator, putting all the tools of the GM right at your fingertips. You can control lineups, contract negotiations, free agents, drafts, minor league assignments and call-ups and much, much more from your fictional big comfy chair in your fictional corner office. Die-hard fans have always loved this mode, and this year, there are even more nuances and rules to make them adore it even more. If major league clubs aren't already using this game as a tool to train potential future execs, then they should be; I can't think of a more comprehensive way to learn every aspect of the business. You can also play the games your assigned team has on its schedule, but you'll likely be so busy adjusting ticket prices that you won't have time. Due to the menu-driven interface and the reams of statistics, this mode is a dream for fantasy baseball nuts and anyone who wishes sports titles were more like strategy games.
Road to the Show is the mode for those who like their action to be a little more individualized as you create a player and guide him through an MLB career. You start out in spring training with your chosen team, get your assignment, and from there, you start working your way to a starting slot on a major league team and hopefully into your spot in the Hall of Fame. You'll control every at-bat and defensive play your created character will participate in, and on your off days, you can take in some batting practice, a new addition to this year's game that fits in perfectly. Every couple of weeks, you'll be given a set of advancement goals and achieving the parameters set forth will move you one step closer to your dreams. Fail to meet expectations, though, and you'll likely languish in AA for years or, even worse, be cut from the team and left with nothing to do in the summer months, besides mowing your lawn.
While Road to the Show has always been an incredibly deep mode and one that could easily stand alone as its own game, there are some legacy issues that are still present and really need to be addressed. First off, career advancement seems to have nothing to do with performance and everything to do with the numbers attached to your player's batting skill, fielding, speed, etc. After playing through three in-game calendar months, my created first baseman is still languishing in AA despite the fact that he has the highest batting average in the entire league in addition to five homeruns and roughly 60 RBIs. He leads in nearly every offensive and defensive category, plays for a team that is thin at his position, and yet every time my advancement period ends, I get the message that I'm being kept in AA "even though you're ready to move up," presumably because my attributes haven't hit the magic numbers yet. It was frustrating last year, and it's still frustrating now; Sony needs to realize that while this may be "realistic," it's hard to keep players hooked when they don't feel they are making any sort of inroads toward the next big step.
Basically, all of the major problems with this year's edition of The Show are holdovers from previous games. Small graphical problems abound, including baserunners magically running right through fielders and outfielders sometimes phasing right through a wall to make a catch. A new problem this year is the fact that sometimes after a pitch, the entire HUD will disappear, leaving you unable to reference the list of available pitches or check your swing analysis to see what you just did wrong. It's a minor bug, but it's so consistent that I'm amazed it somehow slipped through QA and made it into the final build.
Baserunning is also still a mess, and this year, it's worse than ever. Trying to advance a single runner is an exercise in futility, and trying to advance your own runner in Road to the Show will likely end up in a lot of stupid mistakes; while the new analog control system seems like a good idea on paper, shifting camera angles and sticky controls make it a nightmare in practice.
Finally, while the three-man booth of Matt Vasgersian, Dave Hudler and Rex Campbell are still so buttery smooth you'd think they were calling a live game, their lines are starting to grow stale, and mistakes are popping up more and more frequently. I lost count of how many times they screwed up the number of outs that have been recorded in an inning, and most of their pithy quips are the same ones we've been hearing for years. I wouldn't call for anything as drastic as bringing in a new crew to call the games, but there might be time to call the boys back into the recording studio to create some fresh material.
While Sony has achieved its goal of making the most realistic baseball game to date, they seem to have done so at the expense of one very important thing: fun. Above all, video games are meant to be enjoyed, and there are too many times when MLB '09: The Show feels like work. I used to love this franchise dearly and play it endlessly for months on end. Now, between a Franchise mode that's too complicated for me and a created character whose career can't get off the ground in spite of doing everything right, I'm beginning to tire of the game after only a couple of weeks. While The Show still stands head and shoulders above Major League Baseball 2K9, the gap is closing, and it's not because the competition is getting any better. If Sony would fix the nagging issues, make the game more forgiving and remember that the main reason we all play games in the first place is so that we can have a little fun. Then, and only then, will I think that they're primed to make one of the greatest sports franchises ever. For now, this game is little more than the lesser of two evils, profoundly competent in every way, but not particularly outstanding.
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