The approach of spring means the return of Sony's MLB: The Show series, and this year's edition is just as hopeful as the Baltimore Orioles, the Oakland A's, or any other team that's heading into the year with high hopes only to see them crushed by June. Unlike these misfits, though, MLB 10: The Show proves itself as a genuine championship contender. While the lineup may not be invincible, it's solid enough to win the World Title once again.
Most players who favor this franchise generally jump right into the Road to the Show mode, where you can create a player from scratch and guide him from AA ball up to the major leagues. This year, Sony has taken the time to make a lot changes in this mode — some big, some small — in order to create the most enjoyable experience yet. While there are still a few legacy problems that really should be addressed before next year's edition, the improvements definitely make up for the mode's shortcomings.
The biggest change is the role of the catcher, which has finally been given the credit it's due. In previous editions of The Show, playing as a catcher was practically pointless because the only time you got to do anything was field bunts and attempt to throw out runners who were trying to steal. It was predictable and utterly boring so there was little reason to ever don the mask and shin guards.
Things are different this year, as catchers now play an active role by calling every pitch in every game. Create a catcher, and you'll set up behind the plate and tell your pitcher what type of ball to throw and roughly where you want it either in or around the strike zone. The tricky bit is that different pitchers have different strengths, so you have to keep that in mind when you're calling the game. Furthermore, studying batter tendencies will also pay dividends for the studious, as you can find the holes in their swing and exploit it mercilessly. If you consider yourself a strategist and tactician, then this is the position you'll want to play.
Catching also gives players a great chance to feel they have control of the outcome of the game without taking the mound as a pitcher. Previous editions of RttS could be frustrating because no matter how well your outfielder hit or your shortstop fielded, it was still likely the games would often be won or lost based on players over whom you had no direct control. As the catcher, you determine the team's plan of attack against every hitter, so by the time you shut out an opposing team or snag the last ball on a no-hitter, you'll feel that the catcher deserves just as much credit as the pitcher for calling such a great game. Control freaks are going to love this addition.
One thing to keep in mind about catching, though, is that it drastically increases the time it takes to get your player through the minor leagues and up to the majors. I'm not saying that you'll languish for five years in AA ball and advance slowly, but from a pure time perspective, games just take longer to play as the catcher. You're behind the plate during the good times and bad, and even if your team is down 11-0, you'll still be squatting down and calling every pitch. Thus, games that once took 20 minutes to get through can now stretch over an hour. This isn't a flaw in the game by any means, but rather something to keep in mind should you choose to take up the mask and padded glove.
Indeed, the only real faults in the newly revamped catcher position are minor and fairly inconsequential. It's tough to get a feel for each of your pitchers, particularly on the lower tiers, without playing with them for a long time, so you may inadvertently spend a lot of time calling pitches your man hates and not even realize it, thus leading to costly hits and runs. Sure, the pitchers act like they're shaking off certain calls sometimes on the mound, but it all seems to be simply canned animation, and they'll always throw the pitch you call regardless so it's hard to tailor your game to their strengths without really looking over the scouting reports. It would be great to have a quick primer before each pitcher trots out to inform you about their strengths, weaknesses and preferred out pitch, but as it stands, you'll just have to make do. Also, it would be nice to be able to call time and go talk to your man when he's rattled or tired, but the game doesn't allow that either. As a result, you'll sometimes find yourself growing frustrated behind the plate catching for an obviously gassed pitcher with no hope of a reliever coming in soon. Whereas managers are quick to pull RttS player-controlled pitchers after they give up a run or two, they'll let the CPU versions sit out there to rot on the mound until the game is too far out of reach to do anything.
Aside from catching, the other RttS positions have received a little attention, but nothing substantial. Fielding and pitching drills now complement the previous batting and baserunning sessions, and the game accurately incorporates All-Star week events (i.e., Futures Game, Home Run Derby) into the schedule, allowing your character to participate if he qualifies. The game has also slightly tweaked the experience system to punish you for not covering bases or throwing to the wrong man, as well as implementing a stricter baserunning system wherein constant foolish steal attempts can get you benched. There are no huge overhauls, but given the focus on the catcher this year, it's understandable.
One thing Sony should seriously look into for next year is the now-antiquated advancement system in RttS, which was revolutionary for its time but is now showing its age. All earned points still go into a big experience pot and must be divvied up among a litany of stats and attributes. Furthermore, the often counterintuitive weekly goals return, asking your power-hitting infielder to work on his bunting or your pitcher to improve his fielding.
Of course, these are all just symptoms of the larger problem that the game solely bases character advancement on attribute points. Currently, my created pitcher is languishing in AAA even though he's 17-0, has a 0.88 ERA and leads the league in every category. In reality, a player like this would be a phenom touted as his team's ace pitcher, but in RttS, he's just a nobody in Norfolk who needs to improve his hits allowed per nine innings stat until he trips the magic switch that get him called up. While RttS has always been a deep and very entertaining mode, the AI logic is still faulty.
Speaking of depth, this year's Franchise mode is deeper than ever, and the inclusion of 30 player season modes and 40 man online leagues only cater to the already rabid fan base. There's good news for the timid, though, as the game also includes a helpful handbook on the various rules and regulations leagues must follow so imaginary owners and GMs can head into each season knowing what their draft board looks like and which free agents they can sign. While this mode may not be as heavily trafficked as RttS, it's clear that Sony has done everything possible to make sure it's a fully featured option and not just a tossed-in extra to be used as a bullet point on the box.
MLB 10: The Show also raises the bar on presentation, which is hard to believe since this aspect of the series was already so impressive. Players are more realistic and lifelike than ever, and it's clear that the animation team took a great deal of time working on the tiny nuances that many people might not even notice. A player's wince after an ugly swing or the look of relief on a pitcher's face when he works out of a bases-loaded jam are icing on an already nice cake, and when you combine them with the ambient noises of the ballpark and the solid announce team, the end result is very impressive. It would seem that the day is coming when we won't be able to tell this from the real thing.
Sports franchises are tricky because every year, the developers have to include enough new features and upgrades to convince the public to pay $60 for a game that looks very similar to the one they played last year. Thankfully, Sony realizes that it's going to take more than a roster update to keep people interested in The Show, so they have taken great strides this year to please the fan base once again. The overhauls in RttS, especially when it comes to catchers, are much appreciated, and here's hoping they serve as a template for future improvements. While the outdated player advancement system and questionable AI logic need to be examined for next year's title, this year's edition is by all means solid enough to keep players stepping into the batter's box, onto the mound and behind the plate again and again.
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