At this point in its lifespan, Sony's MLB: The Show series could rightfully be equated with the New York Yankees. Much like the Pinstripes, Sony's exclusive baseball game is packed to the gills with talent, expertly managed and polished to such a degree as to sometimes seem superhuman. The comparisons stop there, though, as unlike the Yanks, we actually celebrate each year when a new edition of The Show comes calling. This is a franchise that somehow finds a way to improve every year, and we're the lucky saps who get to benefit.
The major change in MLB 11: The Show is a hardcore focus on analog controls. Now all major actions — fielding, hitting and pitching — can be controlled via the right analog stick rather than the face buttons. This is the one area where many fans believed Sony was lagging behind competitor MLB 2K, but it seems that it wasn't so much a matter of the developers being befuddled by analog controls, but rather waiting until they could implement a smart and unique system that truly worked well. The end result is incredibly promising, with potential for brilliance over the next couple of years.
Once a batter steps into the box, players are tasked with pulling back on the right analog stick as the pitcher releases the ball and then flicking forward as it crosses the plate. Loading up too soon or releasing at the wrong moment results in an ugly hack, almost always resulting in a weak pop-up or pathetic ground ball that will see you thrown out at first and trotting right back over to the bench and the disapproving scowls of your manager. Once you get down the timing of hitting, though, those hard line drives into the gap and beautiful home runs feel even sweeter because you know you worked for them. Add in the ability to toggle between contact and power swings and an inherent ability to foul off borderline pitches until you get something to hit, and you're left with the most satisfying hitting mechanic ever created.
Pitching is similarly sublime, with the complex twists and swoops of the MLB 2K series upstaged by a simple back-and-forth flick. Once you select your pitch and its location, all you need to do is pull back on the stick until you reach the desired power and then press forward to deliver. You can affect the lateral placement of the ball by nudging the controller left or right, and the accuracy and power of the throw are determined by how well you hit both your power and placement targets. Hitting your spots makes pitches dance, but miss by even a little, and that fat breaking ball you left hanging over the plate is going to get turned around, hard. You can almost see it in your pitcher's eyes when he misses a location and just knows that his ERA is about to tick up due to a terrible mistake.
While pitching and batting work extremely well under the new analog scheme, fielding isn't so hot, and base-running continues to be a total mess. After you scoop up a ball, you can direct your throw to any base by pushing the analog stick in that direction and holding for a second. Time it right, and the ball flies in smoothly and everything rolls right along. Miss the timing, and especially with a lower-rated fielder, watch the ball go flying massively offline and possibly even into the crowd. While the game's tuning makes it so that every play in the field isn't automatic or academic, there still needs to be more gray area between total success and massive failure. A lot of times, the first baseman gets pulled off the bag chasing an errant throw, but that doesn't mean the ball winds up in the dugout and all the base runners get to take an extra bag.
Speaking of base running, it's still broken, especially in Road to the Show. Pointing the stick at which base you want to run to should be completely intuitive, but shifting camera angles mean that whatever was the correct direction a moment ago is now totally the wrong way, and players are left impotently running back and forth between bags when they should have just scored the run and wandered off the field. If Sony's serious about these all-analog controls in the future, then they need to eliminate this long-running issue.
On the topic of Road to the Show, it's important to know that the mode has been completely revamped, and for the better. Gone are the weird and often counterproductive in-game goals, instead replaced by a much smarter system that monitors every at bat. Hitters are rewarded for creating deep counts and making good contacts, while pitchers see the most experience points when sitting the opposition down in a hurry. It's a much more organic approach to evaluating performance, and the game's ability to present you with training sessions that highlight areas where you're struggling or need improvement is the perfect icing on the cake. If only they'd also refine the advancement goals so that power-hitting players don't have to fuss with stupid stats like bunting, we'd be all set.
Most of the game's other modes are more or less the same as you've come to expect, with a couple of nice additions and improvements. Home Run Derby now supports the Move controller, so anyone with a big glowing ball on a stick can enjoy some faux swings at Big League parks. Just understand going in that the floating bat on-screen looks pretty ridiculous, especially since it isn't attached to a player. Also, gamers who favor Franchise mode will be happy to see that the trade AI has been tweaked this year to behave in a much more realistic and believable manner. One-sided trades are all but eliminated, so no cheating your way to a championship team. Multi-team trades are still on the wish list, but maybe that feature will finally manage to find its way into next year's edition.
The Show has always focused on realism, and that extends beyond the gameplay into the presentation itself. Each stadium looks and sounds just like the real thing, and if Smell-o-vision had ever caught on, I'm sure we'd be sniffing the peanuts and popcorn. The venues are lovingly re-created and serve as a nice alternative for fans who can't get to the park to see their favorite team in the flesh.
It's a pity, then, that the audio accompanying the presentation is so poor. The commentary booth still features Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell, but Rex Hudler has been replaced by Dodgers commentator Eric Karros. The rub here is that Karros obviously recorded his lines much later and separate from the other announcers, and the attempts to cut and paste his remarks crash and burn pretty hard. Furthermore, it seems that Vasgersian and Campbell haven't recorded a lick of new dialogue in years, so the whole crew, once the envy of sports games announcing, has grown terribly stale. Maybe it's time to turn these three loose and try a new booth team entirely.
It's amazing that after making what is essentially the same game for a half-decade, the crew at Sony Santa Monica still manages to craft such a great experience every time there's a new edition of The Show. Each year's game feels substantially improved over the last, and this time around is no different. This is still the hottest team in town, and no one will be taking the pennant from them anytime soon.
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