Video game baseball fans recognize The Show to be quite possibly the best modern baseball series. With a sense of realism and modes that seem to evolve every year, the franchise makes non-PlayStation owners jealous. Even though praise has been heaped on the PS3 versions of the games, the PS2 versions were no slouch, either. Though they lacked a few features, the PSP versions were also good. The PS Vita version of MLB 12: The Show is here, and while players get a good baseball game, there's still a way to go before it can match what's being offered on the PS3.
Portable sports games usually feel pared down when compared to the home console iterations, mostly because of missing modes. The same is true here, with the absence of Diamond Dynasty, a mode where you can create a fully customized Franchise mode with customized players. Beyond that, just about every game mode in the PS3 version is represented here. Season mode has you controlling any MLB team through a full season, including playoffs and the World Series — if you make it that far. Home Run Derby has up to eight sluggers in a tournament to see who can hit the most homers. Exhibition mode lets you play any team in any stadium. This isn't limited to just MLB teams, as Double-A and Triple-A organizations and fields are also options.
Franchise mode is included, and it seems to run smarter than before. High-value players rarely show up on the trading block until their twilight years if they're in a big slump, and trading markets behave accordingly. The lineups accurately reflect what would happen in real life, especially with injuries. Other than those changes, it remains the same, and those who loved the mode before will feel the same about it this year.
The real highlight for The Show is the Road to the Show mode, and this year's version comes with a few tweaks to make it more involving. The premise is the same: You take a user-created player and guide him from the Double-A league all the way to becoming a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Building up your player is done with points that come from several objectives, which are dependent on the position he chooses to play. It'll only be a goal to pitch a perfect few innings if you choose to be a pitcher, or you may be asked to catch X number of pop flies if you're in the outfield. The flow is the same as last year's game, but the big change is that you're always the focus of the mode. If you're the catcher, for example, you'll be involved in every game as long as you're healthy instead of only being thrown in during garbage time. While a small change, it goes a long way in making the mode more enjoyable since you're active all of the time.
For PS3 owners who just got a Vita, there's some incentive to pick up both the home console and portable versions of this game: cloud saving. Every mode on the PS Vita can have its progress saved to the cloud, where it can be read by the PS3 version and continued. The reverse happens as well, so players who can't stand being away from their games will be thrilled that they don't have to repeat actions on each platform. The saving process is rather seamless and feels just as fast as saving locally, so unless you only want to stick with one platform, it's good to take advantage of this feature.
The core baseball game is still solid and proves that the San Diego studio still knows how to craft a great baseball game. The heavy emphasis on stats proves to be a boon with fans while the behavior on the field matches that of a real game. Players will try to jump for balls to prevent homers, and catchers will try to block the plate to get an out. They'll also do a good job of aiming for the quick out most of the time while still allowing for believable mistakes every now and then, depending on the teams playing. As far as these aspects are concerned, there's no better game.
Despite the fresh start on a new console, online play remains problematic. On the plus side, the developers have done a wonderful job of menu reduction by making the online elements blend seamlessly with offline ones. Selecting Exhibition mode, for example, immediately gives you the chance to go against the CPU or an online player instead of giving you a dedicated online menu to find a match. The same goes for cloud saving, as it is presented as an option along with traditional local saves and loads. From there, the problems start to arise, including the presence of an online redemption code not present in some other Sony releases that featured online play. Getting into a game is fine, but the performance is filled with lag almost every step of the way. The lag gets bad enough that games can disconnect without warning. Compounding the frustration is the ranking system for online games, as you'll lose experience if you disconnect. Until this gets patched, expect the climb up the leaderboard to be unrewarding because random disconnects will topple you just as you've made progress.
There are a few other things that knock down the game a few notches. The first thing you'll notice, aside from the long load times to get into any mode, are that the games have been accelerated. You'll see every batter do his little intro at the plate, but you won't see him walk from the dugout or back off after every pitch. Transitions between inning halves are quickened with a fade-to-black screen that simulates TV commercial breaks, and the ball is never seen being thrown back to the pitcher after a pitch. The elimination of those scenes makes the game go faster, but it also comes with unexpected results. Hitting a home run is treated with the same reverence as hitting a single, so those exciting moments are glossed over in favor of speed; the game has no option to activate these incidental scenes again.
Then there are the basic mechanics of hitting and pitching. The game touts some refined ball physics, and while only veterans will really notice it, rookies will notice that they have a tendency to hit more foul balls than balls in play. Also, the new pulse pitching mechanic never seems to get into a good enough rhythm for players to adapt. It is learnable, and players who get the system will be fine with it after some practice, but everyone else will most likely stick with the tried-and-true meter system for pitching.
There are a variety of ways to control the game, but they aren't necessarily problem-free. Touch-screen controls make their debut in menus and gameplay, but only for pitches. You can touch the pitch you want to throw and touch the exact spot you want to throw the ball. Rear touch pad controls are off by default but can be turned on and used to throw to certain bases when you're on the mound. They both work well enough, but since they don't function for every action, you'll most likely stick with the traditional button and analog stick scheme. Speaking of which, the reduced resistance of the analog sticks means that you'll have to exercise more precision when pitching; even the slightest movement can move the position wildly. The same goes for batting if you choose to use it instead of the face buttons. It takes some getting used to, but don't expect an easy transition if you're a veteran PS3 player.
For a system that comes close to producing PS3-like graphics on a smaller scale, most of what you'll see here does a good job of showing you the San Diego studio's capabilities. The stadiums are well rendered, with accurate representations of some of their most famous landmarks. The crowds also look great from a distance, and the player models look very impressive and recognizable. Their mannerisms are spot-on, and they animate quite nicely. There are areas where the game does falter, though. Zooming in on parts of the stadium reveals textures that are blown up just enough to see their pixels, and the crowd is shown in very low detail during some shots. There are also parts that feel sparsely populated, like the empty dugout. Even though the frame rate stays at a constant 30 most of the time, it begins to stutter when a new batter comes to the plate or when players are being replaced; it doesn't affect gameplay unless you decide to skip the scene.
The sound falls in line with the graphics in that it is impressive but doesn't quite reach PS3 levels. The crowd sounds great, as do the sound effects, like the bat crack when hitting the ball. The commentary is good, and the delivery is as solid as before, though it is prone to big mistakes like missed inning calls. Veterans will gripe that they've heard most of these lines before, and for PS3 players, it'll feel like some of the lines from that game are missing. Nevertheless, for new players, there isn't much that feels missing or out of the ordinary.
Overall, MLB 12: The Show on the PS Vita shows lots of promise as well as room for improvement. Despite a few hiccups, the graphics and sound are impressive. The various control options are nice, though sticking with the traditional buttons seems to be the best option. The near mirroring of modes on the console version is great, and despite the high level of difficulty with the additional mechanics, it remains a fun experience for those who prefer simulation-style baseball. Though it is a good baseball game, it becomes valuable as a companion piece to the PS3 version. Those die-hard fans who need to get a fix everywhere they can would do well to pick up this title.
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