The first thing you notice when you fire up the PlayStation 3 build of “MLB 09: The Show” is that it’s the best looking and sounding baseball game ever.
Not having to make Xbox 360 and Wii versions of the game means the team behind “The Show” can focus on optimizing their game for Sony’s powerful, showcase console, and the built-in advantage shows. The player models and ballparks are stunning, and the crowd looks like it’s made up of real people instead of the weird cardboard cutouts or animated mannequins you’ve seen in other games. Unfortunately, the crowd seems to be made up of the same 20 folks, copied and pasted throughout the stadium, but hey, they have to improve something in next year’s game. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the presentation, depth and attention to detail match the eye-catching graphics.
By letting gamers pick the camera angles through which they view their pitchers and hitters, “The Show” (rated E, $60 on PS3, $30 on PS2, $40 on PlayStation Portable) ensures everyone is comfortable. Better yet, all camera angles and alternate presentations feel equally smooth. There’s no tacked-on, half-broken mode that seems entirely pointless.
Game types include typical exhibition, season, franchise and practice modes we’ve come to expect in baseball titles. An atypical addition is manager mode, in which you watch a game and make managerial decisions where applicable. The pacing is excruciating, recommended for only the most extreme multitaskers or folks who were the scorekeeper in Little League. The signature mode, though, is “Road to the Show,” in which you create a minor league player and try to make a major league roster, win the World Series and eventually land in the Hall of Fame. There are about a million ways you can customize your player, but my favorite was the list of names that the game’s announcers would call my player. (I eventually settled on Sir Dudenstein DuBois, even though that wasn’t my character’s actual name.)
“The Show” can be intimidating for new players. While it features in-game tips on such nuances as how to pick off runners, steal bases, align the defense, queue up a throw to a base and more, they don’t always pop up at the most useful moment. Is it expecting too much to want a tutorial on the basics of hitting to come up the first time I face live pitching, or an easily accessible “Pitching 101” tutorial the first time I’m on the mound?
Newbies would also appreciate a healthier dose of adaptive difficulty. Being plenty familiar with the 2K series, I found that my strike zone judgment as well as ability to time pitches in “The Show” was significantly off when I fired up “The Show.” I tried to compensate for this deficiency by focusing on timing the pitches, no matter their location. “The Show” was smart enough for its announcers to dog my players for swinging at everything, yet the game never asked me if I wanted the computer-controlled pitcher to throw me more strikes, or slow down the speed of the pitches to give me more time to react.
Instead, it was on me to recognize my own shortcomings, discover the sliders to tweak game’s difficulty sliders and adjust them until I got used to hitting. Of course, I know to do these things because I play video games all the time, but if Sony is serious about competing with the Wii and catering to a broad audience, a little handholding would go a long way.
While it might take you a dozen or more games to wrap your fingers around “The Show’s” control scheme, everything works smoothly; there are no glaring, game-wrecking bugs on par with the heinous fielding in “Major League Baseball 2K9.” That said, “The Show” could stand to steal a feature or two from its younger brother, namely 2K’s intuitive, fun pitching and hitting controls based around the dual analog sticks. (In baseball terms, it would be the equivalent of an ace like the Giants’ Tim Lincecum showing up at spring training with a devastating knuckleball he learned over the winter.) Compared with “2K9’s” pitching and hitting controls, those in “The Show” feel dated. Complex schemes that require three button presses to pitch and use of both analog sticks as well as face buttons to hit are the sort of thing that’s driven so many new gamers to Nintendo’s intuitive Wii remote.
As you might have guessed, I’m not yet comfortable enough with my skill level at the game to try my hand at online play, but I’ve logged in, downloaded updated rosters and played around enough to know that “The Show’s” toolset is
top-notch for an online sports title. The coolest feature allows players to upload custom rosters, which other “Show” players can rate to help separate the wheat from the chaff. Folks get creative, re-creating the World Baseball Classic squads or building minor league rosters from scratch. (For predictable licensing reasons, “The Show” uses fictitious names for all minor league players, creating a need for hobbyists willing to put in the legwork so that folks playing as the San Francisco Giants have Angel Villalona and Buster Posey in their farm systems, not some faceless no-names.)
As has become typical with online sports titles, you can sign up for your own leagues, playing games at your convenience, or just take on all comers in exhibition games.
I could go on at length about all the little things “The Show” does right, such as custom at-bat music, individual umpires with distinct tendencies, mascots, the Rule 5 draft, or the ability to record taunts for the crowd to chant when particular players come to bat, but this review would be twice as long. Suffice it to say that there’s a love and a craft and an attention to detail in “The Show” that just isn’t found in most sports titles, or video games in general. Frankly, it’s amazing the developers at Sony Computer Entertainment America, San Diego can deliver such a robust, bug-free game while maintaining the vigorous game-a-year schedule. If you’re willing to pore over the manual and in-game tip menus, plus put in some time to master the somewhat elaborate control scheme, you’ll be rewarded with the richest console baseball sim this generation has to offer.