Expecting a great baseball game from Sony’s “MLB: The Show” franchise is like expecting the Yankees to finish above .500. You’re almost certain to get something good; the only question is whether you’ll get the sports game of the year.
Like its predecessors, “MLB 11: The Show” (rated E, $60 on PlayStation 3, $30 on PlayStation Portable and PS2) is a fantastic baseball game, with a few niggling problems that are worth putting up with if you plan to spend dozens of hours playing the game.
The attention to detail is slavish. As a Cardinals fan, one of the first things I check is whether the St. Louis bat its pitcher eighth, as manager Tony LaRussa is fond of doing on occasion, and “The Show” delivers on this point. The next thing I do is play a game at AT&T Park. Once again, the Giants’ home yard is rendered in fantastic detail, the only exceptions being that many of the corporate logos have been scrubbed or replaced. (The giant Coke bottle above the left-center bleachers now reads “Enjoy Cola.”
The “Road to the Show” mode, which many players of the franchise will swear by, is as solid a hybrid of sports simulator and role-playing game you’ll find. The joy that baseball fans who also happen to enjoy a good RPG will derive from creating a minor leaguer from scratch, upgrading his abilities and trying to hit certain goals is compelling enough that “RttS” would stand on its own as an independent, budget-priced game. After creating my own pitcher, Peanuts LaRue, I quickly forgot all about how much I’d intended to dive into Franchise Mode and instead got hooked into “RttS’s” just-one-more-appearance gameplay.
New this year in “The Show” are pitching and hitting controls tied to the right thumbstick, similar to what you’ll find in 2K Sports’ annual baseball game. In general, the hitting works about as well as what you’ll find in 2K’s game, though the timing seemed to be slightly different, and I have a tendency to swing ridiculously early. The pitching, while slightly less satisfying as what 2K is doing, is competently executed. If you decide you don’t like the new controls, you have the option to switch back to a more “classic” control scheme.
The lone beef I have with “The Show” is that, like many sports games, it’s terrible at teaching. Because I struggle initially with hitting in baseball games, I start out on “rookie” difficulty, then work my way up to more challenging settings as I improve. In “The Show,” however, the rookie setting uses different controls from the thumbstick-based scheme featured on “veteran,” the next level up. Despite the fact that “The Show” plays like an entirely different game on “veteran,” context-based tutorials are turned off by default and, even when enabled, often present useless information. (The game kept showing me pitching tips that referenced to the pitching meter used in older “The Show” titles, even though I wasn’t using it.)
While it’s true players can customize every facet of difficulty and gameplay, you have to know to do this. “The Show” features no adaptive difficulty at all. In an era when first-person shooters suggest struggling players alter their controls based on performance, it’d be nice to have a baseball game that says, “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re swinging way too early at pitches out of the strike zone. Do you want the computer to throw more pitches in the strike zone until you’re comfortable with timing?”
“The Show” also suffers from occasionally stuttering animations and broadcast audio that doesn’t always match what you’re seeing. In my first game struggling with the veteran difficulty, I had to listen to the broadcast team prattle on about the perfect game my opponent was throwing even though I had a batter reach base on a dropped third strike in the fifth inning. In another game, the play-by-play announcer pointed out that a runner was stealing second then continued the call saying the runner was safe without a throw, even though the batter at the plate had put the ball in play and was being thrown out at first to end the inning.
Having canned audio sync up with unscripted actions unfolding on the field is surely one of the greatest challenges facing any sports game programmer, but it sticks out in a game that’s otherwise quite polished.
Less polished, for the umpteenth year in a row, is 2K Sports’ “Major League Baseball 2K11” (rated E, $60 on Xbox 360 and PS3, $50 on Wii, $30 on PC, $20 on DS and PS2). The company’s decision to pony up millions of dollars for an exclusive contract to make annual baseball games that are playable on every console can be described as nothing short of a disaster. If quarterly earnings statements are to be believed, 2K isn’t making money on the product and, with the exception of the arcade-style “The Bigs 2,” the games resulting from the partnership have never risen above the level of tolerable.
“MLB 2K11” is no exception. While it’s not the train wreck that “MLB 2K9” was, it suffers from extremely choppy animations and a general lack of polish when contrasted with Sony’s game. (Sony is allowed to make a baseball game because 2K’s contract with MLB doesn’t lock out companies that manufacture hardware who make games for their own devices.) Though I prefer “2K11’s” pitching and fielding controls, and people who play online report fewer problems with lag than with Sony’s offering, “The Show” is the superior game in virtually every other facet.
“2K11” will do if you don’t have any of Sony’s gaming machines, but at some point, if you’re a rabid baseball nut who also plays video games, you’ll have to start questioning why you haven’t bought a PS3 or PSP.