Baseball has long been the pastime of America. Although we’ve gravitated in recent years toward football and basketball, baseball is still the destination of choice for a father and son outing – and will always be. Video game baseball also has one thing going for it that basketball and football games this year do not: competition. With MLB: The Show and MLB 2K both still seeking to put out the premier virtual baseball experience, complacency is not an option, and it has driven both series to improve themselves. This year’s iteration of The Show, while it doesn’t change a whole lot from last year, is still, without questions, the preeminent baseball experience.
The first thing you’ll notice is the fantastic presentation Sony has managed to give us. Every little detail is here - from player movements during downtime to coaches relaying signs around the field to venders selling hotdogs and beer - putting you right in the ballpark. Game introductions, player walkups, and cut-scene shots add even more pop. There simply has never been a more immersive baseball game to date. Assisting in this immersion are the visuals. MLB 11: The Show is beautiful. Stadiums are crafted to perfection, and the grass and sand are true-to-life. Player models are smooth and realistic as well, and movement is fluid and purposeful. This game has managed to surpass NBA 2K11 in my mind as the best-looking sports game on the market.
Audio in the game is top-notch as well. The new guy this year is Eric Karros – and he’s also the weak link. He doesn’t add much to the formula, making several bland remarks over the course of the game, but hey, he’s a big name. Dave Campbell and Matt Vasgersian are back and do an excellent job relaying the action from the press box. The crack of the bat, crowd chants (including the ability to create your own cheers), and other sound effects round out the package to draw you in like never before.
The riskiest move by Sony this year is implementing analog controls. Until now, fans were very happy with the button-pushing style. They have clearly realized, however, that the analog movement is inevitable – whether it’s juking down the football field, adjusting a layup in the lane, or powering up a slap shot. Thankfully, The Show implements the feature perfectly. Batting involves pulling the stick down to take your step and begin the swing, and flicking the stick upward rotates the hips and brings the bat through the zone. As you would guess, it’s all about timing and reading the pitch. There is a sweet spot for taking your step. It takes a lot of getting used to, but it’s also extremely rewarding (and realistic) when you guess fastball, time your step perfectly, and put a heater into the bleachers.
Pitching is also done with the analog stick. Once you’ve chosen your pitch and location, simply pull the stick down to start the power meter and flick the stick up to release the ball. While pitching, however, the direction of your flick directly determines the location. Straight up is right down the middle, and so on. Depending on the location you choose, a dot shows you where to aim, but it’s not always easy to hit the target. It makes for a very involved process, and some great pitcher-hitter battles. Fielding is handled in much the same way. To throw to first base you simply hold the analog stick to the right and release once the power bar is inside the green sweet spot. You’ll find that accurate pitches and throws require concentration on every play, which only serves to draw you into the experience in a great way.
The staple mode for the series has always been the Road to the Show. It’s largely unchanged, but there are certainly subtle tweaks that enhance the experience. Just one example is the way in which your at-bats are graded. Instead of accomplishing certain goals, you’re now judged on the quality and outcome of the at-bat in general. This approach is much more realistic, and you don’t feel like you’re being punished for not doing the “correct good thing.” It’s a long and cumbersome mode, but for those who stick it out, making it to the big leagues is a rewarding experience.
Franchise mode is also largely unchanged, but still offers the best available way to take a team to the top of the majors. You’ll be able to establish your full roster, trade, trade, and trade, decide what type of team you want to build, deal with contracts, and track any stat you could possibly think of. Again – it’s long, but for the hardcore manager in us all, it’s the only way to play.
The rest of the usual modes are all there, and are just as you’d expect them: Home-Run Derby (now playable with the PlayStation Move), Exhibition, Practice, etc. You’ll of course spend most of your time in Franchise mode and Road to the Show.
MLB 11: The Show doesn’t change a ton of content from last year, but that’s not a bad thing. It makes enough small improvements to the visuals, animations, and gameplay mechanics to keep the experience fresh while advancing the series. It is by far the best baseball game ever made, without a doubt. If you’re a baseball fan, sports fan, or even if you simply own a PS3, this game is a must-have.