With the debut of the PSP, Sony definitely wanted to make an impression on athletic fans that its handheld could fulfill their competitive drive. Although the basketball and hockey franchises from 989 Sports were decent translations from their console counterparts, there were enough items left out to make the games shadows of their PS2 selves. But wow, what a difference three sports launch titles makes. MLB, the baseball franchise distilled into portable format, manages to surpass the mistakes of the other franchises to be one of the best games for the new device.
Make no mistake about it, MLB does wind up cutting out a number of features from the PS2 version released earlier this year. In fact, there are really only three separate modes in the game: Quick play, which launches you into a game, Online play via Ad Hoc or Infrastructure modes to connect with other PSPs in basic matches, and Season mode, which is the main thrust of the game. Unfortunately, you’re not going to managing the fortunes of a team with Franchise mode excluded, nor are you going to direct the fate of a created player in Career mode. Nor are you really going to need to focus upon the delicacies of trade negotiations or signing players. In Season mode, you have the option to play anywhere between 14, 29, 82 or a full 162 game season, all of which gives you a schedule listing your upcoming games, along with your team standings, stats and other important information, such as your lineup. You’ll also be given the option to play or simulate a game, fast-forward to certain innings, or simply manage the matchup itself.
What has been solidly carried over from the console version of the MLB franchise are the Total Control Pitching and Batting systems, which are very intuitive on a smaller scale. Pitchwise, players will be able to choose between two different pitching meters to determine the speed and control of their throws, as well as where their ball placement will be in the strike zone. Accurate throws and strikeouts bolsters your pitcher’s confidence, further increasing their precision on the mound and making their play stronger. Start walking batters or find the bases continually loaded up, and you’ll notice the pitch meter moves faster and more erratically, which can result in a number of wild pitches. Although some mound visits can slowly calm down these hurlers, you’ll soon find that your pitcher’s performance is significantly governed by how well you protect the bases. Speaking of defense, it’s expected that you’ll receive some kind of marker that indicates where a fly ball might land on the field. However, you can “chain” together follow-up throws to effectively cut off additional advancement around the bases. For instance, you can force a rival player on first base to tag up if a pop fly is sent into the outfield. By pressing the corresponding button, the outfielder will catch the ball and automatically move to throw the game towards the base you designate.
As for offense, players have definite control over their hitting thanks to the Total Control Batting system. Not only will you have a sense of what your batter’s hot and cold zones are, you’ll also be given a chance to put a little extra power behind the ball if you guess what kind of pitch is being thrown (On higher difficulty levels, you also have to guess the area it’s being thrown in as well). Correct guesses pops up a lock-on icon in the strike zone, giving you an added chance to send the ball out of the park. You’ll also bolster his confidence, making it much more likely for that player to hit the ball in his next at bat. Once on the basepaths, you have full control over every single runner, and have the option to advance or recall any player at any time.
The true star of MLB has to be its technical presentation. While the visuals of MLB 2006 were decent on the PS2, they really stand out on the PSP screen, where the character models animate quite nicely. In fact, many of the issues that you might have with the console version quickly disappear in the handheld game. Whether it’s individual pitching styles, smaller batting rituals or exaggerated catches in the outfield, every player looks incredible. Even the somewhat stoic cutout crowd that has constantly been faulted in previous console versions is exceptional in this title. Even with this, you’ll find that there are a number of limited visual touches. For instance, home run celebrations are relatively limited. You might get a limited cutscene of the player jumping as the ball gets sent skyward, or a slightly different camera angle following the angle of the ball, but for the most part, the game is locked into one visual presentation throughout play.
What really makes MLB stand out from the other 989 Sports launch titles is the sound presentation. Sure, there are a number of musical tracks that play during a game, including minor strains of songs that play along with stadium noise. That includes the cheers of the crowd or the sound of the bat connecting with a pitch. However, you’ll also find stadium announcers that call out different lineups, and more remarkably, full play-by-play and color commentary. Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell provide running dialogue not during specific moments, but throughout the entire game, which not only adds to the presentation of a matchup, but begs the question: why couldn’t the other 989 Sports games do this? Although the timing of some comments is relatively behind the in-game action, Vasgersian’s excitement behind plays and Campbell’s derision at badly timed swings really brings the game alive.
Sure, the game doesn’t have a Franchise mode, a create-a-character Career mode or some of the other features of its console version. But what it does have is an extremely solid amount of gameplay supported by two well-developed offensive and defensive control schemes and an engaging amount of baseball to appease just about any sports fan.