Developer: SCE San Diego / Publisher: SCEA / ESRB: Everyone (No Descriptors) / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99
It’s the bottom of the ninth, bases are loaded, two outs, Yankees down by three and two strikes on Jeter. You’ve heard this story before, at least tangentially, but you’ve never played it in quite the same way MLB 11: The Show delivers. Being aware of what positions players are best suited to is absolutely essential to success; I’ve hand-picked and fielded every one of my players based on heaps of stats—strongest throwers in the outfield to quickly launch balls towards the diamond, and a shortstop fast enough to nab any ball or runner that comes his way. If I’ve done my job, the Texas Rangers will be a Yankee killin’, RBI crushin’ force o’ nature, but none of that matters right now.
At the moment, all I care about is the outcome of this showdown between Jeter at bat and Colby Lewis on the mound. All night, Jeter has made a laughing stock of my fastball, getting good wood on nearly every pitch. But I think I’ve got him thoroughly psyched-out from the series of curves and sinkers I’ve been tossing. If I’m lucky, I might just get him to hesitate on a fast one right down the center of the strike zone. With my palms sweaty and back tense, I realize it’s this moment, this hitter/pitcher duel that elevates The Show to greatness. Nowhere else, outside of the real deal, will you find a more realistic or taxing game of wits between baseball’s giants, and it’s what makes The Show the best damn baseball game I’ve ever played.
Imagine baseball, but less exhausting. In addition to the epic hitter/pitcher duels that will dominate most of your playtime, the biggest change to this year’s outing is “pure analog control,” which, similar to that of the MLB 2K series, places all of your hits, pitches, and throws on the right analog stick. It makes for a much more engaging experience than The Show’s tradition of mapping these actions to the face buttons. For example, as pitcher you might select a curveball with “circle” and use an icon to position it within or around the strike zone before pressing “x” to windup and pitch. You’re using strategy to select what will happen, and you’re still given the option to play this way, but with analog controls the threshold for failure, and thus the stakes, are higher, making you feel that much more skillful when you achieve success.
As the batter, you simply pull back on the stick to start your stride and thrust forward to swing—the power and duration of your swing are determined by the force you put behind the stick thrust. Analog pitching is even more involved than batting. Pulling back on the stick initiates the windup and a pitch meter. As the bar in the pitch meter reaches the sweet spot, you push forward and to the left or right to determine the intensity and positioning of your pitch. It’s tough to master, but the satisfaction of getting that swing or pitch just right–and the weight it adds to confrontations between hitters and pitchers–is well worth the practice time needed.
Once you’ve mastered the art of analog-fu, you’ll find a bevy of modes in which to show off your skills; the most popular will likely be plain-Jane exhibition mode against an AI or human opponent in a one-off match. It’s the quickest way to get in and out of a game without the hassle of locker room management or worrying about how you did in spring training.
If the nit-and-grit of baseball is more your thing, there’s always the more protracted modes such as Road to the Show, which sees your custom player swinging his way from the Double-AA Minors to the top of the Majors, or Franchise mode, akin to a sports management sim, in which you take on GM responsibilities, wheeling and dealing, trading, and even deciding whether or not Wrigley Field should have a hot tub for your most elite patrons. Home Run Derby, with its endless home run sprees even supports Move controls, and all modes support stereoscopic 3D.
There are so many modes, any baseball fan will find an option for every mood or moment. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel a bit of the Gran Turismo 5 effect in that some areas seem to have sacrificed polish in exchange for including more content. Season Play, for example, has full-on season management functions, but it doesn’t differ too much from the season play of RttS, you’re just more focused on a team rather than an individual.
As sports games continue their quest to more accurately replicate the on-field experience, they’re also abandoning a great deal of accessibility, sometimes without need. I’m not suggesting The Show should be dumbed down for an audience that’s less familiar with baseball, far from it. The game’s lowest difficulty setting is plenty manageable. What I am suggesting is that tooltips and a decent glossary of terms are not out of the question
Case in point: I sit down to try some co-op with a friend who’s wholly ignorant of the intricacies of baseball, but curious nonetheless. Very quickly, the copious stats and minutia of the game I’ve taken for granted are totally lost on him, and it takes a good hour to get him up to speed. This is due in large part to a failure of the tutorials which tell you “you’re doing it wrong!” and stop there. They don’t actually tell you why you’re not making good ball contact, or how you could improve; it’s a consistent issue throughout all modes.
Visuals and Sound
“And that’ll retire the side…retire the side…retire the…retire…retire.” I’m sure the announcing trio could be good if they wanted to be, but they aren’t, which is surprising considering it’s comprised of FOX color commentator Eric Karros, ESPN color commentator Dave Campbell, and MLB Network host Matt Vasgersian. Not only do the announcers repeat the same phrases way too often, the fact that the recordings were made in different locations is painfully obvious. Their voices often sound muffled, and they convey little enthusiasm even under the most wild of circumstances, such as when I intentionally pitch curveballs into the crotches of three batters in a row.
Mercifully, The Show’s graphics are a different story entirely. Aside from a bizarre facial animation that makes players look constipated when they’re upset, and the unnatural way they change directions, it’s sometimes startling how similar the game looks to a live broadcast.
In addition to online and local competitive multiplayer, this latest iteration also includes online and local co-op play for up to four players—two players per team. It’s a little odd taking turns at bat, but co-op actually works out pretty well, and I found that playing with my friend against AI was the best way for him to learn.
The only thing to be wary of in multiplayer is lag in online play. In friendly co-op it’s not such a big deal, but I had mixed results when playing in online ranked matches. Sometimes games run silky smooth, other times, the lag is so bad it becomes nearly impossible for either you or your opponent to hit a ball.
MLB 11: The Show has plenty of room for improvement, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for an annual franchise. Many of the season modes are overdue for some innovation, new announcers are needed stat, and online stability is questionable, but the core gameplay is just too good to overlook. And as it turns out, Jeter can’t be fooled. He responds to my fastball down the pipe with a sharp crack of the bat. The ball skips towards left field where Julio Borbon rockets it back to shortstop, Elvis Andrus, who’s able to tag out Jeter just as he’s leaving second. “Yeah!” I can’t help but pump my fist as we send the Yankees packing and make our way on to the Series. That’s why The Show is a staple of any baseball fan’s library.