With spring training just around the corner, Major League Baseball teams nationwide are kicking off the rust and preparing for the longest major-league season around. Errors, balks and high ERAs are to be expected right now, because the major leaguers are coming off an extended break. But don’t tell that to SCEA San Diego, whose MLB 11: The Show has come out of the gates not just swinging, but in a form that Mr. October himself would be impressed to call his own.
Since its rookie season on the PS2, the MLB: The Show series has continually upped its game like a manager loading the roster in the offseason. With MLB 11: The Show, Sony once again stepped things up, but this time it’s across the board, from the 3D presentation and RPG-like progress monitoring to a new analog system that makes all the difference when it comes to batting and pitching.
The basic button-pressing interface is still intact, but it’s relegated to the Beginner difficulty in MLB 11: The Show. The Experienced setting has a few analog settings for hitting, pitching and fielding, but things really heat up on Expert, which has full analog controls and almost no on-screen displays. Analog controls aren’t completely radical; they’ve already been implemented in various sports games from other publishers. Yet in spite of this being their rookie outing in MLB: The Show, they feel natural to the point that even people who start at Beginner will want to move up to Experienced, if not Expert, after just a few games.
The type of swing — contact or power — is still determined by pressing a face button, but from that point on it’s all analog. Players need to pull back on the analog stick to wind up, then push It forward at just the right time when the ball crosses the plate. Depending on your timing, you’ll pull or push the ball to the outfield, and you can even cause some nasty infield flies or total flubs based on your timing. The result is a level of immersion that makes everything from homeruns to bloopers feel infinitely more rewarding than the simple press of a button.
Pitching is similar, with the type of pitch and strike-zone location selected by button presses while the timing and power are determined by the flick of the stick. In some respects it feels like the old Tiger Woods PGA Tour swinging mechanic, minus the hooks and slices. If I had to pick between the more-enjoyable of the two, I’d definitely go with batting, but the inclusion of both is a great step forward for the series. And as I said, the former really makes your offensive production seem like it’s truly “yours” since you actually swung the bat. Well, in an analog sort of way.
Things fall apart somewhat in the non-pitching and non-batting aspects. Camera angles frequently mess-up adventure games, but not since the original Ninja Gaiden have I found a camera to be more annoying than when running the bases in MLB 11: The Show. The concept is simple enough: press the analog stick in the direction of the base you want to hit next. The problem comes when the cinematic presentation dynamically changes the camera angle, making your once-properly-pressed direction mean you’re headed back second base rather than home plate. I’d love to chalk this up to unfamiliarity, or to say that it gets easier to manage the running with time, but it remains just as hard. The solution is to keep the setting on Beginner and not even worry about analog controls, but then you’d miss out on the sweetness of analog batting and pitching.
MLB 11: The Show redeems itself somewhat the longer you play in Road to the Show mode, much like an RPG rewards gamers who go through all that level grinding. Almost like an Elder Scrolls or Fable game, MLB 11: The Show “watches” how your hitters hit and your pitchers pitch, monitoring your successes and failures. Based on that performance, the game suggests exercises to improve your success in those aspects. It really makes you feel like the game is as much of a coach as it is an entertainment medium, but to really take advantage of the lessons you’ve got to take them seriously and then apply the lessons learned.
Speaking of lessons learned, SCEA San Diego definitely learned a thing or two by visiting their Sony 3D TV brethren. MLB 11: The Show has full stereoscopic 3D support, and let me tell you that its 3D effects are phenomenal. The stadiums look great during normal 2D play, but when you activate the 3D from the main menu and take a gander through the glasses, you’ll really feel like you’re at the ballpark. I chose Safeco Field, the stadium I’ve seen most often, and it looks as dimensional as if you’re standing there in downtown Seattle.
Where the stadiums inherently show a bit of pixelization, the lighting and shadows make the players themselves look as lifelike as possible, particularly with the depth of field when the players walk up to the batters box. Sure, the faces at times look a bit off, but the bodies look completely dimensional. And the batters’ in-box animations? Probably some of the best in-game 3D I’ve seen to date.
One other thing worth noting — and only because it’s a total buzzkill when firing up the game — is the nine-minute delay when the game is first Installing. This takes place before you even see a title screen, and I’ve not experienced a game install data like that in a long time, so it seemed particularly annoying. Maybe not as annoying as the base-running snafus mentioned above, but still something that I remember after all those innings played.
Still, two snafus don’t make this a bad game, and they don’t even come close to dragging down the overall experience. MLB 11: The Show is the game to beat when it comes to console baseball, and if SCEA San Diego can refine the analog controls even more next year, their game is likely to stay that way.
Click here to buy MLB 11: The Show for PS3 from Amazon.com.
Platform reviewed: PlayStation 3