A Binge Gamer Review: MLB 09: The Show
I have been a fan of baseball, and specifically the Detroit Tigers, since before I picked up my first SEGA Genesis controller. Around this time of year I turn into a giddy little school child as I anxiously await opening day around the league. Thankfully, while I wait for Justin Verlander to deliver the first pitch in Toronto, Sony has released MLB 09: The Show for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and PSP.
First of all, can we assume that we all know how the game of baseball is played? Yes? Good. Now, with that said I have to tell you all that MLB 09: The Show may very well be the most comprehensive baseball sim that I’ve ever played. Nothing is changed all that drastically, but what few tweaks have been made have only improved an already excellent game.
The big draw to MLB 09: The Show is the vastly improved “Road to the Show” feature. If you haven’t played any of these games before, Road to the Show is basically a role-playing baseball game. You create your player by picking his name, number, position, etc. The customization options are as close to endless as you can get, especially now that you can import music from your PS3 hard drive to use as your music when you step into the batter’s box, or come out of the bullpen and to the mound ($1 for whoever creates Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn). Strangely, the PlayStation 2 version of The Show has PSEye support, but the PS3 version does not.
Now, once you have the character how you like it you can either assign him to an organization or enter a draft, which basically means that the game picks the team for you. Once you’re on your team you begin spring training and you take part in games that you are directly involved in and the game simulates the rest – much like Madden NFL 09’s Superstar mode. At certain points in the game you will be given particular challenges, such as “advance the runner” or “get on base”. Complete the challenge and you get an additional bonus to the points you earn throughout the game, which are spent on improving your character’s attributes.
There are several improvements to the Road to the Show mode over last year’s entry. The most important, if not immediately noticeable change is that load times once you’re in the game have been cut drastically. However, load times between games are still long enough for you to get up and go grab a drink. On off-days during the season you can improve your hitting and/or baserunning skills by taking batting practice or baserunning drills. It’s also easier to improve your player’s attributes as the constant struggle to keep your skills from diminishing has been toned down greatly. However, the most obvious change to the Road to the Show mode is the ability to finally edit your player once he has begun his career. In last season’s game, once you finished creating your character and got into the actual career, you weren’t allowed to go back and edit his name or appearance. Thankfully Sony fixed this nagging annoyance.
One thing that has been improved in MLB 09: The Show but still presents some problems is with the absurd amount of time it takes to get called up to the Majors. The game does read more into statistical achievements and meeting your goals when determining when you are called up than in last year’s game, but in the end it still relies entirely too much on pure attribute ratings. Case in point: I was hitting .441 in June for the AA Erie Seawolves, but the guy I replaced as the starting 2nd Baseman was called up to AAA Toledo. I understand that this is supposed to be quasi-realistic, but having to play 2/3rds of a season in AA can try the patience.
Another complaint I have with the Road to the Show is with the new baserunner controls which use the left control stick. They’re difficult to get used to, there is a delay from the time you deliver your command to when the player reacts, and when the camera switches perspective your player will more often than not come to a complete stop because you’re not holding the joystick in the exact opposite direction of where you want to go. The new baserunning controls also makes stealing bases or even attempting to steal bases, especially early on, next to impossible because the delay in the controls makes it so that when the pitcher goes to check the runner, you more or less stand there with your cup in your hand. Later on it becomes easier as you get better at reading the pitcher’s movements as well as build up your reaction time attribute, but that really just turns the “impossible” into the “not very damn likely”.
Now, if Road to the Show is the game mode option for people who play baseball games in order to live out their lifelong dreams of being the starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox, MLB 09: The Show’s franchise mode is for the people who dream of owning and operating a sports team. Listen to me when I tell you that there is no deeper franchise mode than the one featured in The Show. From managing player salaries against income from television, fan and advertising revenue to scouting for new talent to even improving things around the ballpark, MLB 09’s Franchise mode is a micromanager’s dream.
Of course all of these bells and whistles mean absolutely nothing if the game plays like crap. Thankfully, MLB 09: The Show not only lives up to last year’s title, it surpasses it thanks to a few subtle tweaks that may seem insignificant at first glance but add greatly to the game when they’re being used. Hitting controls are pretty much unchanged from last season. You can still guess the pitch as well as the location, garnering bonuses for each correct guess while suffering the consequence for guessing wrong. For those of you who like having absolute control over your at-bats, there is now the Swing Influence, which allows you to determine if you want to try for a ground ball or a fly ball. While not always useful (and in some cases, detrimental), it’s a life-saver if you’re trying to sacrifice the run home from third. Pitching controls also haven’t changed very much from last year. You still have the classic two-button pitching mechanic as well as the pitching meter, which is the default and the preferred control set-up.
While the hitting and pitching controls have pretty much remained the same, the fielding controls have been markedly improved, which is saying something since they were excellent last year. There are a couple of new features with fielding that do enhance the realism of the game, however. AI outfielders will take new routes to chase down balls which allows the game to play more like it would in real life. In addition to the new outfield AI is a new concept of risk/reward for dives in the outfield. Before if a player were to dive for the ball they would either make the catch or, well, not. Now if you decide to charge the ball in the outfield you can certainly make the catch, or at least knock it down, but the odds still favor you missing it entirely. These are just two facets of an overhauled defensive AI that improves on bunting logic, a new system for handling “hotshots” which basically says that in certain cases there is no way in hell anybody can catch that hard ass line drive, and a new system that more accurately and fairly distributes errors.
The presentation hasn’t changed much from last year, either. Matt Vasgersian, Rex Hudler, and Dave Campbell all return for 2009, and the dialogue isn’t all that different from last year. Not that it really has to be, since MLB 08: The Show’s commentary was quite possibly the best ever done for a video game. That is to say that with the very, very rare occasion of Campbell getting the number of outs wrong during a call, the commentary is spot on. This works to sell the overall TV presentation that the game aims for. Shortly before each game you’ll get a shot of a few players talking to each other or goofing around in the bullpen as Vasgersian welcomes you to whatever ballpark. The rest of the audio falls in line with the commentary. From the crack of the bat to the ball hitting the glove to the many chants and cheers from the crowd, everything is done very, very well in the audio department… except the soundtrack. I don’t know who was in charge of putting together the game’s soundtrack, but… eww. Just eww, dude.
Graphically, it’s the same story. The players all look downright amazing (seriously, Justin Verlander is dead on. It’s scary) when in motion, and the stadiums are gorgeous, with intricate detail being paid to all the little things. At Comerica Park, the roar of the tiger echoes throughout the ballpark when you hit a home run. At New Yankee Stadium, you can almost see each individual player immortalized in Memorial Park. Hell, you can even see (in simulated real-time, of course) the sky turning from bright blue to crimson to black as night falls. The details are that precise. The crowds, however, do leave something to be desired with regards to looks. The animations are all nice with crowds reaching for home runs and foul balls, but they still look like cardboard cutouts.
Finally, the online options are nice. Admittedly I have only limited experience with the online options and game modes because A.) I hate playing sports games online since most of you like to pause and then run off for a half-hour, and B.) My connection to the PlayStation Network kept dropping – nothing relating to the game. However, the game does promise online leagues with full stat tracking, point benefits, rewards and a bunch of other really nifty stuff for those of you who like taking part in online leagues.
Look, I’ll save you all the bad baseball puns about this game being a home run or how with the franchise, Road to the Show and online modes that it covers all the base. All I will say is that if you are a baseball fan and you own a PlayStation 3, you are doing yourself a disservice in not picking this up. Go out. Buy it. It’s easily the best baseball game ever released, and one of the best sports sims on any console today.