It’s that time of year again when the snow trickles away, the air warms up, and parents bring their kids to Spring Training to get a first glimpse at the superstars of tomorrow. Baseball season is right around the corner, and with it comes the annual release of what has quickly become the gaming industry’s greatest baseball franchise, MLB: The Show.
Last year’s release, MLB 08: The Show, corrected some of the series’ minor flaws while delivering a simulation baseball experience unlike any other. SCE San Diego did a fine job re-tuning the fielding and pitching mechanics by listening to fans of the game over the developer’s off season. This year is no different. Due to the time spent conversing with the community, MLB 09: The Show actually raises the bar from past installments, which very few people thought possible.
Outside of the developers bringing in Dustin Pedroia for some serious motion capture sessions, the team has added in a substantial amount of unique player styles, as well as new tag and gameplay animations in order to polish the simulation experience. Furthermore, a new collision detection system has been implemented to remove the unrealistic plays of the past. Baserunners no longer freely run into defenders standing and waiting for the ball; instead, they try to circle around them to avoid the tag. These are just a few examples of technical changes to the gameplay that SCE San Diego produced for MLB 09 to turn it into an authentic baseball experience.
It’s no secret that The Show franchise has always and should always revolve around one of the best game modes of any sports title, Road to the Show. This mode allows gamers to create a custom player of their choice to play any position on the field. The objective is to play as your created player, turning him from a minor leaguer into a baseball legend. MLB 09: The Show gives you the option of entering your player into the first-year player draft or selecting a team of your choice. Once this is done, you’re given a variety of settings to configure to create a more enjoyable experience.
Much like last year’s title, Road to the Show is primarily played on the field. You’re given goals to complete by your coach, like striking out a batter or throwing a runner out at home. All tasks result in one of four different outcomes: Goal Complete, Goal Failed, Goal Canceled and Positive Result. Depending on which goals you complete or fail, you’re given points at the end of each game that you can distribute to progress your player’s skills, which range from arm strength to contact against left-handed pitchers. When it comes to distributing training points, it’s always good to take note of what type of advancement goals have been set forth.
Advancement goals are periodic objectives that your manager or coach gives your player. This could involve something as simple as maintaining a .300% batting average over the next five series of games, or it could be a training objective like increasing your bunting ability to a certain point. These objectives help you move up the ranks as a player at a quicker rate.
One of the new implementations to Road to the Show 3.0 is the addition of training sessions. The developers have created special training sessions that focus on your batting techniques and base-running in order to improve your abilities in a different way than just dishing out training points. In these two mini-modes, players have the chance to gain plate vision, discipline, power and contact improvements in batting, or base-running aggression, speed and base-running ability in the base-running training mode. These are welcomed inclusions as they add an extra amount of authenticity while also providing gamers a nice change of pace from the games. They also offer another way to improve your player without having to dish out the training points to areas you may not be too concerned with.
Outside of these additions, Road to the Show provides a similar setting and gaming experience that fans of the series have come to love. This is also, once again, the mode you should and probably will spend the majority of your time playing. It’s the most rewarding, unique, and enjoyable aspect of the game.
MLB 09: The Show continues to provide other games modes as well, however. Season, All-Star, and Rivalry modes all make their way back into the heart of the game, while Franchise mode takes it up a notch with SCE San Diego’s version 2.0 upgrade. It’s usually very hard to find a complaint about MLB: The Show in general, but some gamers took issue with last year’s franchise mode, pointing out how there was no 40-man roster, salary arbitration, waiver transactions or September call-ups. This year though, those complaints have been thrown to the side as the team has implemented all four of those key missing ingredients into their Franchise recipe.
For those of you who are unaware of what these additions mean, let us explain. The 40-man roster allows you, as general manager, to protect 40 players on your club from being hand-picked by other teams during an off-season draft process. Salary Arbitration gives you the option of resigning a player to your team through an arbitration hearing, which involves you and the player making your case for why he deserves a certain amount of money. The MLB either takes the side of the player, which forces you to pay him a one-year contract in line with his requested salary, or they’ll side with you, forcing the player to take the check for a lesser amount. This is a great way to keep key players out of Free Agency and on your team. Waiver transactions cause a pop-up on the screen that notifies you of players being released or demoted without the appropriate contract option to do so, giving you the opportunity to claim players other teams may not want to lose. Finally, September call-ups allow you to call up minor league players to your MLB club in order to help you make that final run at October glory.
When it comes down to baseball gameplay, no one does it better than MLB 09: The Show. With the new implementation of hot shots and bobbles, infielders play a more realistic style of ball. No longer do they suck everything up like a vacuum in order to make the perfect out. Instead, their fielding abilities now come into play as the ball can take a quick hop on them at any moment, making a routing grounder more trouble than it should be. This results in players bobbling the ball or missing it entirely — something that happens quite often in real life.
SCE San Diego has also upgraded the way in which fielders move toward a hit ball. The team understood that it gave the CPU by allowing the computer to take direct routes to the ball every single time, forcing the player to play more conservatively than realistically. This has been fixed, as fielders now sometimes take bad angles or very good angles, which give the player the option to try for that extra base or to play it safe. This definitely adds to the overall feel of the title as a baseball simulator.
Pitching and batting mechanics are similar to last year’s. You use the standard meter to pitch the ball with the face buttons selecting the pitch type, just like you continue to use square or X for power or contact swings. The ‘guess’ pitch mechanic is still around, yet the overall risk/reward of the system has changed. Gamers who choose to utilize it will be rewarded much less than gamers who choose to play without it. This is a great change, as it allows lesser skilled individuals to use it as a handicap without it giving them an unfair advantage over players who choose not to abuse it.
If all of this isn’t enough to convince you that a yearly installment of MLB: The Show is worth the asking price, some of the newer features that the game has to offer most certainly will. Have you ever played a sports title and realized that certain presentation aspects for your favorite team are missing? Perhaps a certain chant isn’t in the game, or you’d like your MLB 09: The Show created player to have a certain walk-up song before he bats. All of these things can now be done within The Show. The developers have included great additions to the game like Fan Yells & Chants and Custom Music. This means you can take any song from your HDD and use it within the game to create your own custom stadium music. It’s also neat to throw in your own cheers and chants that you have thought up yourself,but it’s always cool to add realistic chants for players like Alex Fraudriguez as well.
As for taking your game online, you may want to wait a couple of weeks. As it stands now, the game online is somewhat buggy and laggy. While this may not be an issue for the pure baseball fan who is willing to withstand anything to prove his dominance, it’s still very annoying. Unfortunately, because of this, it’s hard for us to give accurate online impressions for this title. If last year’s title is any indicator, these issues should be patched up quickly.
Visually, MLB 09: The Show is the most stunning sports title to date. The lighting techniques are outstanding within each intricately detailed stadium and the player models are all top notch. As far as we’re concerned, some MLB mothers may even have trouble telling the difference between her real son and his virtual counterpart. Player animations are fluid and branching, and shin guards no longer seem to float in the air behind players’ calves. When all is said and done, MLB 09: The Show offers a sense of fluidity and eye-candy that just hasn’t been seen before.
Much like the baseball season, fans are going to look back on this title as one of the best in recent memory. The experience it brings is rich and genuine, and — as corny as this sounds — it feels like you’re right there in the ballpark. MLB 09: The Show will go down as a classic envisioning of American’s favorite pastime.