A lot of The Show’s charm comes from its ability to surprise you even after you have played it for 30 hours. Whether it is a new cut-scene you have never witnessed before or a new fielding animation that suddenly pops up for the first time, those are the moments when many gamers really appreciate The Show as a franchise. And that is why it is kind of tough to size up MLB 09: The Show (and most other baseball games) in preview form.
In real baseball, it is easy enough to figure out who the stars are and why they mean so much to their respective teams. Yet, it is the little things that are done on the field and in the dugout that will ultimately determine which teams are the most successful. In that same way, it is easy enough to realize that the core mechanics of MLB 09: The Show –- hitting, pitching –- are solid overall, but it will take many hours of playing time to decipher whether or not MLB 09: The Show is another game of the year contender.
Pitching and hitting are obviously the most important gameplay elements in a baseball game, so there is no reason not to talk about these components first. The first question people usually ask is, have any drastic changes been made to the pitching or hitting mechanics? And the simple answer is that no drastic changes have been made. Nevertheless, if you dig a little deeper, it becomes a more complicated question to answer. From a controls standpoint, it does not seem like many changes have been made to the pitching or hitting. If you look beyond the controls, though, the developers have said that subtle yet distinct changes have been implemented for '09 -– which I mostly noticed while pitching.
I am most excited to talk about the pitcher-catcher interaction. For those gamers that pitch from the "pitcher view" and turn off the strike zone and a lot of the other indicators, they really will experience an engrossing pitcher-catcher interaction this spring. This year, it is possible to read what the catcher is doing behind the plate and pitch the whole game without having to turn on any indicators –- besides, of course, the pitching menu that tells you what pitches you have at your disposal.
So, virtual Jorge Posada can put one finger down, then signal to throw it low and then signal to throw it outside, and virtual C.C. will know to throw a 4-seam fastball. Now, to an extent this was implemented last year, but now you truly can turn off all the indicators, ignore all the in-game menus that help you identify what pitch to throw, and simply read the catcher’s signals and go from there. It seems so small, but sometimes it is the simplest things that make the biggest difference.
The pitching meter has also received a visual tweak. The meter has been made much thicker at the bottom, and then much thinner in the max-power area. This visual change will take a while to get used to because the differentiating thickness makes it tougher to gauge when to stop the meter in the sweet spot. I think this was perhaps Sony’s way of meeting naysayers halfway, since some people thought the pitching meter was "too easy to master."
While I was hitting, it was a little harder to identify subtle changes that had been made to the hitting system. Sony has added more feedback to the hitting system, so those who want to check out why they missed a pitch can do so in a more effective fashion. So when you click the L3 button -- in addition to the system telling you whether you swung early or late, low or high -- there is a visual cue that will display your batter’s plate-coverage ability.
In general, though, it was tough to notice many differences –- at least in terms of "feel" –- when it came to hitting. I would like to think that is because I only got to play for roughly an hour and a half, but you never know. Of course, just because I did not think the hitting felt much different, does not mean the hitting was bad; it simply means some gamers might think it feels too comfortable.
It is true that there are no eye-popping innovations on the hitting and pitching fronts, but I also do not have much to complain about when it comes to these elements. Therefore, perhaps "polished" sums up these aspects of the game at this juncture.
A lot of work has gone into the fielding this year, which is a good thing in my mind, because I felt like the fielding held the gameplay back last year. First things first though, there is not a new throwing mechanic in the game; it works the same as it did last year.
Moving on, the first positive thing I noticed came during a force-out play at second base. Last year, trying to go to second base on a force out was a dangerous game to play because the fielder usually threw some lob-ball nonsense to the SS or 2B. This year, your fielder will pick the ball up, and in rhythm, sling the ball over to the player covering second base.
The best part of this, though, is the fact that the player covering the bag reacts in different ways. One time I threw a ball over to second when there were two outs, and the fielder caught the ball, touched the bag and immediately continued running towards the dugout in one fluid motion. Another time I threw a ball to second base with less than two outs, and the fielder caught the ball on the bag and then immediately tried to avoid the incoming baserunner hustling from first base.
Branching off from that positive, a lot has gone into making players aware of each other on the diamond. In the past, a fielder would stand his ground on second base after receiving the ball, and then the sliding runner would ghost or clip through the aforementioned fielder. This year, it seems like this type of scenario will not be as noticeable. So, there is not a full-on collision-detection system that has been implemented, but rather, the players just seem more aware of each other on the field.
During my time with the game, this awareness seemed to help minimize the clipping issues that have continuously plagued the game over the years. It is not a perfect solution because it does seem like the players will still go through each other at points. Still, the fact that fielders will simply be aware of their surroundings should result in fewer instances of fielders clipping through baserunners during tag-outs or sliding situations.
The way fielders approach balls has also been changed in a few ways (some that have already been discussed). Last year, for example, a fielder would sometimes run directly over a ball up the middle and not pick it up. While I was playing this year’s build, however, I did not notice any those slow dribblers up the middle leaving my infielders helpless and hapless.
How an outfielder approaches a ball sitting in the outfield has also changed. During certain situations last year, you would use an outfielder and run over to a ball on the ground, and yet the fielder would not pick the ball up until he ran over it once or twice more. It seems like this issue has been combated by changing the speed of the approaching outfielders.
I think the idea behind this approach is that, in real life, outfielders rarely run up to a ball on the ground at full speed because they would misplay the ball. However, when I was playing, there was an instance where a ball bounced hard off the wall and my outfielder gingerly ran up to the ball to pick it up. It was a moment where I felt the game should not have taken control out of my hands because I did not tell the fielder to slow up; he did it automatically. There is certainly a time when you want an action to be completed automatically, but I did not like that control was taken from me at that exact moment.
This Game Is Purdy
As soon as my players stepped onto Wrigley Field for a daytime game, they could just sense the warm glow of the Chicago sun. The dynamic lighting effects are the major reason why my players could really sense the beaming rays of sunlight. Because of these new lighting effects, when it is overcast you can now really tell, and if it is just partly cloudy, you will also be able to notice a substantial difference. The new lighting effects also change the way the parks look at field level. As your corner outfielders creep closer to the foul line, they will creep deeper and deeper into the dynamic shadows, which also look great. Honestly, the new lighting techniques make anything and everything look much more realistic.
The fields also seem to be graphically updated. I really noticed some variations in the level of dirt around the diamond, and general wear and tear showed up on the field as the game progressed. In general, it just seems like the elements that surround the baseball players have come alive.
Animations, Animations, Animations, and Cut-Scenes
Every year I am amazed by the amount of interesting cut-scenes and animations that make it into The Show, and this year is no different. There are little things I witnessed, like Boston Red Sox Manager Terry Francona walking to the mound with his jacket on during a brisk New York night, and more noticeable gameplay ones, such as the various ways fielders deal with a ball they are catching at second base, which I mentioned earlier.
Each animation or cut-scene is simple and so-so by itself, but they add up to create a true-to-life baseball game. For example, during the first inning of my '09 baseball year, I noticed how fans now go up and down the aisles in the stands; I witnessed an instance where a foul tip hit off the catcher and the umpire had to call time so the catcher could compose himself; and then later in that same at bat, the batter pulled a ball foul and fell to one knee because he was so far ahead of the ball. Each instance by itself is not a big deal, but it adds up in the long run.
It seems like the little things that you will notice while playing the game, and the subtle nuances within the gameplay, will continue to define this series. It is the surrounding elements -– mainly the franchise mode and the online play -– that will ultimately define this year’s game. If those elements have been improved significantly this year, then there is no reason this game cannot please almost every gamer out there. At this point, though, having not been able to toy around with the franchise mode or online play, all I can say is the gameplay and atmosphere are still in good hands.
Check back on Friday for a short interview with a MLB: The Show developer (in the interview he discusses online play). On Monday, be on the lookout for an interview with three MLB: The Show developers (the transcribed interview will deal with a wide range of gameplay topics).
*Full disclosure: Sony paid for my hotel and airfare during this trip. While it did not influence what I wrote here, I always think it is important to be upfront with the visitors of this site whenever possible.*