MLB '10: The Show Review (PS3)
The month of March is by far my favorite time of the entire year. Why? Because March signifies the return of baseball. I have been playing the game ever since I was old enough to walk; I still pick up a pack of baseball cards whenever I get the opportunity; I viewed my trip to Fenway Park as a religious experience; And I am one of those twisted individuals who will watch all 162 games of my beloved Detroit Tigers (and even game 163 last season, which I do not want to talk about). March is the month of baseball's rebirth.
March also happens to be the month baseball games are released, an added bonus that makes the month even sweeter in my eyes. I have been gaming for as long as I have been interested in baseball, so naturally the two would go hand in hand. I am proud to say that I have played quite possibly every baseball game ever created. From Hardball to High Heat to the Tiger Electronics monochrome baseball game, I have experienced them all, loving many, despising a few, and with many others falling into various levels in between.
Knowing this I am sure it will come as a surprise when I say that I was a bit underwhelmed by Sony's MLB 09: The Show last year. The game was most definitely a solid overall baseball title, but my biggest issue with the game was that after playing the '08 version to death, there was no aspect of the '09 game that really compelled me to invest a great deal of time into the title. I never felt that addictive pull as a baseball fanatic and hardcore sports gamer to keep playing.
But when I was told that I would be handling the review of MLB 10: The Show this year, I was definitely excited for the opportunity. With the promise of revamped real-time presentation, a new broadcast camera angle in the field, numerous RttS improvements (including the ability to call a game as a catcher) and upgrades to the series' awful throwing meter, MLB 10 seemed to have enough new content to differentiate itself from its 2009 iteration. So does MLB 10 deliver that elusive pull for this baseball junkie? Read on to find out.
Simply put, MLB 10: The Show is gorgeous. Never in all my years of gaming have I witnessed a sports title this beautiful. Player models look amazing, player faces are spot on (including lesser-known players like Clete Thomas), the way the stadiums are lit during both day and night games is stunning and the particle effects from balls and players making contact with the diamond’s dirt need to be seen to be believed.
The only weakness on the graphical side of things comes in the form of the smaller details at some of the stadiums, especially ones in the outfield. Looking at the rock fountain at Angel Stadium of Anaheim or the Tigers on the scoreboard at Comerica Park really had me scratching my head. After all, how could such a beautiful game overlook such key nuances to specific ballparks? I am sure the developers were forced to scale back due to processing power, but I still cannot help but be a bit disappointed every time I see a low-res stadium landmark.
The game features thousands of unique and context-specific animations that are eerily lifelike. Batting stances are ridiculously real looking and player swings are fluid through the zone, even on check swings (there are multiple types of check swings this year as well). Better than the batting animations are how fielders react when the ball is put into play. When a ball is hit into play, you will see your favorite players move and react just as they would in real life.
If the superb batting and fielding animations are not enough to wow the most jaded of gamers, then I recommend they spend some time in the game's marvelous Replay Vault. I am sure that after they spend some time in the Vault, even those gamers will have to give in to The Show's graphical magic, especially after taking a look at some of the jaw dropping character animations that are sometimes missed by the in-game camera angles.
One perfect example of this happened to me while playing a game at Fenway. I managed to hit a deep fly to right with Dustin Pedroia that just hooked foul. The game camera immediately cut back to Pedroia at the dish who was ready to face down another pitch. But upon further review in the game's instant-replay mode, after Pedroia hit the ball, he immediately began a Carlton Fisk-like fair ball arm swing, which was shortly followed by his first-base coach. As the ball was called foul, Pedroia, the first-base coach and even the bench players (who were all standing at the edge of the dugout) all lowered their shoulders and heads in disappointment. Moments like these were frequent during my time with the game, which made me want to play inning after inning just to see what type of glorious eye candy I might experience next.
Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell and Rex Hudler all return to the broadcast booth for MLB 10, and the trio is arguably the worst part of the game's presentation. Much of the commentary is repetitive, monotone and flat out boring. There seems to be little chemistry between the three announcers, and exciting in-game moments never seem to be called with the passion and intensity that they deserve. I would even go as far as to recommend turning off the in-game commentary when playing this game -- the fantastic ambient stadium noises created by vendors, hecklers and well wishers of their favorite team easily trump the commentators.
In-game replays, highlight packages and pop-up statistics/overlays are all well implemented in the game, and the real-time player interactions add a lot of personality to the game in between pitches. Whether it is players joking around with one another, reveling in a great play or visually expressing their disgust with a call, the game truly feels alive more so than any other sports game I have played. In one instance, Johnny Damon and Carlos Zambrano engaged in a heated dispute with one another after Damon grounded out to short. I am not quite sure what caused the spat between the two, but my inner baseball geek cannot help but smile knowing that I have a virtual feud going on between them in my game's franchise mode.
The final presentation aspect that deserves to be touched on, and praised, is the implementation of the game's Movie Maker. It is now easy to sort specific highlights that have been saved to the game's Replay Vault and seamlessly integrate them together to be saved on the PS3’s XMB. Once saved to the system, these highlights can be uploaded to YouTube or stored on a memory stick. The Movie Maker operation is far more streamlined than other similar features that require you to upload the media to a Web site for download later, and it also has enough depth to keep even the most experienced ESPN producer busy.
For as strong as the graphics, animations and presentation are in MLB 10, the gameplay itself suffers a few minor hiccups that prevent it from being on par with the aforementioned aspects of the game.
Minor gameplay bugs initially plagued the game out of the box, such as catchers frequently overthrowing first base on dropped third strikes, some odd physics when the ball would hit the wall, and the inability to field the ball on hits that would drop directly in front of the catcher. Thankfully, a patch was released shortly after release that fixed these issues and several other small presentation and save glitches. In addition to the bugs already patched, I have encountered some additional bugs, most noticeably an issue resulting from my batters being hit by a pitch with multiple runners on base. The result is that the game becomes stuck in an endless cut scene that forces a me to reboot the game entirely.
It is discouraging to see these types of issues (along with a couple franchise and RttS issues that I will get to in a bit) in a top-notch title like MLB 10, and I just cannot help but be disappointed that some of these issues were not ironed out before the game shipped.
Bugs aside, by far my biggest issue with the game is the pitching -- the gameplay mechanics that go into MLB 10’s pitching to be exact.
The problem with meter pitching in The Show is its inability to differentiate between poor pitchers and aces. All the meter requires is a careful eye and a quick finger, and then at that point the Chad Durbins of the world can usually be put right up there with the Tim Lincecums of the world. This coupled with the fact that meter pitching takes you out of the immersion of the game -- you are concentrating on the meter itself instead of the actual delivery to home plate -- makes this aspect of The Show feel incredibly antiquated.
However, the meter pitching is well done at a mechanical level, and it is also worth mentioning that a "Classic" pitching mechanic is included in the game (the longer you hold the pitch button, the harder the pitch is delivered). Either way, the point is that since the series has raised the bar so high in so many ways, I would expect the developers to be raising the bar for pitching as well.
Beyond the meter itself, there are a couple positives to be said about the overall pitching in MLB 10. I like the fact that the developers added in the ability to throw eight warm-up pitches when you bring a new pitcher into the game. Sure, there is the option to skip this ritual and start pitching to live batters, but there is something undeniably cool about coming into a game Henry Rowengartner-style and cranking off some 100 mph fastballs to intimidate the on-deck batter. The pickoff system has also been overhauled, allowing player-controlled pitchers to try a casual, quick or deceptive move -- all the moves are tied into the style of button press while holding the pickoff modifier (R2).
Fielding feels as solid as ever in MLB 10, though, the promise of a revamped throwing meter feels a bit shallow. The meter feels a bit more responsive than the one in MLB 08 and '09, but I do not feel that much of a differentiation between guys like Ichiro and Manny. The only other real complaint I had with fielding is that the developers actually made Carlos Guillen a serviceable left fielder (if you are from Detroit you know that is an impossibility).
Beyond the meter, it seems like the developers spent a good deal of time working on more realistic ball physics -- the result is that fielding ground balls is actually fun, and there is a very rewarding feeling associated with stabbing a ball at the hot corner and wheeling it over to first for a highlight-reel play.
Also, as a word of warning, be wary if you use the new broadcast camera when fielding. The camera is incredibly disorienting (at least at first) and may lead to more frustration than it is worth. I applaud the developers for adding this new angle into the game, but it does not hold up well when you have to make a split-second decision with your fielder.
At the plate, MLB 10 seems to have tweaked the hitting engine from MLB 09. My biggest complaint with last year's game was that the hitting felt a bit floaty and predetermined -- even when I was going with the pitch there were times when the ball would react unnaturally. I am very happy to report that hitting in this season's title feels very natural and the bat on ball physics are spot on. The left analog-stick influence also seems to be a bit more forgiving this season, allowing for a split second of additional time to adjust your batter's arms through the zone for the perfect contact swing.
The best part about hitting this year is that there is finally the ability to adjust hitting difficulty independently from pitching difficulty. This means that if you are struggling at the plate, but do not want to sacrifice challenge on the mound, you are free to adjust the game to your specific skill set. In fact, MLB 10 offers a ton of customization in terms of how the game will challenge you, and how easily the specific options are implemented is a dream come true. As someone who hates playing around with sliders, I welcome the ability to adjust specific difficulty levels or make a CPU pitcher throw more strikes when I am at bat with the simple tweak of a menu rather than the monotonous tuning of a horizontal bar.
If you have played RttS before, then you know what to expect in MLB 10’s RttS. Outside of the ability to create a catcher, customize his gear, and call an entire game from behind the plate, there really is not anything groundbreaking here. Catcher mode is a nice addition, but unless you played catcher at some point in your life -- in which case you have a screw loose to begin with -- you will quickly tire of this mode and yearn for the days of playing a more exciting position in the game.
Now, I did encounter a few freezes when simulating through the months. This issue could cause many gamers (myself included) extreme frustrations because they may not be able to fully enjoy a specific game mode until an eventual patch is released.
Beyond that quirk, it is also worth mentioning that there are some new training mini-games to play around with, and you will take batting practice before a game if you are starting (very fun). But, yes, the meat and potatoes of the mode remain the same -- including the long load times between games.
I am happy to say that the games I managed to play online were mostly lag free. I did notice a bit of instability for a few batters, but the overall online component of this game is much improved over last year's outing. Online leagues are once again included in MLB 10, and the fact that online play is mostly lag free means that this may finally be the year where full seasons are actually played with groups of friends and strangers alike.
I was able to delve into the franchise mode of the game at length and was pleased with what I saw in terms of statistics, free agency and trades. This being said, let me issue a disclaimer: I am not the type of guy that gets upset when I see a star player traded or an unrealistic free-agent signing. Luckily, this year's game allows you to control all 30 teams within franchise mode, so if you are unlike me (probably the same type of guy that likes to play as a catcher -- I'm sorry I don't mean that), then you are in luck.
One drawback is that the star player potential ratings are way too low for some reason (but this was fixed in a roster update this week). Beyond that issue, there are too many minor-league players that have an "A" rating for potential. There have also been reports of user-controlled teams having trades completed for them and some freezing in some stadiums. These issues are preventing some dedicated franchise gamers from starting their seasons right away, and it is believed that a patch for these issues will not come until at least April.
Beyond those hiccups, the menu interface in franchise mode is easy to navigate, statistically the game held up well, and the amount of depth involved with roster management will make aspiring Billy Beanes very happy. If I have any other complaint with the mode, it is that it feels sterile, especially after playing a nearly identical mode in MLB 08 and '09. Basically, I think the mode could use some presentation upgrades when not within games to remove this feeling.
At the end of the day, MLB 10: The Show is a baseball fan's dream come true. Not only does the game completely capture everything that makes America’s pastime so great, it also has polished up many of the issues that bogged down MLB 09 in my eyes.
Even with this being said, this was one of my most difficult games to score. On one hand the graphics and presentation are absolutely brilliant, but at the same time the actual on-field gameplay itself, while rock solid, has really failed to innovate over the last three years. As I said before, with the developers taking the looks of this game to the next level, it is disappointing that they have not looked into taking the gameplay mechanics to that level as well.
MLB 10 may be a victim of its own success, and it may seem wrong criticizing a development team for tweaking what works while playing it safe and not introducing new elements and innovations. Unfortunately, I just cannot shake the feeling that this conservative approach is holding the series back and somewhat stunted MLB 10 from reaching its true potential.
But MLB 10: The Show will still be in my PS3 well through the end of the Fall Classic, and it is sure to contend for 2010 game of the year honors here at OS. I truly am in love with this game as a baseball purist and a gamer. I only hope that MLB 11 introduces some new gameplay mechanics so that this franchise can ascend to the next level.
On the Field: The meter pitching really holds the game back from complete greatness. Fielding feels great thanks to improved ball physics and hitting has been fined tuned from '09.
Graphics: As close as it comes to heading down to the local ballpark to watch your favorite team play -- the game is worth $60 on graphics alone.
Sound Design: Awful commentary is saved by amazing crowd noises, the crack of the bat and heckling Yankee haters.
Entertainment Value: If you love baseball, you will not be disappointed. RttS, franchise, HR Derby, manager mode and the best looking animations/presentation I have seen in a sports title all add up to create a great experience.
Learning Curve: Adjustable difficulty settings for both hitting and pitching allow for less experienced gamers to ease into the experience. Even so, the game prides itself on the nuances of baseball, so be prepared to understand the the finer points of the game if you want to get the most out of MLB 10.
Online: A mostly lag-free Show experience plus online leagues, what more could you ask for?