October in March.
When I was young, many, many moons ago, I adored sports games. Being a kid, my understanding of their real-world counterparts only extended to basic rules and mechanics, and so, the games seemed like good representations of the real thing. Within a few short years, my grasp on the finer points rapidly accelerated, but Patrick Ewing was still sinking three-pointers and Thurman Thomas could break 10 tackles in one play simply by me mashing the B button on my Genesis controller. I was growing up, but sports games weren't. A nerd in everything I did from D&D to the NBA, the gap eventually became too large, and I more or less stopped playing sports-related video games entirely.
It's funny to me, that in a day and age when so many genres are being “streamlined” to appeal to wider audiences, a game as comprehensive as MLB 13: The Show exists, and despite not being the biggest baseball fan, I'm really glad it doesn't compromise. I can barely find an RPG with more than two equipment slots anymore or a shooter without regenerating health, but here's a game that unashamedly drowns the player in options and nuances, and yet somehow manages to remain imminently playable. I certainly can't imagine the baseball fanatic who would find The Show lacking, but even general simulation nuts with only a casual interest in the sport will find plenty to geek out over here.
From the moment you boot up The Show, it's clear that despite its shrewd, simulation innards, it's driven by a passion for the game. While the opening video expresses this with a beautifully edited montage of the game's greats at work, every aspect of the game itself exhibits an attention to detail that can only be explained by unabashed love. Whether you share that enthusiasm or not, you'll be helpless to do much but stare in disbelief as you scroll through a dizzying array of menus and settings. I've never seen such an overwhelming selection of ways to customize a game experience, and while the menus get a little out of hand, the game does an admirable job of breaking down how each option affects the game.
The most important tweakable elements are how you want to approach batting, pitching, fielding, and baserunning—the cores of the sport. All four mechanics feature several distinct implementations, each offering drastically different feels. For example, batting can be as simple as timing a single press of the X button as the ball reaches the plate, as organic as using precision analog controls, or as calculated and strategic as choosing plate coverage and guessing pitch types based on your opponent's last few tosses. Even within those types, there are more ways to tweak exactly how the interface and mechanics work. I could write a thousand words explaining all the different control schemes and methods, but all that matters is that they're all effective in one way or another, and there's bound to be one for you regardless of how new or practiced you are at baseball video games.
Finding the right combination is key, as the batter/pitcher duel is the meat and potatoes of any baseball game. Once you're settled in, though, you're in for a treat. The Show takes the tactics and mind games that happen from the mound to the plate and translates them into concrete game mechanics that make every at bat tense and enjoyable.
The interface is a bit busy, but it offers a wealth of useful info like at-a-glance pitch info from the batter's last time up, hot and cold hitting zones, and whether you were behind or ahead of the last pitch. Series vets will be used to all this, but something that's changed is the “guess pitch” mechanic, which gives you a chance to predict the location or pitch type (or both) of the next throw to earn a bonus on your swing. This year, if you guess on both, you need to be right on both to avoid receiving a penalty, where before being right about one or the other gave you a little boost. Many players leaned on the mechanic heavily for that reason, but this year's game clearly wants to make it more of a risk/reward. It isn't inherently bad, but I'm sure some folks will feel a bit lost trying to adjust.
Out of everything, though, fielding was my favorite part of every game. Reacting to an oddly angled dribbler, and timing your throw to second with perfect speed and accuracy, then doing the same throwing to first feels just right, and finding that perfect rhythm to finish a tough inning with a double-play is its own reward. Defense in other sports games can often feel like a crapshoot with the outcome determined by luck as much as skill, but here, everything from a simple ground out, to snatching a would-be homer from the fingertips of a fan, makes you feel like a damn hero.
Thankfully, the side dishes are as full-bodied as the entree. The Show offers a bevy of modes to tool around in, giving you a multitude of ways to enjoy its well-tuned mechanics. The newest mode The Show Live takes games and results from the real-life league and lets you participate in them, something that should be a blast once the season starts up.
Road to the Show returns again, letting you create a player to guide from the farm leagues to the Fall Classic, developing his skills along the way. Mileage varies in this mode depending upon which position you decide to play, since the game skips right to the plays you're involved in. So if you decide to bring a pitcher up, your games will be almost as long as a normal one, but take left field and you might only have to make a handful of plays to complete a game. You can always simulate the remainder of a game if it becomes too long, but then you're basically leaving some of your career to chance. Still, this isn't a design flaw, just something you need to keep in mind when embarking on your quest for glory.
Indeed, outlining every season, franchise, and online mode would take twice as many words as I've already written. What's most important, though, is that regardless of your level of experience with a real-life diamond, MLB 13: The Show looks good enough, plays well enough, and offers enough customization to please any sports or simulation fan. In fact, if I were a kid today, playing this might have given me the baseball bug that somehow eluded me in my younger years. It's the rare sports sim that manages to succeed on its own as a video game, something that even a non-fan can enjoy getting lost in.