Putting the all in baseball.
Beaten at our own game by Mexico, the heavily-favored U.S. team performed terribly at the World Baseball Classic. We all watched aghast as the favor of our
national pastime was won and lost by unfamiliar faces and Ichiro's gigantic ears.
EA is in a similar position after getting kicked down to the minors by a deal brokered between 2K Games and the MLB. The deal states that only 2K Games and first-party developers (such as Sony) can make officially-licensed MLB games, which is why EA's latest slugger featured the Berkeley Bears instead of the Chicago Cubs. We're sure they'll cry themselves to sleep on top of their huge piles of Madden money.
In the meantime, both the World Baseball Classic and the battle for the must-have baseball video game will proceed without the usual suspects. That is, except for Ichiro and SCEA San Diego's MLB '06: The Show. With this update, Sony has stepped up to the plate and out-EA'd EA by presenting virtually the same offering as last year plus some smart tweaks, without even changing the date. Insidious and brilliant.
Instead of trying to innovate, The Show refines last year's MLB 2006 into an even more comprehensive sim package, everywhere adding minor bells and whistles, but nowhere making major changes. The result is encyclopedic, impressive and boring at the same time.
The play modes are as complete as possible. You can play Exhibition games, manage a created player in Career mode, a team as the GM in Season mode, and an entire organization as the owner in Franchise mode. Most of this content is the same as it was in MLB 2006, so if you need a refresher, scan that review.
Season and Franchise modes now include a feature called "game time decisions." Before a game, one of your players or coaches will come to you with a recommendation and you can either heed or ignore it. Regardless, there will be some positive and negative repercussions, and it's up to you to make the tough call. This feature adds a layer of depth to the managerial side of The Show, albeit a slim one, since none of the issues are all that persistent or impacting. Still, it's a good idea.
Career mode returns with similar tweaks. You still manage the career of a rookie player thrust into the spotlight, but now if you make a big play, you get "Training Hours," which translate into attribute points that can be spent to enhance your player's abilities. As a sort of counter-point to the game time decisions, you now have an "interaction" menu where you can do things like talk smack about your team to the press, request more playing time, or ask to be traded. Conspicuously absent is the ability to say anything nice, but maybe some of those options will appear in next year's game.
Another interesting addition is the Rivalry menu. This tracks the stats of every profile and its accomplishments within the various modes. If both you and a friend have franchises, for example, you can see who is the better batter, or who sells the most hot dogs. It's a good feature for the hardcore sim nerds, and will give players stats to back up their boasts.
A new mini-game called King of the Diamond improves upon the format of the batting mini-game found in last year's MVP 2005 as well as this year's NCAA title by adding the concept of ghost-runners. If you hit a nice shot into the outfield, the game will give you credit for a double and put a ghost-runner on second. If you follow up with a homer, you'll score two runs. It's yet another refinement of an already existing idea.
The online play is pretty much the same as it was last year, but now with an MLB news feed and instant messaging. You can go head to head in exhibitions, play the new mini game or jump into tournaments with ease. You can also check your status on a leaderboard, or download new rosters. The online bases are loaded.
And they aren't the only ones. The insane amount of options associated with every element of MLB 2006 returns in The Show. You can turn on or off all the advanced gameplay features, fast forward through innings, or simply make calls from the dugout. In any mode, just about anything you don't feel like dealing with, from base-running to cola sales, can be left to the computer, making the game as complex or as simple as you wish.
Simple doesn't necessarily mean streamlined, though, and after a taste of EA's analog everything control scheme in MVP 06 NCAA Baseball, it's hard to return to MLB's clunkier system. Hitting, for example, is still a matter of pressing X at the right time. You can guess the pitch type, location, and try to grounder or fly ball, but these functions are executed in a series of button presses before the wind-up, entirely disassociated from the act of batting itself. You feel like you're manipulating the systems on a battle ship, not controlling a major league slugger.
In other words, the controls are identical to those found in last year's game. Pitching uses the release-point system pioneered in the MVP games. Steal attempts can be queued up before a pitch, and base runners can be directed individually or altogether while the ball is in play. Fielding is a matter of catching the ball by running to the ball marker and stretching (R1) if you need to, then throwing to a base by pressing a corresponding face button. Chances are, you've played this game before.
The A.I. is great at capitalizing mercilessly on your fielding errors, although your own guys don't seem nearly as driven unless you're the one controlling them. CPU pitchers seem to catch on if you only swing at certain pitch types, and are good at throwing nasty, unpredictable pitches that put your batting skills to the test. This is a pretty smart game.
The graphics, on the other hand, are anything but pretty. The textures are uniformly drab and unattractive, covering everything in a ubiquitous coat of visual mediocrity. However, the animations are great and the framerate is solid, so things at least look decent when something is happening.
There's been some buzz about the game's play-calling, and some of it is warranted. If a player has had several bad at-bats in a game, the announcers' tone and diction will reflect his crappy performance from start to finish. On the other hand, they frequently make the same obvious statements over and over, so it's hard to call the commentary, as provided by Rex Hudler, Dave Campbell, and Matt Vasgersian, inspiring. You'll probably turn it off, along with the terrible rock during the menus, and leave the sound effects on, which are fine.
While it may not innovate or take any big chances, MLB '06: The Show has all the important features, options and settings you could want, a veritable Swiss-army knife of a baseball game. Still, we recommend that you see what 2K Games has up their sleeves before fully committing to this familiar pitch.