Half pitcher, half belly itcher.
Baseball is a lonely sport. It’s a game of individual achievement and individual failure. While spectators can chat, eat hot dogs, and chuck the occasional cell phone, the solitary player of baseball stands alone in a giant field, exposed if he makes the slightest mistake. Or the same mistake, over and over, as in the case of Chuck Knoblauch.
Sony’s MLB 07: The Show gets exposed plenty by glitches, confusing controls, obscure rules and weak graphics. But it also knocks a solo shot out of the park: the “Road to the Show” mode that captures baseball’s individual character. A beefed up version of last year’s Career mode, the “Road to the Show” adds even more depth to the series’ already-solid lineup of play options. Errors abound, but Sony deftly manages the save.
“Road to the Show” mode is more addictive than it has any right to be. In it, you control one player-created character on both offense and defense, working your way up through the minors into the major leagues. You get rewarded with training points when you do well, and by distributing them RPG-style, your player is slowly shaped into a base-stealing phenom or a right-handed power hitter. It’s gold-farming for ERA.
The games in this mode move pretty quick since you only play when your player is at bat or has to make a defensive play. Accomplish the “goals” for the game--driving in a run, or pitching into a double-play for example—and your player progresses faster. Things go swimmingly, until you get on base.
See, Psycho Nutjob, my five-foot-five 200-pound Ron-Jeremy-lookalike shortstop got pretty good at hitting singles. But that meant he had to stand at the base, lonely and bored, while he watched the computer pitcher square off against each computer hitter after him. And then, after five minutes of watching the computer try to outthink itself, a crack! The ball is driven hard! But because the camera doesn’t always follow the ball, Nutjob can’t see that it’s been caught, and so is still chugging around towards third when he gets thrown out at first.
For all of the work SCEA put into making baserunning easier (the game includes both “Classic” and “Road to the Show” baserunning control schemes), the system ends up causing more frustrating errors than usual. For one, you have only partial control over the baserunner—the computer sometimes takes over, but then it relinquishes control without any warning. Eventually you get used to the vagaries of the baserunning control, but it’s complicated and unexplained
, making you look a lot more like this kid
than is really necessary.
But despite the inadequate and frustrating baserunning, the “Road to the Show” mode is absolutely addictive. You can’t win the game by yourself, and the patience and reliance upon your admittedly inhuman teammates provides a new kind of challenge—plus games go by faster, allowing you to get through a whole season in six, not sixty, hours.
The rest of the game modes, the usual franchise and manager modes, are acceptable reprises of their forebears. The gameplay in the standard (not “road to the show”) format is approximately the same as last year’s title. The full games have you pitching every pitch, hitting with every batter, and generally being in control of everything. In the franchise mode, you also control the price of bleacher seats and the advertising space over the scoreboard.
The new tweaks in the game go from bland to broken to pretty awesome. Pitchers get a new feature with a fancy name—“adaptive pitching intelligence.” What is this space-age George Jetson gadgetry? Suggested pitches. While standing on the mound, the game suggests a pitch to you—it’s not cumbersome or annoying, but it’s not really as interesting as its name.
Also more sparkle than substance is the online game. Sony has considerably beefed up its online offerings, building in “league play” that can simulate a season with up to thirty online players, and updating rosters through the season. But the actual games themselves are spotty and laggy—and that’s the death knoll for a game that relies so heavily upon timing.
Your time at the plate is mostly unchanged from last year. Hitters can guess which pitch will be thrown and in what quadrant of the strike zone it will be thrown, or both. Guessing correctly gives your hitter an edge on the pitcher. Two different swing buttons, one the regular swing and the other a “power swing” give you more choice at the plate as well. There has always been a lot of guesswork in pitching, and now there’s a lot of guesswork in batting as well.
You’ll be guessing about a lot more than just pitches, though, as the game itself has a long learning curve and doesn’t explain itself well. It’s never clear how the training points are disbursed, for example, and the lack of any tutorial mode leaves a lot in the dark. What is the “clutch batting” meter, for example? How do you throw out a baserunner from the mound? Mysteries in this game are more sacred than Jobu’s bat.
The game takes reticence to a new level in the “Road to the Show” display. Essential information like the pitch count, the number of outs, and even the score are unlisted during the long baserunning sequences. There’s a lot of unused screen. A little box with the score and the number of outs would good, and helpful, reading material while you’re stranded at first for ten minutes.
For the wide expanse of the screen, there’s very little to look at. The graphics are the PS2 graphics put through the wash, the surfaces and stadiums and characters are all bland and featureless swaths of color. The players themselves have no hit detection at all, and pass through each other like ghosts. The ball is tiny and difficult to see. And most laughable are ubiquitous pixelated American flags that “wave” in little loops of 80’s-era computer code.
There are also scarce, but cockroach-sized, bugs
. I was able to steal a base on a foul ball once, both getting thrown out and then, on the same trip, scoring a run. Another time I was walked to first, only to discover that the runner who had
been on first had been thrown out at second. Computer baserunners will frequently run as if you don’t exist. While standing on second, it isn’t surprising to see one of your teammates show up on second with you. Hey there buddy. Didn’t see me here, did you?
The bugs and the lame graphics show that MLB 07: The Show was a rush job. And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot of good stuff here. When Sony gets their online act together, we might reasonably expect to see “Road to the Show” style team games, in which nine players play nine positions. There’s a lot of bang in this potential major leaguer, but its lack of polish will keep it in the B-minors, at least for one more season.