MLB 09: The Show (PS3)
Springtime -- when a young man's fancy turns to steroid scandals. It's March and that can only mean one thing (other than the NCAA basketball tournament, of course): Yup, it's baseball season. For the last few years Sony's MLB series has owned the spring -- and the entire baseball season -- as far as gamers have been concerned. Last year, 2K Sports sent out its most innovative baseball title to date and came up a bit short in its head-to-head battle with Sony. I was excited to see what each publisher would field this year. And while 2K Sports seems to have taken a step backwards with its Major League Baseball 2K9, Sony has simply polished what was already a very shiny product. As a serious journalist, I understand the risks of spouting out hyperbole. That said, MLB 09: The Show is among the nine or 10 greatest things that have ever happened.
Some history: Up until the past few years, Sony-developed sports games were some of the worst things you could put into your console. There were days that I would have rather squirted mustard or sunscreen into the disk tray of my PlayStation or PlayStation 2 than toss another 989 Studios sports game into it. To its credit, Sony revamped its development strategy. It bagged most of its titles and decided to focus on baseball and basketball. Its hoops game is still a work in progress, but its baseball game -- called The Show for the past few years -- has been the way to take the mound and hit the long ball in the next-gen era. Be happy that you have a PlayStation 3, because that trend continues.
Sony was in the enviable position of not having to do a lot to keep its game on top. The development team didn't mess around much with last year's game, but what it did do was almost all positive. Out of the box, MLB 09 will challenge you more than 08 did. The gameplay is essentially the same -- it's just that the initial difficulty level has been kicked up a notch. Ironically, I credit 2K Sports for causing this ramped-up difficulty. Last year's 2K8 may have been one of the most challenging baseball games of all time. At times, it made playing MLB 08: The Show seem a bit easy by comparison. Sony's 2009 release will test you both offensively and defensively.
On the mound, your timing with the pitch meter needs to be a hair sharper than in previous years if you want your pitch to end up where you want it. The various breakpoints for pitches aren't as predictable as in last year's game, which makes it tougher to go all Greg Maddux on the opposition and paint the corners with unrealistic finesse.
The game also isn't as forgiving when it comes to timing on the plate. I prepped for this year's game by playing a mess of MLB 08: The Show. Even so, I still was made to look foolish in the batter's box for the first few games of MLB 09.
Game modes are deeper than the hole Roger Clemens has dug himself into. I've never been a big fan of management-based Franchise modes, but if you dig trying to keep a bunch of millionaire players healthy and happy -- while also attempting to keep a business operating in the black -- this ultra-complete Franchise mode should put a smile on your face.
Where I've always been a fan of Sony's baseball game -- even in the abysmal 989 years -- was its role-playing-style career mode. The Road to the Show mode lets you create a character and try to move him up the ladder and the depth charts, from being a single-A prospect to being a major leaguer. Think of it as a very well fleshed-out RPG for sports fans -- World of Warcraft for the RBI and ERA crowd. Instead of performing quests and being rewarded with experience points that you can use to upgrade your strength and endurance, here you perform certain in-game challenges and get to spend accumulated points on beefing up your power versus right-handers, your fielding skills, and a world of other baseball-specific attributes.
For the past few years, I've been critical of the baserunning portion of the RTTS mode. You reach a base safely and then you actually play the game as the baserunner. It's a cool concept, but it hasn't been nearly as thought-out or as deep as the other elements of the mode. In MLB 09, a practice mode lets you play the game from this base runner's perspective. It's essentially a standalone base-stealing mini-game. You pick a player and an opposing pitcher and then you have 20 attempts to steal bases. It gives you a feel for what it takes to straddle that fine line between taking an intelligent-yet-aggressive lead and being such a cocky imbecile that you get picked off. And if you're having trouble, you can always find a smarter and faster baserunner to control, or a less crafty pitcher to go up against.
I still have a problem with the fact that you have a limited view in this mode. In theory, if I were actually a runner on first base, I could turn my head to see if a fly ball to right field dropped in for a single or was caught by the right fielder. Sadly, you still can't shift your player's view enough to see this.
Things have gotten even more interesting online. If you have the time -- and it does take a somewhat serious time commitment -- you can use the game's new draft mode for online leagues and the new "Flex Schedule" that lets you take advantage of a leaguemate's availability and play games ahead of the current series you may be involved with.
Not only does MLB 09 deliver more than any other baseball game to date; it does it in an incredibly beautiful way. Presentation-wise, this one will blow you away. If you're looking for a game that shows off the potential of the console, this is the one to show to your Xbox 360-loving friends. Players, stadiums, animations, between-pitch stuff and replays all are gorgeous. Just about all of the audio is context-sensitive. If a guy got drilled with a pitch in the third inning, when he comes up to bat in sixth, play-by-play will mention it. Very cool.
There's not too much negative to say about MLB 09: The Show. It's an incredibly deep and well-executed release that will impress even the most jaded of gamers. Sony should package the game with the PS3 and come up with some creative pricing. This is one game that -- if marketed correctly -- has the potential to sell consoles.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer (even though Sony's PR folks said they would send him a copy).