In this new and unfortunate baseball era of questionable records and stats due to substances, players being deposed in court and in front of Congress as well as athletes being connected to more performance enhancing scandals, it's good to know that there's at least one constant that baseball fans can look to: Sony's MLB The Show series. Over the past few years, the franchise has consistently provided solid gameplay while improving the presentation of the sport with loads of additional features. The result is a game that's highly anticipated every spring, just as spring training is for baseball fans starved for the national pastime once the World Series ends. This year's game is no exception, as MLB 09: The Show focuses more on refining elements than radically remaking the title itself, tightening the title into another contender for sports game awards.
Now, last year, there was a heightened focus on the pitcher/batter duel thanks to elements like the Pitch Command System and the Progressive Batter Performance system. For the most part, this hasn't been adjusted or manipulated in any way, so players will still be able to determine a player's tendencies or weaknesses against different pitches to help them best strikeout their opponents. Similarly, batters can still attempt to use these systems to determine where a pitcher has a tendency to throw the ball, as well as whether or not they've got a hot bat or have been ice cold in the batter's box. Considering that these items were extremely well done last year, there was very little that could be done or even needed to be manipulated.
Watch the trailers here (HD available).
There have been two mild adjustments, however. The first is that it's much harder now to pull off a check swing. In last year's game, you could press and release the X button and get a check swing rather easily. This time around, you really have to tap (or in some cases, flick) the button to have a chance to pull out of a bad decision. As a result, you may find that you're committing more to an errant pitch than you'd like. Another adjustment has been made in the "Guess the Pitch" mechanic that can be performed, particularly when you're playing a game against another player. In previous years, if batters managed to accurately predict the direction or the pitch that was being tossed, the pitcher's accuracy and power meter would disappear. In the past, this would obviously cause a bit of anxiety on the part of the pitcher because they had no idea of whether they were throwing with a significant amount of power or were accurate in their toss, forcing them to try to anticipate and truly fake out their opponent to successfully pitch the way they wanted to.
This year, that's a bit more difficult because the "Guess the Pitch" mechanic seems to take the break of the ball into effect a lot more, meaning that a batter could inappropriately guess inside, for example, and still erase the pitcher's meter because a ball breaks slightly in that direction. Because this can occur even if you're seemingly dead on with your meter presses, this does increase the challenge for a pitcher because you have to make sure that you're extremely accurate with your pitch placement to ensure that you don't give your opponent a pitch they can send out of the park.
While there haven't been any adjustments to baserunning, there have been a large number of adjustments when it comes to fielding. The first tweak comes in the ability to quickly manipulate the defensive alignment of your infielders and outfielders based on the game situation or the batter that's in the box by accessing the quick menu. Players can determine the shift and depth of your players for anywhere between a pitch, one specific batter, one inning or for the entire game, which allows you to quickly tailor how your fielders will respond before a pitch has even been tossed from the mound. Having this kind of flexibility can aid you when it comes to reacting to a bunt attempt or a deep fly ball that your fielders have to snag at the warning track. A second adjustment comes with the routes that fielders take to the ball. Instead of playing against computerized fielders that instantaneously knew the path of a hit ball as they did in previous years, fielders this time around are governed by reaction time dictated by their stats to determine the kind of jump they'll get on a ball. That doesn't mean that you'll always be able to lock down a ball, because you could misplay a ball and watch it roll past you, or even accidentally deflect it during a catch. It does, however, mean that there will be more opportunities to leg out a ball into a double or potentially a triple instead of previous years.
The third manipulation comes in the inclusion of many more drops and bobbles based on the situation on the field. In previous years, players would notice, for example, that most hot shots screaming at a shortstop would instantly be sucked out of the air into the player's glove. This time around, misplayed balls or bad hops have been increased to make players seem much more human and realistic. While Golden Glovers will wind up making a mistake much less than other players, it's now possible to advance to a base thanks to a bobbled snag from a grounder, a force play that turns into an error thanks to an overthrown pitch, or a bad hop on a low pitch out of the strike zone that rolls away from the catcher. Although this can lead to a seemingly error prone game because more balls will slip away from certain players, it also increases your appreciation of a double play or a bang-bang play in your favor.
However, with all of the adjustments to the fielding comes a certain number of problems, which hampers play. For one thing, while an infielder might receive a certain amount of backup to cover a base if a fellow player charges to make a play, the outfield won't always showcase the same kind of assistance. As a result, a play where a ball is sent to deep left center or right center field can result in players you're not controlling standing and staring blankly instead of trying to come over and provide aid in case you bobble or miss the ball. Collision detection, once again, is radically non-existent, so with the exception of a collision animation every now and then at home plate, you'll find plenty of players running and sliding directly through opposing players, which is inexcusable multiple years in a row. Even worse is the fact that you'll watch as some force plays occur a few feet away from the base, meaning that the slide and the tag of the base aren't actually near the bag, and could be argued by any skipper (were the feature included in the game). Then again, every now and then, a play that would result in a single would cause a baserunner to slide along the ground towards first base as they went to return to the base after taking a few steps past the bag.
Another issue to bring up that I noticed, particularly during local multiplayer games, is the amount of double clutching that seems to exist by fielders before thrown balls. Having played a number of games with Avi, our sports editor, we both remarked on the number of times that a third baseman would pick up a grounder, clutch the ball and start to make a move to throw before actually throwing the ball a second later. That doesn't seem to make any sense, particularly because it would interrupt a number of double plays thanks to the extra gathering of the throw. The same could be said during pick off attempts, which would appear to result in an easy balk, but would instead allow a baserunner with a leadoff to easily return to base. Finally, some of the tags that you'd expect, particularly as a baserunner is moving past a baseman with the ball, don't happen as naturally as you'd anticipate. During a game with no outs and two men on, I grounded to the third baseman, who moved up to grab the ball as the man on second ran to third. Instead of reaching up, tagging the runner (who was clearly right next to him) and flipping to second to try to get the double play, or possibly go for the triple play, the third baseman threw to second base and then over to first. Considering that I drove the man on third in with a shot to shallow center, this just seemed off.
Outside of the basic gameplay mechanics, there are a few significant changes that have occurred to some of the gameplay modes. The first change is the addition of Legend mode, which provides a significant challenge to those players that are too used to the other modes. Your opponents will come much closer to acting like their real-life counterparts, so watching as Big Papi or Vladimir Guerrerro steps into the box is a serious moment for concern for pitchers; one poorly thrown ball and that ball is going out of the park. Similarly, pitchers like Papelbon will blow some serious heat through the strike zone, and because you've got a smaller sweet spot on the bat, you'll have to make sure that you're getting solid wood on the bat if you hope to get on base. Otherwise, expect to ride a lot of pine and shatter a lot of bats as you chase masterfully thrown balls.
Road to the Show returns this year, allowing players to create a prospect and try to take him to the major leagues. For the most part, it plays exactly the same as last year's mode, although it has a few additional items, like new presentational elements that focus on your player on the field at the beginning and end of a game. This time around, however, there are three large adjustments. The first is in the inclusion of interactive batting and baserunning practice, assigned to you by your manager to improve your stats and get more accustomed to the demands of the game. The better you do within these drills, the stronger your player becomes for those game situations. The second addition is a new way of controlling your player as a baserunner; you use the analog stick to determine whether you're trying to advance or retreat along the basepath. For the most part, this system, which is mainly dictated by the left analog stick, works much better than the button press mechanic from previous years. However, there are moments when the camera changes position to show where a ball has been placed that can accidentally mix up and misinterpret the advance or retreat command. Finally, fielding is a bit easier to do thanks to a red fielding icon that pops up around a hit ball, which makes it easier to detect where it is going. However, there are a few moments, especially if you're an outfielder, where the camera will pick an angle that can make it a bit harder to track the ball, especially if you want to try to rob a player of a homerun by climbing the wall. The only issue that I found within Road to the Show was that every now and then, stats that I had recorded wouldn't accurately be tracked within the game. Either my batter wouldn't be credited for a single or better hit or he wouldn't be credited for getting on base. It was a strange situation, but one that could be fixed by quitting and reloading the mode.
Franchise mode has also received a few changes. The first is the inclusion of the impact of coaching staffs on your club, because depending on whom you've hired to be a pitching, first or third base coach, as well as the skipper of your team, your players will receive a boost or penalty to some of their stats. This ensures that you'll pay extra attention to the members of your organization and what they bring to your players. But you'll also pay more attention to your rosters thanks to the inclusion of salary arbitration, locking down a 40-man roster, waiver wire and other managerial tasks. While you'd have to traditionally advance in the offseason and focus on some signings, you're dealing with some of the more complicated ins and outs of baseball this time around. However, you don't need to worry about whether you know the landmarks for service time, or what Super 2 eligibility rules are; the season and franchise modes provide a contract transaction handbook which spells out the details of signing periods and contracts. That's an excellent addition to the game and not only adds to the depth of play but increases the education of the fans playing the game, giving them a better sense of how their favorite clubs have to handle certain contract situations. The only item that I'd bring up is that the trade logic could be a bit stronger, because it can be a bit easy to take and flip free agents and star players to other teams, allowing you to build a superstar team without a serious amount of difficulty.
Online this year gains a draft system, flex scheduling for players and a roster vault so you can upload your favorite or ideal teams to the net and let players rate your decisions. On top of that, players can choose to perform a friendly quit or concede a game if the game is quickly getting out of reach (as long as your opponent agrees to it). However, the one thing that did stand out during online gameplay sessions was that the lag, even with connections that were supposedly rated as good or great, made the game almost unplayable. Most of the time, Avi and I had to guess when a ball was being thrown and swing blindly because the lag that was demonstrated made accurate decisions on played balls practically impossible.
The presentation of The Show, which has always been impressive, returns just as strong as before. Whether it's the inclusion of the "Then and Now" reels at the start of the game as you're loading The Show or the television styled presentations of players and parks, the title looks visually incredible. This year, the number of animations for fielders has clearly been improved, as can be discerned by plays like sliding stops or rolling catches that appear to be plucked straight from a television broadcast. A large amount of time has been spent in highlighting the stadium details as well as the lighting, which look gorgeous. In fact, watching time pass as each inning is played displays realistic shadows and lighting as each batter takes their cuts, meaning that you'll naturally watch as late afternoon games turn to dusk and eventually night. Player models look fantastic, and this time around, if your favorite player makes an incredible play in game, you can save the moment to the hard drive through the replay vault, which is extremely intuitive and easy to do. On top of some of the incredible animations or cutscenes that you'll find during play, you'll also be amused by the mascots that have been recreated and included in the game to rally fans and get the crowd cheering.
That's not to say that there aren't some visual issues. In fact, the ones that you might pick up on, apart from some of the collision detection issues, are some of the random instances that pop up such as watching as a bat sticks out of a player's forearm as they walk back to the dugout, cameras that will sometimes zoom through player models (particularly near the outfield wall), and the fuzzy grain filter that pops up on the crowd to establish depth of field. Similarly, you'll still find that players will celebrate by giving each other high fives, only to obviously miss each other's hands. It's only because the game looks so great that elements like some bland backgrounds and the repetition of the same character model for crowd members frequently sitting next to each other wearing the same thing stands out like a sore thumb. Outside of this, it looks incredible.
The audio of the game is still anchored by Vasgersian, Hudler and Campbell, who still do an excellent job. In fact, thanks to the number of bobbles or drops, you get more of a sense of the surprise and natural flow of the gameplay thanks to the surprise and excitement that rises in each man's voice as they provide commentary. While you still get cheers, chants and boos, you now have the ability to enhance this thanks to the custom music, chants and taunts that you can add. It's pretty cool to have the option, for instance, to have a taunt about A-Rod's roids come echoing out of your speakers or set up your own tracks for batter walk ups and homerun celebrations. Now all you need is Wild Thing for the Cleveland Indians, and you can relive your own Major League moment.
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