IGN Review of MLB 06: The Show
Hands down, the best sports title for the launch of the PSP last year was MLB. Thanks to the resolution of the screen, the game looked great, and the transfer of play from the console title to the portable scaled down beautifully. While it lacked a couple of significant features to its PS2 counterpart, it was still a great port to the fledgling handheld. This year's presentation of MLB '06: The Show is just as solid, with an emphasis placed on fleshing out new game modes and fixing a couple of glitches that hampered play here and there.
No, one of these modes doesn't include a swing stick; in fact, it's somewhat refreshing to find that MLB '06 still utilizes the old school button press mechanic to determine when you swing the bat at a pitch. You are given the ability to influence ball placement by trying to push or pull your hits, and you can attempt to provide your player with a boost to their power by accurately guessing the Zone Control Batting system to determine where the ball will be placed (as well as what kind of pitch it is). MLB '06 raises the difficulty level from three to four, adding in the Hall of Fame Mode that splinters the strike zone into nine specific areas to more accurately represent the strike zone. This level makes it much harder to make the sweet spot of the bat connect with an incoming pitch, but it definitely makes it more realistic.
The easiest way to become accustomed to the redefined Zone Control Batting system is with the new King of the Diamond mode, which presents the system in a fun mini-game replete with cardboard standouts of fielders, wild card areas and oversized targets. Unlike the Home Run Derby which only counts balls sent over the fence, King of the Diamond allows players to actively hit for base knocks or acquire bases on walks. However, it also penalizes you for infield flies or ground outs. Each King of the Diamond inning is a two minute scorefest where you try to get as many runs as possible. Actively hitting certain wildcard items, such as the tarp in center field, can get you time bonuses to extend your game clock.
It may seem somewhat confusing at first, but it slowly introduces concepts with batting with each new level, such as the difference between a contact and a power swing. The only thing that I wish was a bit more clearly explained was the determination as to what's an acceptable hit, since it's really just pitcher against batter. There are no outfielders (unless you pretend that they're invisible), so you can only assume that easy pop flies will always be called out, while hard chops down the line or into the outfield have a better shot of getting a man on base.
Instead of the scaled back Season mode of last year, which only hosted a year's worth of play, MLB '06 now tracks your progress across multiple years. Even better than the revamped season mode is the addition of a Career mode, which allows players to create a player, choose a team and follow his path through the major and minor leagues. There's still no Franchise mode to be seen this time around, but it's definitely a case of baby steps; including the robust nature of Career Mode is a large bonus over the previous year's play. What also makes MLB '06 stand out is the newly polished presentation for the game. In particular, the plain, unimpressive text menus from previous years have been replaced with a slicker, bolder image system with animated backgrounds and rotating stats. It's a lot more like the graphics you'd notice during the pre-show prep of a ball game.
Players also look much more defined, particularly when it comes to facial detail. For the most part, you'll catch a glimpse of this when they're at the plate along with their scanned in photo. The PSP version of MLB '06 doesn't have as many cuts or celebratory scenes as its console counterpart (presumably due to the space limitations of the UMD), but it still manages to present a telecast feel throughout every game. For instance, the more than 8000 motion capture moves included for the game still offers up a number of personal touches, such as player specific walks to the plate and batting stances. Some stadiums look great, particularly on the PSP screen: U.S. Cellular Field, Angel Stadium, and Fenway Park are a couple of stand outs.
The main problem arises when you start comparing some of the more polished graphics to some of the sloppier ones, which is where the number of bugs, glitches and other problems start cropping up. For instance, athletes in the foreground of a play will look great, but those in the background will resort to lower resolution textures. Depending on the stadium (particularly with AA and AAA teams), background textures are generic, unimpressive or full of aliasing issues. (Yes, the crowd is still as bland and repetitive as it has been in years past.) Other parks have an odd rendering pass issue that afflicts their scoreboards, making a jagged, stuttering animation as the camera pans across them during pre-game shots and other game moments. This really stands out on the PSP screen, which flickers much more than the console version did.
There are also pixel washouts where some sections of ballparks will simply flash white dots instead of the texture of the stadiums. While they don't occur as often as last year, there are still some strange clips in animation on certain plays. For instance, the AI for the game will sometimes assume that it's got the ball and start to make the throw animation into the infield while the ball squirts past them to the back wall. Once it recognizes that it's run the incorrect animation, it slowly attempts to correct it. It happens every now and then, and it's strange enough to make you laugh at the oddity while you score an in the park homerun or land at least a triple. Similarly, every now and then the frame rate of the game hiccups a little. It's not enough to make you blow a play or incorrectly make the jump on a stolen base, but it can, for instance, sometimes affect the amount of power you're trying to place on a pitch.
Unfortunately, the sound winds up suffering in the translation, with a crowd that's mostly resigned to boos on bad plays and cheers for good ones (again, most likely due to the UMD space limitations). The song soundtrack, pulled from the console version, is practically the same, which is somewhat comforting. I only wish that I could say the same for the three man team of Dave Vasgersian, Rex Hudler and Dave Campbell, who are relatively tame and restrained in their calling a ball game. Even worse, they're often five to seven seconds behind a call, which usually makes a comment that one of the team makes out of step with the game action.
The AI for MLB '06 is much better this time around: It will actually throw a number of balls or even pitch out this time in an attempt to walk batters during certain game situations where it's better to put the pressure on the player, and it will vary its pitching style enough to keep you guessing. There are still a number of things that are questionable for the AI, such as its decision to tag one player trying to steal a base while leaving another player on the same basepath relatively unmolested, or pitching to bases that aren't for a force play any longer when the cut off man is a much better decision. I still question certain gameplay features, such as the ability for some defenders to be able to fire the ball from the back wall to the infield with speed and accuracy in midair or from their back foot, but I digress.
Apart from these hiccups, you will notice a lot of improvements to the gameplay, such as being able to hold up players in the middle of a basepath on a pop fly to determine if they need to tag up or go ahead on a defensive error. On defense, it's much easier to get double plays by preloading your throws to specific bases, allowing you to move the ball around the horn as well. What's more, the analog nub feels very responsive to in-game demands, and you can alternatively use it and the directional pad to issue commands to your defenders. The Total Control Base Running system that was presented last year has been re-examined, with leading off or recalling individual runners turning into a much simpler process: The L button indicates advancement and the R button indicates retreat. You can either issue a full advance for every player on base or specify who you want to get a lead or retreat by indicating the base along with the corresponding button, which is an excellent touch.
MLB '06's online features offers exhibition matches, King of the Diamond challenges and a feature known as News2Go. Essentially a service that updates multiple times an hour with the latest info on the league, players can pick any one of the news feeds delivered and save them to their Memory Stick to read at their convenience. Updated roster changes to each team can similarly be downloaded and added to the offline game at your leisure. You're also able to set up buddy lists and IM friends whenever you want to set up a game, or go into game rooms or chat areas in-between matches.
Unfortunately, MLB '06 for the PSP doesn't include the Rivalry mode that the PS2 version gets, which could've been an awesome addition to multiplayer over Ad Hoc or Infrastructure play. It would've been great to start a fully fledged series with a friend and be able to track how your teams were performing on the go. This is somewhat of an unexplainable omission, and relatively unforgivable since the Rivalry mode could've even been scaled back to be more manageable for the PSP version. I guess we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed for next season.
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