There was a time when I was a baseball fanatic. I've had season tickets to both the Padres and the A's. But over the past few years, my interest in baseball has almost completely died out. To Sony San Diego's credit, MLB 11: The Show has recaptured the magic of America's favorite pastime for me.
What's got me geeked? Fielding, believe it or not. For the first time ever, the fielding ratings of each player matters. In the past, speed, arm strength, and accuracy all factored into your success, but reaction time was equal for all. And there was no momentum to a player, so taking a wrong step to the left on a ball trailing right had little impact. All of that's changed.
When a ball's hit to the outfield, there's a delay on a fielder's reaction based on their ratings. Almost instantly, Ichiro goes back on a ball. Nick Swisher, on the other hand, needs a second to figure out where the ball is headed. You literally can't control a poorer defender like Swish for a second -- there's a forced delay to simulate his lesser ability at judging the ball off the bat. You want to load up your team with big fly hitters? Go for it. But if they're all terrible fielders, you'll have to score a ton of runs to compensate.
Analog throws areanother new wrinkle to fielding. The longer you hold the right thumbstick in the direction of the base, the harder the throw and the greater the chance you'll throw it offline. Again, ratings play a huge role here. You can overthrow with someone like Vlad Guerrero and not see disaster -- they may just throw it off the bag a bit. Do so with someone with hammer hands like Luis Castillo and, well, chances are good that ball is going into the stands.
MLB 11 on the whole places an emphasis on analog control, not just fielding. There's analog hitting too -- pull back as the pitcher releases to start your timing, push forward to put the good part of the wood on the ball as it crosses the plate. Simple in theory, but getting the timing down while trying to identify the type of pitch and if it's out of the strike zone is not so easy. I found myself starting to take more pitches than I ever have before. And with the new "contact" option (sacrifice power just to get a piece of the ball), I'm able to foul off pitches until I see one to my liking. It feels like a real batter/pitcher duel. Tough, but hitting isn't supposed to be easy.
Pitching is even trickier to master. Pull back on the analog stick to start your windup and when the ball icon is about to hit the line on the pitching meter, push up. As you push up, you can nudge left or right, which represents where you aim towards home plate. It's fun, but often too challenging. The worse the pitcher, the harder to target pitches and the greater the cost when you fail.
Once you up the difficulty from the Veteran default level, forget about using anyone who isn't friggin' awesome on the mound. Analog pitching is a good idea, but it needs refinement to lower some of the frustration.
These big gameplay improvements are accompanied by visual enhancements. You know, C.C. Sabathia is a big man. In MLB 11: The Show, CC's girth is on full display. He must have just come from the Hometown Buffet. But he looks like CC on the mound and that's what matters. The signature players look, act, and play like their counterparts. With a sweet set of new infield and outfield animations, baseball heroes and goats are on full display this season in the field. There are marvelous turns of double plays and cringe-worthy throws that make it into the crowds.
At times, MLB 11 looks a lot like the real thing, but it sacrifices some stadium details -- especially the backdrops -- and more dramatic shadows to maintain performance. It's certainly more important for a baseball game to run smoothly, but the awe of some of baseball's magnificent theaters is lost.
At least some of that can be replaced with the sounds of the game. Get the sound right, and you can still feel like you're there. The crowds certainly get into it -- booing regularly and cheering at the proper moments. Sometimes, when it's quiet, you can hear a single heckler from behind home plate try to rattle a batter. The stadium ambience is solid. The broadcast crew, not so much.
Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell are back, but the hyperbolic Rex Hudler has been replaced by the somber Eric Karros. This is an example of three separate audio tracks poorly cut together. Not only do these guys just not mesh, the audio mix is also poor, with inconsistent sound levels for Dave Campbell in particular. A new cast is sorely needed -- preferably three people with some chemistry.
There's a lot more to a baseball video game than the play on the field or some easily mutable announcers. The two main modes, Road to the Show and Franchise are both back and both have seen minor improvements from last season.
Road to the Show is where you create a Double-A ballplayer, level him up by earning experience from good play in the field, and eventually make your way to the Big Leagues. This year's version starts you off with a set of sliders when you first begin your career that help determine what type of player you'll become. Want a speedster who makes great contact? You can make it so.
While this slightly skews your starting stats, you'll still be stuck with a ballplayer who begins with average speed and only Double-A quality at-bats. I get that Road to the Show is about building up your player, but fast is fast. You don't start like a turtle and learn to be a hare. You're either fast or you're not. It's a bit of a disconnect between what makes sense for baseball and how much "game" Sony San Diego wants to wrap around things.
Player progression in Road to the Show is better this time around, with more sensible awards for your performance. The quality of an at-bat matters almost as much as getting a hit. Battle a pitcher for a dozen pitches, then fly out and you get a reward; after all, you took a serious chunk of your opponent's stamina away in a single at-bat. But all that said, this is still the same ol' mode as the past few years. To call it stale would be an insult to week-old bread. Time to reboot this thing already.
Franchise Mode also needs a refresh, though it's still a worthwhile offering. The one major improvement is to trade AI. This is now one of the best trade AI's in sports games. You want Derek Jeter? It's going to cost you prospects. Just like in real baseball, few trades happen without one team having to offer up some top Minor League talent. The only sticking point? No three-team trades.
There are a few other cool bonuses to MLB 11 that don't need much detailing. Online co-op is a fun distraction, but more a novelty than anything else. Same with the addition of Home Run Derby using PlayStation Move. And online leagues? It's hard to say how well these will function, since they need a few weeks in action to really evaluate. It's a nice option if online matters greatly to you.