Sports simulations have a tough goal. They have to approximate enough reality for the diehards without boring regular gamers with the tedium of the details, and they've got to make players feel both the trained skill and the incredible challenge level of being a pro. MLB
does a goes good job of putting any gamer into The Show in this way. The PSP edition of 989 Sports' baseball sim scores with fast gameplay and great visual impact, and also brings many of the complex play features true baseball fans need. It puts you on right there on the field. A tiny, tiny field that you just pulled out of your pocket.
MLB on PSP is a stripped version of the console edition that came out last March. Much of what we loved about the control in MLB 2006 -- arguably our editors' choice in the baseball crop, if it wasn't for its little problems -- is brought over exactly on the PSP version. Its tonal pitching meter and the pre-loaded fielding, plus all of 989's patented Total Control features, make their way over to the PSP version. It takes little adjustment to get used playing on PSP after playing the game on a console, and if you gave 989's game a chance on PS2, you should seriously check it out on PSP.
The upside for having this much power in a handheld is that it delivers the real-deal experience, and all of the play toggles and features that were found on PS2 are there for PSP players. The downside of getting this much out of a handheld baseball game is that it needs to go all the way, and here 989 stopped short of the PS2 game. The elaborate Career and Franchise modes have been boiled down to the modest Season mode that gets the basic job done. Navigating the menus is simple, and it's easy to get a lot done in a short time when you're running a pick-up-and-play Season. You can sim games, watch them, or play them, and if the pace gets a little slow you can always use that Fast Forward feature that's available in the Pause Menu which give you to option to jump to different part of the game. Stats are kept for all players throughout the Season, and there is the ability to make trades, pass off free agents, and adjust your line-ups.
It's no franchise mode, but for a handheld baseball title at launch, it still provides a lot to do. In MLB, you get tons of customization options for your Season Mode. It's one basic mode, but goes to great lengths to make sure you get the experience you want out of playing an entire season with your favorite team. Dozens of little tweaks are there to dial in exactly the kind of baseball experience you want. You can control how many games you play a season, how difficult that season will get, and set up your options for camera angles from a large variety of views. Set the details for errors, average throw and hit power, and other facets to tune the game for how you want it to play. You can simulate the games on your schedule if you don't feel like playing every match-up or your anxious to get up against a rival team when the standings don't matter. Since there's no money involved with the handling of Free Agents (similar to the way they were handled in 989's NBA) all you have to do is pick them without worry about salary. Player trades, on the other hand, are negotiated by using an interest meter through the Season, which will involve a degree of strategy to win the best picks. And even if you decide to have the game run through the opening parts of the calendar on sim mode instead of with your own playing so you can get to the meat of the season, you still have control over how injuries, trade deadline decisions and other issues are handled.
The showdown at the plate is one of the better implementations. Cursors and meters are used for pitching, and you have a wide range of where you want to put your pitch. It takes skill to put those pitches where you want too, since the game's pitching meter gets faster and slower depending on what pitch you use, how your pitcher is with a certain hurl, and how tired he is on the mound. Batting is fun because the PSP version of the games retains the Guessing Pitch feature that allows you to literally guess the kind of pitch that's coming your way. Guess right, and the little red cursor will pop on screen and auto target where the ball is coming. It's almost a sure hit as your swing will go exactly for the target, all you have to do it time it right. This alone makes a huge difference in the batting experience, making it easier to putting points if you know the rhythms of baseball.
The strongest element that MLB has going for it on the PSP is the graphics. The textures, player models, and animations look way better than I ever expected them to. MLB 2006 ran at 60 frames on PS2, and MLB on PSP looks like it's coming close to that. A great framerate really makes a difference on the handheld screen, and you can see it in MLB's silky-smooth animations. Hitters at the plate will pose in their own signature stance as they wait for the ball. Outfielders will leap and strain to catch pop-ups that are near to falling dangerously out of their reach. Even the sprite-based crowd, while still blocky and cardboard, gets into the game by standing up and applauding at key moments to help punctuate the landmarks in the game. It looks amazing, all on such a small scale. Staduims are filled with detail, and texture work is focused down to the last detail. You'll be amazed how clearly Fenway's "Boston Never Forgets" sign stands out when you take a ball for yard.
The only issue on the technical side of the graphics here is that there are some subtle frame rate issues when transitioning from the batter's perspective to the fielding view. You will notice the game chug a bit before it recovers while you are fielding. The game will also occasionally stall in scene transitions when the UMD fails to load on time, and you will see fade effects and other transitions get blocky because the timing is off. Also, judging the distance between a fielder and a ball in the outfield isn't exact. This is the one area where the small scale of all the action may hinder the user's ability to perform successfully. On several occasions, if the opponents got a hit off me, I'd chase it down with my fielder and run towards the ball to scoop it up, and then watch the ball slip pass him when I thought he was there for it.
It all looks incredibly cool, but 989 Sports didn't have the distance when it came to the presentation style of the game. The developers just cut stuff out. There's a lot to like in the game's TV style presentation and its play-friendly feature set, of course. There are plenty of views for batting and pitching, there are windows for base runners, and running commentary is there throughout, all of that is expected and in. You can replay a play over and over from any angle and at any speed, just like gamers expect. What's not there is the show-stopping detail of the camera presentation seen on console games. You don't get cutaways as players approach the bag. You don't get much of fanfare when you hit a homerun. You don't even see the catcher throw the ball back to the pitcher -- there's just a jump-cut where, on PS2, there was supposed to be a replay scene. It makes for a less cool-looking baseball game, but it also makes for a much faster playing game. All that stuff on the replays, many people skip them or turn them off over a season of play, so while initial impressions aren't as wowing, the standard presentation of the game works fast and gets you in and out of innings.
The stadium sound pumped out of this small device comes through crisp and exciting. The roar of the crowd and the crack of the bat against a sweetly hit ball really rings clear and true, more so than I would have ever expected. Commentators Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell are here as they were in MLB 2006, and they do a decent job. It's not as much commentary as on the console, but it's also focused on the job at hand. And there are certainly plenty of dialog lines for the colorman to get on you. Lose your timing and hack at wild pitches, and Campbell will shout, "What on Earth is he swinging at?" They also carry the momentum of the game, as you can hear them get down on the losing team when it's a slaughter, or if you go on a beanball spree, the commentators will be shocked by the escalating tension. Sometimes they'll give you tips. If you're pitching and you've thrown two successful strikes, one of the commentators will say, "Let's see if he's going to be able to get him to chase something now," hinting to maybe throw a change up outside to get to take advantage of the 0-2 count.
As in the graphics, there are some technical issues with the sound. There are times when the commentary is a little delayed, sputtering out well after the action has already taken place. After a line drive hit the commentator will begin speaking and the game is already back at home plate, displaying the set-up for the next pitch. It's hard to ignore kinks like this after a while and it can interrupt the flow of things.
One of the cooler things about MLB is its multiplayer suite that utilizes both Ad-Hoc (local head to head) and infrastructure (online) modes. You can experience all the stat-mad play and lush visuals with another competitor that has the game for their PSP, either with a friend or with a complete stranger. There's a trade-off in number of options versus quality of options here, as 989 included network play, but made finding online players or configuring a handicap a little too simple. It reminds me a lot of how 989 Sports set up it's NBA and Gretzky online mode up. You simply wait in a lobby (either online local) for a challenger and go play. No options to work with, but then again, it's a user friendly interface the even those who aren't so tech savvy can learn to use. Playing an actual game can get problematic though. If lag issues come up, they can drag down the flow of the game, so much so that timing a swing for hit becomes extra challenging because the clipping frame rate. If 989 could get their servers up to par (they were able to fix connection stability with Twisted Metal ), this one feature would make the MLB experience a golden one, as no other baseball game will bring that until next season.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved