Baseball as complicated as you'd like it to be.
MLB 11: The ShowPlayers: 1-4
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: Playstation 3
Release date: 2011-03-08
One of the greatest things that baseball games have to offer is their differing levels of complexity. It seems that baseball games (and indeed possibly sports games as a whole) are some of the most accessible as well as terrifyingly complex titles available. It's all a matter of how deep down the rabbit hole the player wishes to go, and it never once feels unusual in the context of playing the sport. I myself do not really have a lot of skill when it comes to the finer points of baseball games, but I absolutely adore the strategy that goes into playing: switching up the line up, knowing when to steal and when to stay, fiddling with the pitching rotation. All of these things are what I really enjoy about baseball. It's like chess, if chess involved a lot more physical skill and sweaty guys scratching their crotches.
When I play a baseball game, I will very rarely be interested in the actual game itself -- the actual hitting and pitching bits, I mean -- and instead I will invariably get caught up in checking the stats of my players and investigating whether or not anything can be done to halt my team's losing streak because I was spending too much time playing with concession stand prices and not enough time playing the actual game. MLB 11: The Show stands out not only because its manager mode is the perfect mode for someone like me who is and always will be awful at the timing required for actually hitting a baseball but because the variety of controls actually got me to stop scheduling bobble-head nights in favor of actually playing baseball.
Once you get past all the junk that makes me frown every time I pick up a PS3 game (the save/load times seem interminable and having to wait for the system to install and then update the game in its plodding way will never, ever be something that I suddenly begin to appreciate, and if I had one major complaint about the show, it is the fact that every time you change gears you have to give up nearly 30 seconds while the system saves), The Show opens up a vast playground of baseball delights. It's almost overwhelming at first: do I play a simple exhibition game or do I start a franchise or do I just play a season? Or maybe, maybe I will make my own character and begin the Road to the Show mode, which allows you to create a player using a character creation tool that would feel more at home in a Bioware game than in a sports simulator and take him through a career, beginning with a draft to an MLB farm team and continuing through your ascent to the big leagues, which is presumably "the Show" that the road your player is on leads to.
The Road to the Show mode is probably one of my favorite things, if only because I was able to finally achieve my dream of having a slightly overweight outfielder do a terrible job at hitting balls but a good job of catching them -- thus, successfully recreating my one year experience with playing the actual sport in second grade. It feels very RPG-like, complete with training exercises to raise the all important statistics, which in turn will improve your odds of moving up the ranks of your organization in order to make it to the big leagues. There's a lot of fun in just sitting in the outfield and knowing that whenever it cuts to you there's going to be a ball headed your way; the game fast forwards so that you are only in control of your player when something is actually happening to him.
This intimate way of playing the game stands in stark contrast to the franchise section, which allows you to play the games in "manager mode", which involves watching your team play baseball while giving broader strategic commands and swapping out pitchers. I enjoyed this mode a lot too, if only because I am generally terrible at hitting baseballs and not having to worry about it so that I could concentrate on telling my player whether or not he should bunt and whether or not my baserunners should attempt to steal was oddly refreshing. If, however, I ever got frustrated at my hapless team, I could always step in and attempt to influence the outcome with my own skills. Or if I just wanted to play the Team Owner, I could ignore the playing of any baseball entirely and fiddle around with concession stand prices, send out scouts to find new talent, and attempt to trade off players.
The Show features a couple new ways of controlling the game this year, including the new Pure Analog Control, which promises a greater level of control over the players in pitching, hitting, and even fielding. I found them to be true to their word -- there's a lot of control there, and it is all very, very precise. Too precise for my tastes, to be honest. The 2k series has had analog controls for a long time now but this is a new addition to The Show, and it definitely shows. It is really neat to be able to aim your hits and pitches with extra precision, but the hitting seems a little off at times and the pitching I honestly never quite got the hang of (partially because I never figured out precisely what the game was asking me to do in order to pull a pitch off properly). Fortunately for me, the classic controls are still there, and for those of you who are terrible with power meters on pitching (like me), you can do away with them entirely and go back to one-button pitching. You still aim the pitch, but you no longer have to use a power meter. This is fantastic, and really makes the game accessible even to those who are far more casual in their gaming habits. You can also use the Playstation Move to control the game, but I do not have a Move so I was not able to test this control system.
The bottom line in all of this is that anyone with a PS3 and even a passing interest in the sport of baseball owes it to themselves to own a copy of this game. Whenever I considered getting a PS3, the fact that I could own a copy of The Show factored heavily into the decision -- it may not be a system seller for most people, true, but it was definitely a system seller for me. The presentation is solid (although I could do without the licensed song soundtrack. In fact, let's just do away with soundtracks in sports games altogether, they have never once failed to make my ears bleed). The game looks good graphically, and the offer of multiple control styles -- not just reassigning buttons, but completely different mechanics -- is lovely and makes it very accessible. Very simply there's a lot to be said for spending an hour or so playing a nice game of baseball. No matter how in-depth you like your baseball games, The Show can deliver the experience that you're looking for.