I came to realize why I've never actually bothered to chose between the north and south sides; baseball is boring.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Number of players: 1-2 s
ESRB rating: Everyone
Developer: 989 Sports
US release date: 2007-07
I never realized how boring this game is.
-- Homer Simpson
It's tough living near Chicago, a city that is divided by two baseball teams. Like your religion, your allegiance to either the Cubs or Sox is determined by your parents long before you're born, and swinging your faith from the northside to the south or vice versa is met with great scorn and can often lead to disownment. Worse yet is saying, "I'm a Chicago fan." Despite their great loathing for one another, both sides will come together to argue that you simply cannot be a fan of both. Saying you're a "Chicago fan" is a safe answer, one that paints you as someone who'll jump on either bandwagon late in the season, and neither side wants that; they only want to sit next to their diehard buddies who've been with them all season long, not some mamsy pamsy latcher-on who'll shun the team the second a loss knocks them out of playoff contention.
So when MLB for the PSP arrived in the mail a week or so back, I had to chose my side. Though I might not be the biggest baseball fan in the world, I had to play the game as one of the two Chicago teams. Now, I'm not one of these "Chicago" fans; in fact, I'm a fan of neither, actually. But, well, I have a softness for the Cubs, the lovable losers that they are. My support always goes to the underdog. Always. And now that the Red Sox have finally won a World Series, the Cubs are the last true underdogs of Major League Baseball, so I opted to play as them on Sony's new handheld gaming system.
Unlike the real Cubs, however, I swore the tiny virtual ones I held in my hands would win the World Series, blowing past all comers. And despite my initial zero and two record, I held firm that I could lead the team to break the curse that has plagued them for nearly a century. Once I finally grew (sort of) accustomed to the controls (I'll be damned if I ever bother to read the instruction manual), wins were a breeze. But then something odd happened. As my wins piled up (with the occasional loss), I came to realize why I'm "not the biggest baseball fan in the world" and why I've never actually bothered to chose between the north and south sides; baseball is boring.
It's as repetitive as it is slow, with the game consisting of little more than throw, swing, catch, throw, repeat. Truth be told, most video games are just as repetitive; however, the good ones hide this fact by altering gameplay. Just as one gets used to a section and/or the controls and feels comfortable in the monotony, the game will switch gears so as to provide a new experience through the use of several new devastating combos, a slew of fresh and harder to kill enemies, and/or puzzles that tease your brain. Simply put, baseball doesn't change from one inning to the next, and this becomes painfully evident after a handful of games. Now, if you're already aware of this going in and/or you're a hardcore baseball fan, MLB will serve to entertain you on some level. If you're like me, however, it will only frustrate you after a virtual week in this virtual season.
All that aside, gameplay-wise, MLB is a mixed bag. While the pitching and batting systems are spot on and provide the gamer with a good sense of the dynamic between the two players (through the use of a "guess the pitch" mode that will reward or penalize the batter depending on if he's correct in assuming which pitch will be thrown), the gamer-controlled fielders often seem to run around like headless chickens. Whether a ball is lofted into the air or struck like a bullet, the camera instantly pulls back to show the field, and, more often than not, you find yourself in control of a fielder who's not the closest one to the ball. By the time you realize this, it's too late to press L (which switches from one defensive player to the next) because the ball has already bounced to the ground. This, of course, results in extra bases and runs for the opposing team and adds an unnecessary level of difficulty.
On the subject of fielding, I think Major League Baseball needs to halt its investigation of steroid usage and test for Kryptonian DNA. Either all of the opposing players were rocketed from the dying planet, or they have Clark Kent held captive somewhere and they've found a way to leach his natural abilities. Hit a line drive down the third base line, and the third baseman will make a daring midair snatch while diving for the ball. Smash the ball between first and second, and the second baseman will dive for the bouncing ball, slide to a screeching halt, and whip the ball into the first baseman's glove long before you're even halfway to the bag. Lob one into right field and the right fielder will (once again) dive face first for the ball, grabbing it with ease. And let's not forget the center fielder that dove headfirst into the ivy-covered brick wall of Wrigley Field to snag a ball... and stood up unscathed. I swear, I have never seen this much diving outside of an Olympic swimming pool, and it's irksome because baseball games (especially ones like MLB which are meant to be realistic) should accurately portray the game. Diving for nearly every batted ball, however, is far from what we see on warm, lazy afternoons spent at the ballpark.
(There's another quirk that, while it doesn't alter gameplay, is odd nonetheless. From time to time the computer will swap pinch-hitters three, four, five times in a row. And I don't mean they'll do this with five straight batters; I mean they will do this during a single at bat, long before a pitch is ever thrown. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the time the opposing pitcher threw a wild ball, and the catcher, instead of plucking it up from the grass, simply trotted empty-handed towards second base. While I don't mind the fact that this allowed my man on first to steal both second and third, it was still very weird to watch as it transpired.)
And while I can ignore the atrocious amount of blind/over-the-shoulder catches -- save the impossible diving away from the ball, blind/over-the-shoulder catch -- I cannot forgive the minor quirks that litter MLB or the (sometimes) unresponsive controls.
As it is with all baseball video games, the square, triangle, and circle buttons correspond to third, second, and first base (respectively). With that in mind, one would assume that by pressing the square button, the fielder will throw the ball to third base. But that's inaccurate. He'll throw the ball to the third baseman... no matter where he is. So if you're attempting to drill the ball into third (in order to tag out a runner), you're out of luck if the shortstop is covering the base, because the ball will be thrown to the third baseman... who might be standing off near the pitcher or somewhere between third and home. Much like the wonkiness of the outfielders, the result is extra bases and much frustration.
Then there are times when a batter has clearly hit into a double play and all one has to do is scoop up the ball, flip it to second, and chuck it over to first, but the second baseman, instead of throwing it to first as you told him to (by pressing the circle button), will stand there, arm raised high, as if he means to throw it but has been forbidden to do so by some invisible, omnipotent force. By the time he weakly tosses the ball over, of course the man is safe and your shot at a double play has been ruined.
Before all of these problems came to my attention, I thought it was me that was causing this beautiful looking game to act as such. I blamed the dropped balls and missed outs on myself, knowing it was only a matter of time before I eventually learned the controls and had a fair grasp of it all. Afterwards, however, I realized it wasn't me at all. Suffering through just one of these bugs would have been forgivable -- mostly because this is the first outing of any baseball game on the PSP -- but, when added together, they bring gameplay to a hair-pulling halt. And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tempted to chuck the $250 handheld out the window on more than one occasion. Instead of blaming the unit or myself, I quickly realized I needed to fault the game, because it's a real mess from a control standpoint.
While MLB sounds much better than it controls, it still isn't quite up to snuff. The downside is that you'll hear the same phrases all too often. I wish I would have counted how many times the commentators said, "The powerful [insert batter's name here] steps up to the plate," "He's on a [insert the number of games here] hitting streak," and "Wow! What a wonderful play!" Play for a mere ten games or so and you've pretty much heard everything they have to say, which is a bummer because the commentators respond as if they're watching a live game and not reading from a script. They're really good and quite a pleasure to listen to, and doing so will actually net you pitching and batting hints. It's just a shame they didn't record more lines.
Whereas the audio is passable, the visuals are astounding. Because this is a handheld game, some animations had to understandably be removed and there are some framerate issues (batters will sometimes jump from one animation to the next between strikes). So we don't see batters walking to the box with all of their patented obsessive ticks, but it's a fair trade for the animations we are treated to. Once called out on strikes, batters will turn to the unseen umpire as if to ask, "You kiddin me...?" Then they'll shuffle away, dejected and a little miffed. When there's a close play at first, the runner will throw his arms out as if to convince the ump that he was indeed safe. And, when the invisible man in the black shirt calls him out, the runner will kick some sand before storming off. Best of all are the homerun clips. As soon as the ball is cracked hard and high, the camera will cut to a shot of the batter striding for first before he realize he's jacked that sucker out of the park and slows to a leisurely jog.
Again, due to this being a portable video game, the crowds are creepy in their bitmap flatness and lack the personality of their home-based virtual counterparts, but it's forgiven because the players and stadiums are truly remarkable. The apartment buildings on Sheffield and Waveland (the ones just beyond Wrigley Field) are complete with the illegal bleachers piled high atop the roofs, and Minute Made Park has the locomotive that chugs along the outfield wall after every homerun smashed by the Astros. These little details, at the very least, prove that developers 989 Sports care enough about the game and sport to fully immerse the fans in a realistic looking experience. It's just too bad the same can't be said about the controls.
Much like Cubs fans say every October, "Wait 'til next year."