Developing sports video games year after year is challenging work. Almost immediately after finishing one year’s version of the game, you begin work on the next. The quick turn around time is brutal and can be detrimental to making each year’s version seem significant — offering something new that’s worth throwing down another $60 for. Likewise, reviewing sports video games can be a tough process to get through if a game barely makes any improvements from one year to the next. It can feel like déjà vu, like you’re repeating the same thing you said last year.
Thankfully, MLB 11 The Show doesn’t fall into that trap. Sony San Diego has made sure this year’s version of The Show not only delivers the new pinnacle in authentic interactive baseball experiences, but that it also offers up a number of new modes, options and tweaks to make this year’s title the most fully-featured yet.
Front and center, the biggest gameplay feature introduced in this year’s The Show — the one with the massive advertisement plastered on the back of the case — is the Pure Analog Control system. This applies to hitting, fielding and pitching. Basically, if you choose to use Analog controls you’ll be using the Right Stick to do just about everything in the game. For hitting, you’ll be pulling back on the stick and pushing forward to simulate the hitter stepping into the pitch. For fielding, you’ll be using the Right Stick to throw to each base, applying just the right amount of pressure to ensure the ball is thrown accurately (too much will produce a wild throw). The system works great and ensures errors are generated by the user, not randomly by the CPU.
But if I’m being honest, neither fielding nor hitting with an Analog Stick is anything revolutionary to baseball video games. I’ve played previous versions of MLB 2K where I was able to use the stick to step into pitches as a batter. Even the pressure sensitive throwing has been around since at least EA’s MVP Baseball 2004 — it just used buttons instead of an Analog Stick.
With that said, the real area Pure Analog Control shines is in pitching. It’s honestly a game-changer. Pure Analog Control pitching feels like, for the first time, an accurate simulation of all the components of the position. Accuracy isn’t everything, you also have to make sure you have a fluid wind-up and follow through with your pitches. This system also adjusts itself when batters reach base. As you probably know from watching real baseball, when a batter is on base, a pitcher’s wind-up and follow through shorten to accommodate for the possibility of a steal. The Pure Analog Controls for pitching mirror this adjustment, giving the pitcher a shortened wind-up bar and less time for their reflexes to correctly follow through with a pitch.
Pitching with Pure Analog is a system that’s easy to understand — lacking ridiculously complex stick gestures to pull off different pitch types — but tough to master if you want to become an ace at painting those corners. But most importantly, Pure Analog takes the pedestrian pitching controls of the past and finally makes them obsolete with a replacement system that isn’t too complicated for its own good.
The addictiveness of Pure Analog pitching even convinced me to change my position in the game’s Road to the Show mode from center fielder to pitcher for the first time; although somehow this is three years in a row where the “random” draft puts me on the damn Pirates organization. The upgrades to this year’s RTTS are mostly back door and statistics related. The team at Sony San Diego made sure the stats of your player stayed relative to the rest of the league. For instance, player creation now has a stat slider so you can determine the importance of key skills instead of just picking certain stats to max out. This keeps your created character a little more balanced and all-around useful to your team.
But RTTS still suffers from what has held the mode back in previous years; it still doesn’t feel like you’re part of a team. You simply come in to do your share, then the game simulates the rest. Only when you play pitcher or catcher are you directly involved in every play and have a hand in a win or lose for your team. Otherwise, the big picture is pretty much lost to every other position.
Another new feature to MLB 11 The Show is the “Challenge of the Week.” This feature connects you to the PlayStation Network to try your hand at a quick 2-3 minute challenge for your chance to earn a top spot on the leaderboard and maybe walk away with a real world prize. The plan is for the challenge to change every week, giving players incentive to keep coming back to MLB 11 The Show. Unfortunately, I was unable to test out the Challenge of the Week mode for this review because the server is not yet up and running. It sucks because I was really hoping to be one of the only people playing the game, which would have given me a slight edge at coming away with a Joe Mauer signed baseball, or some sick Sony electronics.
The only bummer about the Challenge of the Week mode is that you’re only allowed one try at each week’s challenge for free. Every subsequent try will cost you a small price that is still undetermined by Sony. Sony is quick to compare the Challenge of the Week to a classic arcade machine in order to put a positive spin on it, but I’m going to be more blunt and call it what it really is. Admiral Ackbar, if you will…
One of the most noticeable improvements to this year’s The Show is the broadcast presentation of the game. This might come as a shock to many because previous versions of The Show have been presentational marvels. But this year’s game once again raises the bar — just wait till you see how they creatively insert 3D-incorporation into the broadcast. Firstly, MLB 11 The Show features stadium specific broadcast cameras that mirror the perspectives you would see if you turned on the television to watch your hometown team. This new camera feature applies to all 30 teams, for both pitching and batting. But if that doesn’t suffice, there is also a camera editor built into MLB 11 The Show, allowing you to customize the broadcast how you see fit. Personally, I’m a nostalgic man when it comes to camera placement, so I preferred the default camera angles. But if you want to emulate what you would watch on your TV, or come up with some new angle that completely changes the way you experience baseball, you have the tools to do so with this game.
While presentation has seen a major facelift for MLB 11 The Show, the graphics seem to be more of the same this year. But don’t get me wrong, the overall graphics of this game are great. Just don’t go looking for a vast improvement over last year’s model. However, there is one thing that needs addressing for next year: Tim Lincecum’s hair. That majestic lion’s mane is not done justice in MLB 11 The Show.
This year’s game is also more accommodating to playing along with friends on the same console. MLB 11 The Show features new co-op settings that let you designate certain fielding positions and batters in the lineup to specific users. This is a great way to ensure that everyone playing is involved equally in the action. You can even take your co-op settings online for both ranked and unranked games. These customizable co-op settings will come in handy for parents who want to play this game with their kid. Usually with co-op play in sports games it’s player 1 that is really the only one that matters. But that isn’t the case here. Parents will be able to take the reins of setting up matches as player 1 without making their kid feel insignificant as player 2 once the game actually starts.
The final new feature of The Show is the Home Run Derby with PlayStation Move support. It’s a very simply mode with very simple Move integration. You can choose to play the HR Derby mode with the standard Dual Shock controller, but if you choose to go Move-style, then you’ll only see the player’s bat on-screen, mimicking the exact movements gestured with the Move motion controller. But even with how simple the game mode is, it’s quite fun and engrossing to be standing in the living room of your house and getting into the stride and follow through of hitting. It’s also very tiring, especially when you get into the later rounds of the derby. It’s a workout in and of itself. I don’t think the Home Run Derby mode is going to be something that pulls single player gamers away from Road to the Show, franchise mode or the online leagues, but it is nice for a party scene to show off your Move investment. It’s easy to pick up and a lot more fun — plus better looking, to boot — than the baseball game-type in Wii Sports.
In a nutshell, the best baseball game just got better. MLB 11 The Show improves on a number of key areas to the franchise, while also delivering plenty of new modes to build upon in future iterations. Like I said before, it’s an incredible uphill battle to significantly improve on a sports video game year after year. Yet, Sony San Diego has made it look pretty damn easy. I think there’s only one thing left to say here: in the words of Joe Mauer… well played, Sony San Diego.