MLB 11: The Show
As a San Francisco Giants fan, 2010 was probably my favorite baseball season of all time. The thing about the Giants was that you were never entirely sure of their success. A quick look through last year’s stats will provide glimpses of incredibly hard-fought victories that were often determined with the final plays and a few well-timed hits. Their games could make you sit on the edge of your seat, breath caught in your throat, and your eyes staring at the next pitch as you silently prayed that the Giants could hang on until the final out. The close calls were so frequent and nerve-wracking that the announcers compared the games to torture. It didn’t even look like they’d make it into the postseason, let alone go all the way to that climactic showdown in the World Series…but they did. But while the Giants stole the spotlight last year, the entirety of the 2010 season was crammed with all kinds of stellar performances from several other teams. With MLB 11: The Show, you can relive all of it.
You’ll probably start with Quick or Exhibition games, which let you pit any teams against each other in a standalone competition. Each one is based up its real-world counterpart; you’ll find last season’s players in their respective rosters, right down to their positions and batting orders. What’s more interesting, however, is how the game rates each lineup – and the individual players – based upon their overall performance stats. While the Yankees have near-perfect offensive and defensive capabilities, the A’s have above average pitching at best, and the Royals have…well, they have nothing. Regardless of their standings, you’ll probably end up choosing your favorite team and its hated rival and see how things go. Once you’ve gotten your batting order and bullpen straightened out (and endured the horrendously slow loading times), you can pick a stadium and play ball.
The most fascinating thing about MLB 11: The Show is how it lets you control every aspect of baseball’s mechanics. You don’t just press a button to throw the ball; you choose between different pitching styles depending on your preferences and the hitter’s tendencies, carefully select the location based on the catcher’s signals, and use an onscreen meter to let loose with just the right combination of speed and power. Hitting is just as finely tuned; not only can you do anything from an all-out swing to a sacrificial bunt, but you can use the control stick to alter the ball’s trajectory. You can have your players steal bases as a group or individually, right down to the length of their head starts. Since each base is mapped to one of the buttons on the controller, fielding the ball is easy. When all of these features are combined, they make for a remarkably accurate rendering of the real game. The accuracy and hit detection involved can be brutal at first; being off by even a fraction of an inch or a second will be your undoing. Hitting requires absurdly good timing and reflexes. You’ll unintentionally walk several batters and overthrow bases before you get used to the controls. The difficulty curve wouldn’t have been so bad had the game included some kind of training mode to help you master everything. All you’re given are hints that occasionally pop up; while they tell you what buttons to press, they don’t teach you how to use the finely-tuned mechanics.
Instead, the game focuses more on customization and options. You’re not limited to just having one-off matches between the various franchises and their preset rosters. Depending on what gameplay mode you choose, you can indulge in your own fantasy season, complete with all 162 games, draft picks, and trades. You can build the unlikeliest of teams (my first bullpen included the likes of Tim Lincecum, Dallas Braden, and CC Sabathia) and completely dominate the competition. It’ll cost you, though; recruiting all-stars can limit your budget and keep you from nabbing some of the newer talent. It’s also worth noting that every player has individual ratings based on their performance stats, which can make a huge difference as to how they fare in-game. Vladimir Guerrero is an insanely powerful hitter, but his fielding isn’t so good. Bengie Molina is one of the best catchers out there, but he’s also one of the slowest. The trick is figuring out which players to choose in order to create a balanced team. Thanks to the game’s Manager Mode, you can call every shot of the game, including individual pitches and at-bats. Combined with all the features with regards to the controls, amount of innings, pacing, and all of the other little details, the sheer amount of options is mind-boggling.
If all that isn’t enough, The Road to the Show mode lets you create your own original player. It’ll start off small, like his type of uniform, facial features, height, and weight. But then you’ll get start working on his technical abilities; do you prefer hitting for power over accuracy? How fast do you want him to be? Which pitches does he use, and how much control does he have over them? Since your skills are based on experience points, it’s impossible to create a super-powered all-star early on. Instead, you’ve got to guide him through his first year signed with a team, complete with minor league and pre-season games. You’ll typically be called in to handle a tough situation, like pitching the final inning of a one-run game, or bunting to get a runner onto the next base. The game will score your overall performance (and the completion of secondary objectives), and boost your experience points accordingly. You’ll get to use those points to help train your player off-screen and upgrade his abilities. Depending on how well you perform, you’ll gradually make your way into the big leagues and earn your place in the lineup. Considering how much control you’re given over the player’s development, the Road to the Show is easily the most involving and rewarding aspect of the game.
Too bad its presentation didn’t get the same kind of treatment. Even for a PS2 title, MLB 11 is incredibly bland and boring to watch. Despite being able to alter the players’ heights and weights, few of the character models closely resemble their actual counterparts. The batting and throwing movements seem realistic, but some of the walking and running animations are choppy. There are plenty of little details, like the A’s signature white cleats and Brian Wilson’s infamous beard. Even each stadium has its own jumbotron – the images on which are horribly rendered – and iconic features. While they might look like the real arenas from a distance, they lack atmosphere and feeling. The stands are not crowded with people, but with small, shifting blobs of vaguely body-shaped colors. Take the Oakland Coliseum; the layout is perfectly accurate, but where are the hardcore fans with their awesome drum beats and waving flags? Why is AT&T Park’s McCovey Cove not crammed with frantic home-run seekers and boats? While the game manages to get the sounds of the crowd right (including the hecklers), it feels empty and lifeless. That goes for the announcing as well; it won’t take long for you to get tired of the repetitive commentary. Not to mention the lackluster soundtrack, which only has Edgar Winter Group’s “Free Ride” as its only memorable song. It’s not terrible, but like the rest of the presentation, it could have been much better.
But hey, don’t let that stop you from picking this up. MLB 11: The Show is a fine game, and it provides a nice send-off for the American PS2 library. It takes all of the little features and mechanics of baseball and turns it into an incredible simulation. The precise controls mimic the real thing; you’ve got to carefully control your throws and hits, right down to the timing and angles used. Given the demanding nature of the gameplay and a lack of a proper training mode, you might be in for a nasty learning curve. At least you can rest your nerves by controlling every aspect of your team; you can trade and build your own roster, indulge in whole fantasy seasons, and even create and develop your own player. While the ridiculous amount of options may be appealing, the bland and lifeless presentation kind of takes away from the experience. It’s kind of ironic that a game that places so much emphasis on realism, yet utterly lacks it in terms of both visuals and audio. If that’s your kind of thing, you might want to opt for the PS3 version instead. It doesn’t matter, though; MLB 11 is about baseball, and it’s got it where it counts.