MLB 09 The Show was widely hailed as a best-in-class game, for the sports genre as well as baseball. But Sony's San Diego Studio understood that even last year's effort didn't excuse them from improving on it this season.
Players will find plenty of difference between last year's game and MLB 10 The Show, which releases a week from Tuesday. The team outlined to me the major changes it made over a 30-minute conference call on Friday. I was unable to get myself to their studio for a hands-on preview, so this will have to suffice. Then again, The Show has earned plenty of gamer goodwill and trust. So here's what players can expect in this year's edition.
Real-Time in the Field
Sony posted a video of this a couple weeks back and reaction to it was very strong. "We wanted to create an atmosphere where you feel like you're watching a game on the television, you just never leave the action," said senior producer Chris Gill. Other presentation modes (which will remain with the game if you prefer them) are, between the game action, cutscene-based, and "You feel like you're leaving real time or fast-forwarding into the future," he said.
In real-time presentation, MLB 10 The Show's camera will deliver appropriate camera shots relative to the most recent play as the next batter is coming to the plate. For example, say, a shortstop stabs a hot smash and guns the runner at first. The game will cut between shots of the player getting back into position, the reaction in the dugout (which, by the way, will be fully populated with players not in the field or bullpen), then the ball coming back to the pitcher as the batter walks up to begin the next play.
As a first-year offering, Gill says there's still a lot to build on with this design decision. "I don't want to take anything away from the default (broadcast) mode, there's a phenomenal amount of work that's gone into that. And they've expanded on that mode in this game, that should be noted," Gill said. "This gives the player an opportunity to play in a different style. It doesn't slow the game down, and it's how I play the game now."
Pitchers and Catchers on the Road to the Show
Now in its fourth year, Road to the Show will see several additions to its core experience, but those in the pitcher-catcher battery will see the biggest difference. Pitchers now have their own set of drills to improve specific pitches or traits. Last year, the game had only baserunning and batting drills, so their absence then was a little disappointing. Senior designer Eddy Cramm explained that the plan was all along to have pitching and fielding training, but rather than rush an complex pitching drill set into last year's game, the team chose to focus on two sets of drills per release.
This is great news for those who like to play as pitchers in the career simulation. In the past, you could spend attribute points on something like your hits-per-nine-innings trait, and the game would tell you you'd pitched a simulated game and the score went up marginally. Now you will pitch that simulated game, Cramm said, and the outcome will affect more than one attribute.
"It's a three inning simulated game with a live lineup, the goal is to not allow a run," Cramm said. "You allow a run and the inning ends; you get everybody out and the inning ends. And you'll be judged on your choices and outcomes. If you get a ground ball out, that'll help with your home runs-per-nine trait. If you're efficient with your pitches, it'll affect the stamina."
Another pitching drill, called knockout, requires players to clear eight squares in a grid of nine on the strike zone in as few pitches as possible. (Eight, because you're not supposed to chuck it down the middle.) Depending on how accurate you are and what pitch you use, you'll improve both those pitches and other performance traits.
Cramm said players can expect to be served up three training drills a month in Road to the Show, so there's plenty of opportunity to improve your player if he's taken a beating in live games and hasn't earned a lot of skill points to spend.
The game will also add fielding drills. "Fielding is for the most part automatic, so this is difficult to design for," Cramm admitted. The drills will be more reaction-based, he said, judging how fast you are off the crack of the bat, your path to the ball, and throwing decisions.
All of these drills are accessible on their own from the game's main menu, so players can train themselves to the game before jumping into it in-depth.
The biggest position-specific upgrade is for those who play as catchers. In this game, catchers will be responsible for calling pitches. In the past, as a catcher you knew if the game fast forwarded to a fielding career event, you were going to have to pick off a base stealer or catch a foul ball. Calling pitches makes the game more realistic to catchers' responsibilities and keeps base-stealing situations from being so telegraphed.
"That's exactly why we did it," Cramm said. "The catcher is a lot more involved in the game, and I don't think we reflected that well in the past. He's involved in every pitch of the game. You're responsible for calling the pitch, and the location, from the start of the game. And our AI batters will adapt, so you have to know the situation well. You have to mix things up and pick a good location."
The game will offer pitch suggestions based on batter and pitcher tendencies, the same as if you were on the mound as a pitcher, but you are as free to ignore those as a catcher as you would be as a pitcher.
One other tidbit: As we discussed the amount of time people spend with their Road to the Show players, Cramm said they hear a lot about the ability to import a created player from a previous Road to the Show into the current edition of the game. While that is not a feature of MLB 10 The Show, it is "something we've started looking into," Cramm said. They're mindful that players can spend more than a year (real-time) in their virtual careers.
Every year is an opportunity to improve the gameplay's realism, Gill said. "It's important to us that we never go toward an arcadey style, ever," he said. "Everything we do is based on real life."
This year the ball physics have been redone, Gill said, and will include balls striking players. "If the pitcher can't catch a comebacker, but maybe he tries, it could deflect off a body part, maybe it ricochets to the shortstop and he barehands it to first," Gill said.
Second, the team noticed some unrealistic friction on ground balls last year, so they've massaged that to include truer bounces and more choppers. Also, balls hit hard enough to roll all the way to the wall will bounce around in the corners as they would in real life. This resolves a nettlesome quality of the previous game, where a hard-hit ball into the corner settled so quickly that a runner couldn't get extra bases out of it.
More than 1,200 gameplay animations have been added into the game, Gill said, and will be apparent in the catch-and-throw sequences. For that, the throw meter has been remade. It will look the same, but criticisms that the meter didn't do anything in the past have been answered. It'll more distinguish between hard and soft throws, and late throws, too, although you will still be able to preload them.
Cramm added that the pickoff system has been remade, too. One of my complaints with MLB 09 The Show was how the base buttons were inverted for pickoffs, because it was mapped to your pitching perspective, not the field. This is because you couldn't hit X to throw to second, as it was the pitch button. Now, players will bring up a pickoff attempt with the L2 as a modifier, and throw to bases per the standard fielding alignment. Further, they've added three attempts, a casual throw, which is a simple tap; a quick pickoff as a double-tap, and then a deceptive pickoff, which is a hold of the button.
Deceptive pickoffs will bring up a pitch meter, in case you're playing a human opponent. Also, if you have runners at the corners, it'll allow a righthander to fake the throw to third and then pivot and nail the guy at first.
During the call I asked for the team's elevator pitch for the game, and that's what I got, so it would take a very long ride to cover what's new and enhanced. Of course, I haven't seen MLB 10 The Show with my own eyes. But given the quality of last year's game, if they can pull off all of what they told me, MLB 10 The Show will be very impressive, indeed. I'm looking forward to spending time with it.