MLB 11 The Show is Still The Finest in the Field

I've seen the big leagues, son. I've squinted at the lights at Fenway as the sun makes a cotton candy sky behind the Citgo sign in left. But I ain't there right now. I'm down here chewing on grass, pitching in my third game in as many days, deep in the well of the low minor leagues, where the uniforms are washed every other day.

Nah, bullshit. I made up that last part about the laundry because it sounded like something a Ken Burns film would say. I go way further in baseball simulations, living out my professional athlete fantasies, and Sony's MLB The Show franchise has indulged them like no other. It happens every spring.

But even when you're certain you'll make the majors, it is a long grind through the minors. And a 162-game season will wear you down when you're there. Last year's game, while excellent, was starting to become a little too familiar. Sony's shaken things up with new analog commands to add some uncertainty to a game many had mastered. Thing is, their competition on the Xbox 360 did that last year and got it mostly right, especially in the pitching. Is this a whole new game, or are they mopping up in relief?

Why You Should Care

If any sports franchise is capable of selling a console, it is the PS3-exclusive MLB The Show, consistently one of the highest-regarded sports games each year. How it performs is a bellwether not just for Sony, but for the power structure of sports gaming's elite.

What We Liked

The Pure Analog Controls: With new pitching, batting and fielding commands mapped to the right stick, depending on your tendencies, one of the game's three phases will become a never-going-back-to-the-old-way breakthrough for you, while the others will require steeper learning curves. For me, a pitching snob, I just can't fathom returning to the button meter. I felt myself become a better pitcher with the analog controls. Early in my created player's career, I struggled with placement; yet as my control rating got better, a flick subtly to the upper-right or left was all that was required to get on target. I was rewarded for learning how to focus, hard, with a lesser pitcher, because in tight spots with a veteran I had an experience I could call on to get me through. You can simply feel yourself get better with it. Hitting was harder for me; I didn't like the way a step was incorporated in every swing in MLB 2K9's analog hitting, and I don't like it here, either. But I still prefer it to the buttons as it feels more deterministic. Fielding I kept on the face buttons, and the new fake-a-throw command set is skip-it mind boggling. Everyone will have different preferences, hang-ups and strengths, but the game's developers considerately let you mix and match your analog and button sets. Better still, this multifaceted customization carries over from offline play to online, regardless of the control set your opponent may be using.

A Smoother Road: Still one of the best singleplayer career modes, The Show rejuvenates itself with more payouts for your performances while still keeping your developmental stage a realistic and challenging length. In previous versions, the training points you applied to a new pitch, better contact, or basepath quickness were acquired only in controlled circumstances. Dedicated training dates or clutch situations in games became pressure packed because of the opportunity they represented. Now, you're awarded or deducted training points with each at-bat, batter faced, or chance afield. You may feel yourself become a little overpowered as a starting pitcher with several quality outings under his belt (I was pulling 300 training points a night, almost), but the game still retains its tough appraisal of your potential. And as a hitter, being served with constant opportunities for improvement is much more equitable and reflects the trial-and-error nature of mastering a skill where the best still, as everyone reminds us, fail seven out of 10 times. In past versions I felt like I could get to the majors and still be well behind my peers. Now, I arrive as someone who has earned his roster position with a respectable stay in the minor leagues, and has the potential to be an honest hotshot rookie.

The Rich Presentation: I've immodestly pointed out the new, realistic broadcast camera angles that reflect what you really see on your TV from each of the majors' 30 ballparks, as if I had that idea first or something. But they're just a part of a first-class audiovisual presentation that still works hard to keep that title. Dynamic lighting comes into play this year, meaning not just progressive shadows on the field as the sun sets, but also from passing clouds, which are visible at night. The lighting, weather and the ambience deliver a sense of place to all of the ballparks. Stadium chants are team-specific ("Throw it back!" in Chicago, for example) but the burbier crowds like Denver and Seattle were more sedate when winning. The hardasses at Wrigley never let up. Even at Oakland's charmless toilet bowl, on a bright Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of the month, I felt like it was dollar hot dog day after all the unemployment checks had arrived.

MLB 11 The Show is Still The Finest in the FieldS

What We Didn't Like

No Incentive to Go Online: Online multiplayer has always been The Show's weakness and unfortunately, there is no real fix or upgrade to change that this year. Persistent lag issues have a devastating effect on following the flight of the pitch, and online games will see tons of strikeouts, regardless of either side's hitting ability. The game adds a "Challenge of the Week," arcade-style batting game, and two-on-two cooperative multiplayer, but these novelties either are subjected to the same lag troubles or don't rise enough above them to make the online feature set a selling point.

Stale Commentary: Eric Karros, replacing the awful Rex Hudler, does not provide the shakeup this commentary team really needs. Karros is too sedate and overacts his lines, if that combination is even possible. While I've long appreciated the lead duo of Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell, by now their commentary is too repetitive, especially for year-in-and-out players who spend most of their time in Road to the Show. Every sports game battles repetition, but the unfortunate truth is, by now, very little of what they're saying is interesting the first time around.

Loading Times: One would expect to pay a price for such rich content, and unfortunately, it is in some mind-numbingly long loading times that feel even longer than last year's. And that is with a nearly 5GB installation. If you have a franchise underway, getting on with your next game, from power on to first pitch, takes about as long as a drive to an actual ballpark. And it is most painfully felt as a position player in Road to the Show. While you don't have to enter a game to simulate it this year, you'll feel like you spent more time entering and leaving that day's game than you did on four at-bats and three chances in the field. It really gets in the way of RTTS' addictive just-one-more-game appeal as you rank your player up through his minor league tour.

The Bottom Line

As a singleplayer experience, and I have the feeling that Sony knows that's the side its bread is buttered on here, MLB 11 The Show is still one of the finest sports simulations money can buy. Its new analog controls will provide a new level enjoyment for those who already have a proficiency in any of the game's three phases. For those areas in which they are weaker, the old reliable button set is still there.

Overall, The Show, with its deep range of experiences, offers every fan a compelling, engrossing and custom-fit baseball fantasy. It could be a pitching trainer, a fantasy franchise management sim, the vicarious hallucination of the baseball life you always wanted to live, or something in between any of that.

MLB 11 The Show was developed by Sony San Diego and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation Portable. Released on March 8, 2011. Retails for $59.99 ($29.99 PS2 and PSP). A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game modes, both singleplayer and online multiplayer. Made The Show after my second year in the minors. I'm just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub.