MLB 09 the Show
Developer: SCEA San Diego Studios
Release Date: 03/03/2009
Time for a quick disclaimer. I am not one of Diehard GameFAN’s resident sports gamers. The last time I bought and played a new release sports game for a review was… 2003. It took me a few minutes to even find that out. The very first review I wrote, ever, was of Madden 2004 for the GameCube; a review so unimportant that I did not even bother moving it over to the new site. I am pretty sure it was a less than stellar effort. The review, not the game. The game was just mediocre. That being said, if you are a fan of last year’s MLB the Show, you probably already bought this one anyway. There, I saved you a few thousand words of reading. No, this review is for the non-sports gamer who keeps seeing the gorgeous videos and stills of this game and is considering buying the game that has become Sony’s real franchise of note. Sorry, Killzone. For the non-sports gamer out there I have one question to ask you.
How hard is too hard?
If you are put off by steep learning curves, this is probably not the game for you. Sorry, but it has to be said. MLB 09 the Show is hard. Real hard. Make you think about throwing your $50 controller through your $1000 TV hard. Make you feel like less of a man hard. Seriously, dude, this game is hard. Thing is, I really do not think that is a negative.
There are plenty of arbitrarily hard games out there. You know the ones. The games with rubber banding AI that can catch up to any lead and off camera bullets that take your last man. The sort of games that require either a massive outlay of money on a specialized controller or a social life killing amount of time to learn the evil ways of the last boss. Yes, I am talking about King of Fighters on those last two points.
Sometimes, though, sometimes a game is hard in the right way, in the “build up your skills and learn the real nuts and bolts of the game” way. MLB 09 the Show is that kind of hard.
The climb up MLB 09 the Show‘s learning curve is treacherous and there is no map, but it is worth it. A week and a half in, I am still learning new things every game I play. Things like pitch count and selection, pinch hitters and runners, and when to reach into your bullpen do not come easily to a casual baseball fan like myself, but they do come with time. That is the real beauty of MLB 09 the Show and why I keep coming back to it for one more game. Every time I play it, I enjoy the next game I play even more.
A strange side effect of all this is that this game taught me to enjoy the real game of baseball even more. Suddenly all the little nuances of the game make more sense. The poetry of a perfectly swung bat is a little more beautiful, the dance of a tight double play is more spectacular. The most mundane and simple looking aspects of the game of baseball are suddenly rendered amazing due to a deeper understanding that nothing in baseball is mundane or simple. For my money, that alone has been worth $60.
Hey, That’s You!
It’s deep into Spring Training, a Royals vs. Rangers game in the Cactus League. On the surface, nothing matters. A win does not advance the march to the pennant and a loss will not push either team into the basement. No, this Cactus League game, tied 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth inning has little bearing on the baseball macrocosm, but for a struggling first base prospect, this is the most important game in the world. Jose Guillen is on second and R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” hits the PA and first baseman Chuck “Bunt!” Platt saunters up to the plate. The Rangers’ closer winds up and Chuck guesses a four seam fastball. A Slider flies across the plate, catching the corner for a called strike. The batter shakes off the tension. Guillen is ready to run. The pitch comes, a four seam fastball. Five ounces of string, rubber, and cowhide whiz towards home at ninety-six miles per hour. Chuck swings his bat and the music of an American made bat striking a ball reverberates throughout Surprise, AZ. A perfectly located ball sails over the pitcher and second baseman and lands softly a few feet in front of the center fielder. By the time his hand is wrapped around it, Jose has rounded third and is charging home. Platt, still slightly shocked as his futility streak ends, takes his time getting to second. It is not every day that your first double is a walk off, game winning RBI.
For the uninitiated, RttS is like a Major League Baseball (MLB) role-playing game. The player creates a baseball player using the very robust Create-A-Player editor and then either joins a MLB team or enters the draft. After Spring Training, the player is either sent to the minors or given a spot on the club. Each game is a learning experience, played your character’s position. Playing a baseball game from a specific position gives the player a completely new lease on the game. Turning double plays from first becomes an more exciting with each inning. Experience points are earned for quality play and achieving goals and is docked for negative plays, like striking out incessantly, as I am prone to do. While different from the standard roleplaying game paradigm, this check and balance system gives impetus to focusing on patience, a must in this game, and being selective about pitches. Occasional batting practices provide opportunity to work on certain pitches, rewarding quality hits and punishing free swingers.
The Create-A-Player deserves special praise for allowing me to craft a freakishly accurate avatar. From my lantern jaw to my misshapen nose to my complex facial hair, the CAP did an amazing job of simulating my good looks. More importantly, the Created Player does not stand out from the in-game character, which surprised me, given the quality of the in-game character models. Outside of a wrestling game, I have never been so impressed with a Create mode.
What amazes me about this moment, which was also when I won my first trophy, was not that it happened but how hard it was to select just one moment from my time with MLB 09 the Show in general and Road to the Show (RttS) mode in particular. Since purchasing this game, I have racked up more hours on it than any game I have played in recent memory. I simply find it fascinating to the point that a game I rushed out to buy (Disgaea 3) is benched until October, or the Kansas City Royals destroy my dreams, which ever comes first.
All Summer Long And Not A Kid Rock In Sight
If RttS was the Show‘s only, or even primary, mode, it would be a very good game. Thing is, the Show is so robust that a player could easily get several hundred hours of game play without touching RttS. The Franchise mode is deep as anyone could want, with total control over your team of choice a button press away. Online play via SportsConnect, while rocky at launch, has become much more stable, though lag does pop up now and again.
The real test of a sports game, for me, is how the simplest mode plays, that being Fast Play or Exhibition. In a few weeks of plugging away at the Show, I have found that these modes are perfect for killing 30 minutes, scouting teams and players for other modes, and getting some practice in without the pressures of a win/loss record.
For the Franchise player, of which I am, this year’s game is deeper and more realistic, getting as close to the experience of running a team as I could want. The salary arbitration, the drafts, the 40 man roster, it can all be overwhelming, though Season Mode is there for those who do not want to do all the dirty work. The rewards of Franchise mode, the pride of earning each and every win and owning all of the team’s decisions is heady and slightly intoxicating. For me, the Franchise mode made each game more meaningful, gave each play more impact, because I was the hand of the team, hiring and firing and making batting orders. Best part is, I can run my team in my penguin pajama pants, a luxury Trey Hillman does not have, unless I need to be paying more attention to the bench at home games.
Manager mode is something I cannot get into, myself. The thought of running a team but not actually controlling it is sort of unappealing to me in a way I cannot put a finger on. Perhaps I am simply to eager to take my swings and try to get batters to bite on an low curve?
Hey, Batta Batta!
In a game with so many extraordinary attributes, the sound would have to be pretty noteworthy to warrant it’s own heading. In MLB 09 the Show, the sound is so special I could review it on it’s own. Let me start with Matt Vasgersian. Yes, Rex Hudler and Dave Campbell are able hands, but Mr. Vasgersian lends the Show a special gravitas. Example: After the studio and THX logos during load up, there is a series of short videos called Now and Then that plays. In these vignettes, Matt talks about historical greats at a given position and the modern players inhabiting those roles now. These little nods to the past are worth watching and I rarely skip them. Vasgersian’s narration gives the upcoming action a feel of weight that I have felt only rarely from games, and never from a video game. The play by play is quality, with some funny jibes and asides that make it impossible for me to turn it off. There is just something about hearing a video game commentary call out Manny for his running speed that warms my heart, even when those same jabs are pointed at my heavyweight slugger in RttS.
Even with the 25 included songs under the MLB Music heading, I was eager to import my own music. It was a snap. By checking and checking, I was able to sort out which, if any, of the original songs to include. Only TV On The Radio made the cut, which was fine since I was able to add a whopping 240 of my own songs. Two hundred and forty songs! That is so much music that I forgot that I had added Wang Chung’s “Dance Hall Days”, which is featured on the MLB 2K9( commercial with Time Lincecum, until it popped up between games. As an aside, the Show has an even funnier ad featuring cover boy Dustin Pedroia, as well as an even funnier sequel. The ability to add so much music and phase out the included music is a plus, as most games that use licensed music have a limited number of tracks. The option to turn of commentary and replace it with the very same imported music is excellent, though I find myself missing the commentary team. Trust me, there are few things more awesome than taking the mound to your favorite song, right before hitting a pop fly to left. At least that is my experience.
One feature that I thought was kind of a joke at first, the Custom Fan Yells and Chants, is actually pretty amazing. With a USB microphone, the player can add their own cat calls, cheers, chants, and assorted outbursts. As a big fan of calling players by their full name, slowly and mockingly, this gives me a tool to annoy all who pass through my living room. Few can add extra syllables to words with the aplomb that I do. As the season progresses and new insults pop into your evil little mind, new chants can be added. I am loathe to find out what people are saying about A-Rod…
You’re Outta Here!
The press materials for the Show this year focus quite a bit on the little things. This attention to detail rewards the player with a truly satisfying experience, one I find unmatched in any non-Miyamato designed game. This little extra polish means that the umpires call the strike zone differently, making each game a little bit different. Fans run across the field towards the end of blow outs. Umps check bats for cork. Pitchers rosin their hands. Baseball is a game with universal big things, rules memorized by myself and most children by age 5, but it is really a game of nuances, and the Show excels at showing them off. Not only are there threads across the Internet titled “Little Things”, there is an off hand comment by one of the commentators about Internet threads titled “Little Things.” This is as close to baseball as I can get for $60.
One little thing is the batting cage. Sure, they could have included a Home Run Derby for everyone to play once or twice and forget about, but instead the developers saw fit to include batting practice, which has done me a solid by helping me learn to read pitches and send them back, with a little hot sauce. Taking swings against any pitcher with any batter outside of the confines of a game is a gift, one that a new player like myself can only benefit from.
Man, The Giants Really Like Orange…
One thing that I have only touched on in passing is the graphics. I bought my PS3 to be a Blu-Ray player. It matches my TV and looks good in my living room. Truth is, I originally saw the PS3 as a secondary game system, to my Wii. Then I played the MLB 09 the Show demo. Previously, I was unimpressed by the games I had played on the big black box in my living room. The way this game looks, running in 720p, on my living room TV makes the monthly payments a joy to pay. I say this in all seriousness. Wow. Never before has a game looked this good to me.
The animation, the shading, the, well, everything, just looks spectacular. There have been some complaints of slowdown in the newer, bigger stadiums like Yankee Stadium and Kauffman, but that seems to vary by TV. I have experienced no noticeable slowdown, though I did hit like 5 homeruns in Yankee Stadium, so maybe there is a little. Speaking of the K, I have attended my fair share of games at this gem of a stadium, which is like 30 minutes from my home, and it looks spectacular in HD. I know Royals fans are a minority, but it is a pleasure to play in this perfectly rendered version of my home park.
Do understand, that this game is not perfect. It is a little difficult for the unmotivated to pick up, there are a few HUD problems, which go away when the game is paused and unpaused. I do not think that these niggling details take too much from the game, but one does frighten me. Some people have stated that their RttS games lock up and will not advance. I have not encountered this, but it does seem to be a legit issue. I have every hope that patch will solve this pretty serious problem and remove the one blemish I have found in an otherwise sterling game.
The integration of online features into the game are pretty well executed. Each time that you connect to SportsConnect, the roster is updated to the most modern iteration. This means that each transaction and injury is updated automatically. Nice. The Roster Vault lets people upload and download custom rosters. Want the Indians from Major League? Get them from the Roster Vault. The truly anal retentive can even download a complete minor league roster, with every team’s prospects. There is also the option to download other players’ Sliders, so that you can experience other takes on the game’s balance. My personal Sliders are very hitter friendly, since I cannot hit a damn thing.
Control and Gameplay: Classic
Originality: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Classic
FINAL SCORE: CLASSIC GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
I do not throw around the word “Classic” like candy and I do not give praise easily. This is the best game I have played in a generation, no exaggeration. This is the summit, not just of baseball games, or even of sports games, this is the summit of this generation of software. Truly a staggering work, a game that I will happily play until the World Series, if not longer. If you have a PlayStation 3, buy this game. If you do not, buy a PlayStation 3 and this game. Pure, hardcore gaming goodness awaits.