"MLB 11: The Show rings in the new year with a fresh take on the baseball franchise, complete with up-to-date roster changes and overhauled batting mechanics."
Baseball has been a staple of sports gaming ever since RBI Baseball, the first baseball title to be sanctioned by the MLB. Since then, many titles have claimed to offer a robust and realistic experience. They have fallen short of that promise, however. MLB 11: The Show is the latest PlayStation 2 baseball game to try and distinguish itself from the one-button affairs that have often passed for baseball games in the past. It offers up an experience that is perhaps best described as the Gran Turismo of the baseball games world.
Those who haven't played a previous version of The Show should be prepared for an initial learning curve. Make no mistake; MLB 11 is a realistic baseball simulation title first and foremost. It offers a basic control scheme for those who favor a simple experience, but the analog controls for both pitching and hitting are where the game truly shines. With either speedy flicks or deliberate strokes of the right analog stick, you can adjust not only where the ball curves or sinks but also its velocity (depending on how you follow through on your motions). Beginners will be delighted to know that there's a rookie control mode where swings and pitches are based primarily on button presses, with on-the-fly adjustments managed using the left and right analog sticks. While there isn't as much control in that simpler mode as there is when you opt for the pure analog control scheme, it's great that Sony provided options to make the game more accessible.
Once you've familiarized yourself with the new controls, MLB 11 offers a multifarious selection of seven modes. From the classic Exhibition and Season games to staples of The Show such as Home Run Derby, Rivalry and Road to the Show, there's a game type that's sure to appeal to any baseball fan.
The Home Run Derby mode is about as close as you'll get to an arcade experience, in part because it is the game’s most accessible mode. You merely must control the timing and placement of your swing. The mode allows for some good player rivalries if you and your friends can't agree on whether Jeter or Ichiro is the superior batter, for instance. There’s definitely some competitive charm, but longer games eventually come to feel like nothing more than a multiplayer variant on batting training.
The Show’s Rivalry mode also returns and provides another solid mode from which to choose. There’s just as much customization as you’ll find in any of the other modes. Slider options allow for nearly every scenario you can imagine, so it’s easy to set up that perfect rivalry. One of the nicer touches is that you can allow complications such as injuries or depleting stamina for your players, leading to a more satisfying experience as circumstances force you to rotate out your star players. This is especially important for the longer rivalries because it adds an element of strategy to the mode. Do you bring out your star players first and hope for an early lead, or do you constantly rotate out players to keep all of your team members playing in peak condition?
The recent mainstay of Sony's franchise, Road to the Show, also returns and is better than ever. This year’s entry stands apart from other baseball players because of its improved player customization. Now you can even personalize batting stances. Instead of simply selecting a basic stride, you can fine tune your stance and choose one similar to a stance commonly employed by nearly any of the major players on the roster. It’s a fine touch that adds a personal connection to the player you create.
Once your perfect rookie is ready to go, RttS delivers a fleshed out experience. You can train your batter from the moment he enters the minor leagues all the way to his eventual time in the majors or even on the national team. Every game in which your batter plays offers up experience points that you can spend on various training regiments that in turn help to boost a player’s overall skills in desired areas. Along the way, RttS provides a number of milestones to achieve across the various training disciplines.
To help hasten the training process, MLB 11 also brings in a revamped opportunity system that dynamically changes with each play. Goals typically remain on the conservative side and ranging from “don't strike out” to “don't let the third-base runner steal home.” Rather than forcing you to complete these goals, RttS offers them on the side as a means to encourage you to improve your performance. At the end of each game, you’re evaluated based on your success or failure (or even on your willingness to give them an attempt at all). The better your performance, the more experience points you receive with which to improve your character. It’s important that you keep up with your training and milestones, since failing to meet milestones on a regular basis could result in your created player losing a contract or dropping back down to the minor leagues.
Though the gameplay in MLB 11: The Show is solid, the presentation holds the game back a bit. You can tell that the developers spent a lot of time capturing the design and layout of each stadium. Scoreboards look just as they do on the field and the skyline appears as it might if you were watching a game from the stands. Unfortunately, the graphics elsewhere are not up to par. Trees look like jagged messes of green, spectators look like they were ripped straight from an old PlayStation 1 title, and there's not so much as a cloud in the overhead sky. Fortunately, the design on the ground makes up for what’s lacking overhead. Each field features its signature mowing pattern, or if you want to mix things up, you can select from a handful of other patterns like starbursts or checkerboard. Another nice touch is the option to choose between games that take place during the day or at night. While the daytime games look good, the games played in the evening look even better. Overhead stadium lights cast those familiar four-point shadows at players' feet and those shadows even bend realistically when a pitcher crosses over the mound.
MLB 11: The Show is a strong title that captures the true feel of baseball thanks to its newly-designed analog control and batter customization. If you're a veteran to the series, you'll feel right at home with the new changes. If you're a beginner, or if you just haven't tried The Show before, give yourself time to adapt to the game's realism. Though the graphics do represent a step back, each of the game’s other aspects meld together to create a baseball experience perfectly suited for those who still game on the PlayStation 2.
Freelance review by Kai Powell (May 16, 2011)
As an aspiring FGC contributor, Kai has earned enough tournament accolades to earn the title 'Eternally Second'. When not pouring his heart out over covering the games industry and running a corporate games store, he also spends his mornings at a ramen-ya
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