There are few things more exciting than the start of Spring Training. Getting to hear that familiar crack of the ball connecting with the bat, or the slap of a catcher’s glove while a pitcher’s going through his warm-up reminds me that the greatest sport in America has returned, and the quest for yet another World Championship is about to begin. Perhaps the best part about the baseball season beginning once again is the annual release of Sony’s MLB: The Show franchise. For the past few years, The Show has been the best pure baseball video game available. There are a few new additions to this year’s version, like improved pick-off mechanics and playing as a catcher in Road to the Show, but not much has changed at the core of the game. Even so, MLB 10: The Show is still the best baseball game on the market.
Though sports games typically don’t have a true story mode, The Show at least tries hard to personalize the game with its Road to the Show mode. Here you’ll create a player at any position, and work your way up from the minors to the bigs in the hopes of guiding your team to a World Series title. This year’s version marks the first time you’re able to play as a catcher, and it’s a welcome addition to an already robust game mode. As a catcher, you’ll be tasked with calling a game, meaning you’re responsible for picking the pitches and the location, but not for controlling the pitch meter. You’ll be responsible for tracking batter tendencies to help get your pitcher through a given line-up, though the game’s stat tracking does most of the heavy lifting. While playing the position in the minors doesn’t require much attention to detail (you’ll likely be able to get by just fine by simply changing speeds and locations), calling a game at the Major League level will put your catching skills to the test, particularly against more intimidating batters.
For as interesting as it is to play as a catcher, there are still a few issues with this new mode. RTTS for any position grades you on your performance game-to-game. As a catcher, you’re not graded on how well you called a game, but on how many put-outs you had (how the game equates strikeouts into a tangible statistic for catchers), and how you performed as a batter. There’s no rating for keeping a pitch count low, or for making sure the opposing team was held to a minimum amount of hits. Either of those grading systems would have made me feel like I actually impacted the game a bit more. One of the issues with RTTS as a whole is how little your player, unless he’s a pitcher, actually impacts the outcome of a game, or season. Too much is left up to the computer’s simulation, and you’re left feeling like you’re only competing for your player’s stats, and not for the good of the team. Another of the issues that springs up as a catcher has to do with the fact that you won’t be starting very regularly for much of your playing time. You’ll get the odd pinch-hit, or be called upon to play a game at your secondary position. That’s part of the real-life experience, and I appreciate that, but when I’m getting more playing time at first base than I am behind the plate, there’s something wrong. It may have just been an issue with the organization that drafted me not having enough depth at my secondary position, but the game should have placed a higher priority on a team desperately in need of a catcher.
RTTS also implements some new training drills like fielding practice for position players, and side-sessions for pitchers. They’ll happen two or three times a month, which is not nearly often enough, and don’t really impact your player’s statistics as much as they should due to how infrequently they happen. Baserunning has been tweaked this year as well, and now allows you more direct control over your player on the basepaths. That said, unless your player has blazing speed, there’s little exciting about running the bases. The AI doesn’t actually coach you in this aspect, meaning once again, stealing or starting a hit and run on your own is purely to boost your own player’s stats, and not necessarily good for the team. Sure, the coach will send you a note if you’re getting picked off too much, and your playing time will decrease if you keep getting caught, but since they’re not actually telling you not to steal during a game, there’s little incentive to stop trying. Not much else has changed to the foundation of Road to the Show, and every other position plays nearly identically to the way it played in years past. Even though the baserunning isn’t nearly as interesting as the developers had hoped, and the mode could use a few more reward options for great performances, it’s still one of the deepest and most engaging create-a-player modes in sports games.
As for the game’s other modes, Franchise is likely where you’ll be spending most of your time offline. Again, not much is different about the mode from MLB 09, but a few small changes, like the inclusion of All-Star break events and the removal of the tedious and pointless travel arrangements, have managed to make it a bit better. Oddly enough, for how true-to-life the rest of the game is, the game’s front office AI still doesn’t quite act like their real world counterparts. Too often bizarre trade deadline deals will go through, and you’ll see franchise players moving all over the place with little rhyme or reason. You still can’t negotiate contracts during the season, and for how ridiculous the trades the computer makes are, you’ll still have to give up an arm and a leg to obtain even fringe level pros. Multi-team deals would have been nice, but the lack of their inclusion doesn’t sour the experience. For the most part, you’ll see a season play out just how it would in real life, and for die-hards like myself, that’s an important enough trait to help me overlook some of the mode’s flaws. None of the other modes have gone through any major changes, and the only truly new game mode is the Home Run Derby. It plays exactly like the real Derby does, and is fun for a few minutes, but you’ll likely not be returning to it that often.
Online has also seen little change on the front end, but the inclusion of thirty man leagues, as well as a much-improved online experience, more than make up for the lack of online modes. In previous years, lag was absolutely terrible, and caused frustrations from the first pitch. This year, however, Sony has gone the extra mile in making sure online games are running smoothly, meaning little to no lag issues, and fewer accidental drops. For whatever reason, I still have difficulty communicating with another online player via headset. There are times when neither of us can hear the other, and only brief moments when communication is even possible. It’s a shame too because thanks to the speed of the game, baseball, more than any other sport, leaves plenty of time for discussion. I often want to talk to the other player, especially if I’m in a league, but I guess I’ll just have to settle for improved connectivity during a game. The leagues themselves are pretty straightforward, and if you happen to know at least four friends with a copy of the game, you should be able to have a great deal of fun competing for bragging rights all season long.
If there was one aspect of The Show that didn’t need very much tweaking from the previous version, it’s the gameplay. Virtually every aspect of the game, from hitting to pitching to fielding, has remained the same. That’s not to say there haven’t been a few improvements. When on the mound, you’ll now have three different types of pick-offs to perform to try and catch opposing baserunners off balance. Both the casual and quick pick-offs are almost exact copies of what were already in the game, but the inclusion of deceptive pick-offs is where you’ll see the biggest change. I used to never get caught leaning off the bag at first, but the computer’s use of the deceptive pick-off has already got me rethinking my approach to base-stealing. The move is almost devastatingly effective, particularly for left-handed pitchers, and if you’re playing on the higher difficulties, you can almost forget about making it back to the bag in time with more than a two-step lead.
MLB 10 has a new throwing system for fielders, which actually requires you to pay attention for once. If you’ve played this game before, you know that under your fielder is a meter that fills as you hold the corresponding base’s button down. This year, that meter actually means something. Holding it down until it’s red will lead to poor throws, and letting go of it too soon will result in some weak-armed lobs. In previous iterations, you’d be able to throw out most baserunners before they’d even come close to the bag, but with this new system, the game replicates true on-field action much better, resulting in closer throws, and more exciting situations. The ball’s physics have also seen a bit of tweaking, which makes the game that much more real. Ridiculously bending sliders and curves are toned down a bit, and the way the ball travels off the bat is noticeably different from last year. Strangely enough, caroms off the wall are still extremely exaggerated, as are deflections off a player’s body or glove.
For everything that MLB 10: The Show does right on the field, there are still nagging issues that have found their way into yet another edition of the game. Computer baserunners are way too aggressive on the base paths. When they’re not blazing from first to third on a base hit, they’re getting thrown out by ten or twenty feet. There’s absolutely no in-between. It presents some pretty unrealistic situations in an otherwise very realistic game, and only serves to remind you that it’s just a video game. AI batters are also annoying once again. The computer’s ability to foul off pitch after pitch, driving my pitch count up exponentially, is rather annoying. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if you could do the same thing, but working a count against the computer is nowhere near as easy for a human. The computer is also pretty aggressive on the mound, and a team’s top pitchers will hardly ever make location mistakes. Even on my best days of working counts and drawing walks, which takes a lot of patience in a video game, I’ve never had an opposing pitcher get into pitch count trouble. Not that it matters since computer managers seem to only rely on the score of a game for deciding when to pull a pitcher, and not the pitch count. Again, The Show has some of the best simulated baseball gameplay to date, but the small issues routinely crop up, and there are only so many more chances the developers have to fix these problems before it starts to take a toll on the game as a whole.
Though collision detection is still a major issue for The Show, as it is for all sports games, the overall presentation is nearly impeccable. Character models are terrific, as are the stadium models. There will likely not be another game this generation that replicates a ballpark as well as this franchise does. A ton of new animations have been included in the game this year, from new bench interactions and fan reactions, to new fielding animations to umpires dropping to the ground when getting glazed by a foul ball (though you might miss it if you’re not playing with the correct game camera). One of the important new additions from last year’s game, the real-time lighting, is improved upon once again, creating some of the most realistic lighting in a sports game yet. Perhaps the most important new feature is the real-time presentation. Instead of having a traditional broadcast with cutaways and pre-rendered scenes, you can play a game of The Show in real-time. What that means is if a player is trotting around the bases after a home run, you watch the whole way. There will be camera cuts to the other players on the field, but they’ll all be reacting the way they would if the events were unfolding if you were at the park. It’s not going to be for everyone, but I got a real kick out of the way the game was presented.
It’s going to be a very interesting day when another developer finally makes a baseball game that can compete on every level with The Show. Even though there are a handful of things that could be improved, especially since many of the problems are recurring, the game does so many other things right, it’s hard not to look the other way. From the moment you step into the batter’s box, or toe the rubber on the mound, you truly feel like you’re in a real game situation, and there’s no game better at replicating its sport than MLB 10: The Show. This is the absolute pinnacle of baseball video gaming, and I dare someone to do better.