The lights are on
What new ideas the game brings to the table and how well old ideas are presented.
How good a game looks, taking into account any flaws such as bad collision or pop-up.
Does the game’s music and sound effects get you involved or do they make you resolve to always play with the volume down?
Basically, the controller to human interface. The less you think about the hunk of plastic in your hands, the better the playability.
Flat out, just how fun the game is to play. The most important factor in rating a game.
My beloved Chicago Cubs are three outs away from forcing a divisional
tie with the Cincinnati Reds. I’ve turned to Carlos Marmol and his
filthy slider to shut down the Dodgers. Only two runs have crossed the
plate all game, both coming off of a mistake Jon Garland served up to
Aramis Ramirez. The fans at Wrigley Field are losing their minds. The
electric atmosphere screams of playoff baseball. My nerves are fried,
the controller in my hands slick with sweat. The Cubs’ season hangs on
my ability to place my pitches.
The first batter I face is Casey Blake. His better years are
behind him, and he’s hitting a career low .235 for the season. My first
pitch, a knee-high slider, snaps the corner for a strike. For the next
pitch, Geovany Soto, the Cubs’ reliable catcher, slides to the inside of
the plate and calls for the heat. I agree with the call, and put a
little extra mustard on it. My follow-through is just a hair off, and
the ball catches too much plate. Blake jumps on the mistake and slaps a
base hit to left field. Marmol is noticeably rattled. He wipes sweat
away from his brow, and takes a few extra steps behind the mound to
regain his composure.
I won’t walk you through every pitch in this at bat, but creating baseball moments like this is what MLB 11: The Show is all
about. Most of this drama is driven by the game’s new analog-based
gameplay, and the studio’s ability to make almost every little detail –
whether it’s the AI reacting logically to a good pitch, or an animation
depicting convincing player emotions – true to the sport.
analog pitching is the most polished and challenging gameplay mechanic a
baseball game has ever offered. It’s all about finesse and finding a
rhythm with different pitch types. To place pitches on the corners, you
have to angle the analog stick in the direction of the desired location.
The gesture must be fluid and gentle, the video game equivalent of
threading a needle. Depending on where you are aiming, the slightest
error could result in a ball or worse – a pitch that hangs over the
plate. The length of your motions is tied to your pitcher’s delivery;
the amount of time allotted is shorter when working from the stretch,
making finesse pitching all that much more difficult. I felt stressed
when batters would get on base. I even got so out of sync at times that I
would get called for balks.
This new system not only offers a
great challenge, it accurately simulates pitch counts. If just one pitch
isn’t working for you, expect to walk batters and reach deep counts.
Most of my starters threw between 80 and 105 pitches in five to nine
innings of work.
The new batting mechanic requires similarly exact
motions, pulling the right analog stick back to plant the foot, then
pushing it forward to swing. Unlike pitching, however, it’s easy to
grasp and master. Even on the higher difficulty settings, I didn’t
strike out very often. I didn’t find the new contact swing modifier
useful, as the power swing gave me the same results or better. My
contact ratio was absurdly high, but my hits per nine ranged around 12 to 15, resulting in five to six runs. These totals were
usually far lower when facing an ace. Strikeouts remained low, but I
found myself hitting more ground balls off of elite hurlers.
after switching to the Show’s classic control scheme, I still put wood
on the ball consistently, and more than I did in last year's game. I even alternated at
bats between this year’s and last year’s game, and though my findings changed subtly from game to game and from pitcher to pitcher, more fastballs find the paint in MLB 11.
Fielding uses analog controls as well, but it isn’t
much different than last season outside of the new option to fake throws
and lure players into rundowns. Rather, defense is most noticeably
improved in the number of ways the fielders react. A distinct difference
exists between outfielder and infielder motions, and players show a
better awareness of their location on the field. They position
themselves to play caroms and turf bounces, and will hit the dirt if
they are in the way of one of their teammates’ throws across the
Road to the Show remains one of the most addictive and
satisfying modes in video game sports. This year, a slider system allows
you to build the frame for the type of player you want to be.
Developing your ballplayer no longer relies on an arbitrary set of
in-game goals; you now earn experience points for every at bat or batter
faced. The amount of points you tally is determined by your performance
for that situation. If you perform great all game long, you’re going to
be rolling in points, and your player’s development takes the
appropriate leap forward. New training minigames also give nice bumps to
specific skills. I still want more interaction with my manager, not to
mention a more comprehensive look at how I’m doing both within the
organization and league-wide.
Acting as a couch manager, I
simulated five seasons of Franchise mode. Trade logic is much smarter
this year, but may be too persistent. In one season, the Braves proposed
a trade for my Cubbies’ stud shortshop Starlin Castro. Their first
offer was a player-for-player deal. I turned it down. They came back two
days later with a two-player deal. The day after that they came back
with a three-man option. In total, they threw together seven different
packages for Castro. I rejected them all. Outside of dealing with bully
AI, Franchise’s multi-roster player management is easy to comprehend,
and I'm glad to see that players still have to make difficult (and often
questionable) decisions with injured players. At one point during a season I was even asked to make
the snap decision on travel arrangements for my team. For a trip from
New York to Pittsburgh, should my team spend $1,700 to rent a bus or
$25,000 to fly? This option only came up once in my five simulated
seasons, and I didn’t run into any other choices like it. I opted to
fly. Stamina and fatigue didn’t seem any different than in any other
game, so I have no idea what the purpose of this option was other than
to show the world that I can burn money with the best of them.
this year’s multiplayer options, online leagues are shallow compared to
franchise mode, but Sony did include new tools such as a handy schedule
creator and a bevy of commissioner options give your league more
flexibility. As for the stability of the online component, both during my review and on launch
day lag was a major concern. Even if an opposing player is showing a
strong connection, some games suffered from crippling slowdown. It got
so bad at times that I wouldn’t even see the swing animation before it
transitioned to showing the ball in play. I found myself politely requesting to
end matches far too often. When the game works the way it should, which I found numerous times on launch day, it’s
a blast. Just know that if online is your desired avenue of play, it can be unreliable.
For the first time in the
series, cooperative play is offered both online and offline for 1 vs. 2,
2 vs. 2, and 2 vs. CPU, but is not incorporated into Franchise or Road
to the Show. Regardless, I had a good time criticizing friends’ poor
pitching performances, and praising them when they came through with a
clutch hit or pitch.
This year’s Home Run Derby is also an entertaining time sink if you want to enter a quick competition with friends. If you
have the opportunity to play Home Run Derby with the Move controller
(the only mode supporting this peripheral) do so. Jacking bombs is a
little harder with the motion-based swing, as the angle of swing could
lead to balls being hit into the dirt or popped up. As if it needs to be
said, it’s fun to make overly exaggerated swings that lead to 400-foot
bombs, and take cuts from both sides of the plate. I don’t like the idea of players having to fork out extra cash
for online content, even if it is only 25 cents a try, but the Weekly
Challenges – which offer one-on-one pitcher and batter duels – are
quick, amusing, and a great avenue for competing with friends.
The Show won Game Informer’s Sports Game of the Year honors last
year, and the product Sony put on the field this season takes a dramatic
step forward in many meaningful areas. Even after 50 to 60 games
played, I was still seeing new animations on the field, and the
commentators were telling different stories about my team. Although I
wanted more challenge from the batting, the new analog pitching controls
should be experienced by every baseball enthusiast.
Email the author Andrew Reiner, or follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Game Informer.