This is as good as baseball gets, folks.
Sony Computer Entertainment America's San Diego Studio did something that hadn't been done in a while last year, they unseated 2K as baseball champ. SCEA did some really special things with last year's MLB, which included bringing one of the most realistic feeling and looking baseball games to fans.
So what could they possibly improve this time around? Let's talk a bit.
The first proudly toted feature of MLB 11 The Show is the 'Pure Analog Control System'. For most developers this would be a huge gamble. SCEA looked like they had an idea of what they wanted to do with it and they pulled it off beautifully. The PACS pretty much gives you complete control over pitching, hitting and fielding using only the analog sticks (well, you have to choose your pitches, so buttons once in a while). Surprisingly, getting use to this control scheme is incredibly easy. When you pitch in the game you get a triangular indicator above the pitcher's head (sorta like the power meter in the PSP version of the game -- though it's vertical instead of horizontal). Using your right analog stick you pull back once you select a pitch and you push forward as slow or as fast as you want. The resulting slow/fast movement produces a certain speed. You've got to be careful in the process, as you let go of the analog stick it records what direction you let it go. The direction produces an 'accuracy' for the pitch, so you can either throw accurately or wild. On top of this, you have to pull back on the analog stick at a precise moment to get the pitch off perfectly. There is a tiny line in the pitching indicator that shows you where to stop the pitch. It's very easy to work with and the line varies on the overall indicator, so sometimes you'll have a short line to get to and sometimes it will be long. As far as I can tell the line varies with the pitch type.
As for the batting portion of the game, it's probably closest to what you'll see if you played this game in regular control mode. You can still guess the pitch and the location, but the swinging is controlled by the right analog stick. Swinging the bat was a lot easier then I anticipated. In several at bats I made solid contact with the ball more times than I would have if I used the regular controls. Most of all, batting felt as natural as the pitching did with the PACS.
Finally, as for the fielding, it was simple. You basically have to pull in the direction you're throwing the ball in with a color indicator giving you some sort of sign if you're making an accurate throw. The color indicator is a circle that appears below the player and it ranges from red/yellow/green (guess which one is the good indicator). It's actually easier to use this than to use the buttons in regular mode; go freakin' figure.
Overall, SCEA does have something to be proud of with their Pure Analog Control System. This is how analog sticks were suppose to be used and it's a shame that more sports titles don't take advantage. I will be playing my baseball games this way from now on.
Opposite of that new setting is the introduction of the Association for Disabled Virtual Athletes (ADVA). This allows for handicap individuals to play the game easily. I had a friend named Michael Brent who was paraplegic and had to wait for his Xbox 360 to be modified so he could play Tiger Woods PGA Tour using his mouth, as he only had very limited control with his hands (he had been in a car wreck his senior year of high school and became paralyzed from the neck down -- though he had some movement in his hands later). Anyway, had this option been available while he was alive (he sadly passed away of pneumonia in the late part of last decade) then he would have been happy, happy, happy. I am extremely pleased that SCEA created this option and I'm sure it will make a lot of handicap baseball fans around the country extremely happy.
Another new item that I believe is truly important to the experience is the ability to play 1-4 players online and offline. While just slightly deceiving, the co-op mode sported in MLB 11 The Show is broken down in the following way:
1 vs. 2
2 vs. 2
2 vs. CPU
Having the ability to play your friends (multiple friends) online and offline in the same game is an invaluable method of gaming. That was one of the best things about NFL 2K and Madden, as you can boss around your buddies and blame them later for the team failing. The fact that you can play with or against them in a single game is something that should have happened a long time ago. Still, I'm happy it's here and it will make quite a bit of baseball freaks happy.
Road to the Show has been tweaked in this year's version of the game. If you thought that you were growing a player before in a baseball game then you haven't seen nothing yet. This is perhaps one of the biggest and brightest spots of the game; rivaling even the Pure Analog Control System. You create a player and you begin to cultivate their skills, which isn't a new concept. What is delightfully new is that the skills and training produce logic-based results that give you a more accurate stat building ability/chance. This new 'logic' system is referred to as Player Performance Evaluator, and it works pretty brilliantly. You'll be able to focus on certain skills, like power hitting or hitting the ball a certain direction during training, while also getting graded on how you throw the ball. With every 'good' thing your player does a sliding scale is applied (sometimes it can work against you if you don't do well). This is an incredibly in-depth method for building a player from scratch. I was completely blown away on the details for this and I commend SCEA for putting the time and effort into improving something that was already improved to begin with. Most baseball fans are stat crunchers anyway, so they should absolutely adore this improvement.
Outside of the addition of Eric Karros (had that man's baseball card when I was younger) the other tweaks and additions weren't as major as the ones listed above. The overall gameplay experience with the improved controls, the co-op and road to the show additions/enhancements makes this game much better (as if that was possible).
So what about the visuals? Good lord, the visuals.
You remember when you were a kid and you use to imagine being your favorite baseball player? Imagine no more! The amount of details put into the visuals of MLB 11 The Show will probably make the developers at 2K drop their jaws. I haven't seen this much facial, body or swinging/pitching detail in baseball players in a baseball game, ever. SCEA is about two versions away from making this comparable to an FMV (full-motion video) game, like what you would have found on the Sega CD (that's not a knock). From frustrating strikeouts to gingerly jogging to first-base, you'll swear that SCEA somehow brought in all the real players and captured them perfectly. What I was most impressed with visually was the clothes and the shadows. When you can take Joey Votto from the Reds and replicate his baggy pants and have him push up his oversized sleeves then you've got some visual accuracy right there, my friend. It's little things, little details, little stuff that you would expect to see if you were at a stadium watching baseball.
Hell, even the bat reflects perfectly off the batters' helmet the batter is waiting for the pitch. It's that's gorgeous!
That's not all, though. The environments for the game are perfectly replicated, with real day/night switchovers. For example, I was playing the bastard Houston Astros at Great American Ballpark and I got to see the day gradually change over to the night. It was a subtle change, but one that shows the little details that SCEA put into this game. Sticking with environments there are also perfectly modeled stadiums with, and this made me giggle a bit, accurately sized Jumbotrons. While nothing huge in terms of visual improvements, it still shows that SCEA San Diego is trying new things, which is always a welcomed thing. Finishing off the environments, I love the crowds. While there are some repeating spots in the stands, the crowd still looks very unique. One thing that did bug me about the crowd is that I didn't see one of those losers catch a skidding foul ball down the side. They would always tip over and reach out, but never got one.
Mark that one down on your list, Sony.
With all of this said, where does the game stand in comparison with others? Well, since i haven't touched 2K's game yet, I can only compare it with games previously released. MLB 11 The Show sits firmly in the number one spot for baseball games made. I can, without one single shred of doubt, say that this is the best baseball game ever made to date. It's got all the right moves in terms of controls and it contains one of the deepest baseball player building modes ever. While my sight might be short for the future, I cannot see how SCEA San Diego is going to improve upon this beauty. It's literally nearly perfect.
So is there a downer? If I have to be a negative nancy here the only downer I had with MLB 11 The Show is how incredibly cluttered the menu system could get when I was playing. There were times, especially at the beginning, where I was thoroughly confused on where I needed to go and what I needed to do to get a game started. I realize this is small potatoes, but it was a tiny concern of mine. Is it enough to hurt the game? Nah, you can probably write this off as a reviewer just clearly not smart enough to do some navigation. It would be nice to see just a bit of a cleanup, though.
With that said, if you're a baseball fan then you need this game. It truly is a great achievement for the baseball gaming genre and one that shouldn't be ignored. Please keep in mind that I had a tough time with MLB 10 The Show last year, and was particularly frustrated with the gameplay. So it's saying a lot for me to fully endorse this one. You've got my attention and baseball gaming time now, Sony.