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Review: MLB 11 The Show

For a few years now the MLB: The Show franchise has been the unquestioned leading baseball game. In fact, I would say that in the past few years, it is has also been the best sports franchise, period. That said, there haven’t been any “major” changes to the game in some time. But who could complain when the product has always been so good? For MLB 11: The Show, SCE Studios San Diego has made some pretty ambitions changes to the upcoming title. They’ve added new analog controls for everything from hitting to pitching, and completely revamped the player models and movements, and that’s just to name a few things.

The demo released earlier this week, and everyone finally got a chance to check out the some of new features in MLB 11: The Show. How did it work out? While I think it is potentially a step in the right direction, it’s hard to judge from a demo that is only four innings long, so there could be some issues that pop up during longer gaming sessions.

Many baseball gaming fans might know that the MLB 2K series was the first baseball title to feature an all-analog control scheme. It didn’t work out that well the first year, but it has improved every year since. Still, one of the issues I have with 2K’s controls scheme is that it can get a bit tiring. I like to play more than a few games in a row and after three games of pitching nine innings each, having to move the stick in a specific direction for a certain pitch all the time, I just don’t feel like pitching anymore.

Right away, you can tell that the folks at the San Diego studio looked at 2K’s control scheme and learned from them. At least in terms of pitching, the analog system works surprisingly well. Instead of having to move each pitch in a specific direction, all you have to do is pull the analog stick back, then forward. When you move your stick forward, you have to aim it according to which side of the plate you are trying to hit. You can also flick forward faster, which will make the pitcher try to “hump up,” and increase the speed of the pitch, but just like in real life, this can cause you to lose accuracy and will tire out the pitcher faster. For more on analog pitching, check out this tutorial video because they don’t teach you how to pitch in the demo.


The new pitching controls do work very well, but there could be some issues with it. Pitching was always pretty rough in previous iterations of The Show, and while this new system adds a small degree of difficulty, I am worried that it might make pitching a bit easier. The reason I say this is because you have more control over where the pitch goes than ever before. It all depends on your control, though, so if you can master the analog movements and get the pitch into the icon every time, than every pitch could end up going exactly where you want it to go. There are a lot of things to take into account when pitching: timing, speed, accuracy, and of course player attributes, which all factor into performance, but a lot is still up to user ability. This might make pitching boring because there’s less of a challenge, and it still remains to be seen if the analog controls will get tiring during longer gaming sessions.

Analog hitting and fielding have also been added to this year’s game, and much like the pitching controls, you’ll have more control this time around. Fielding using the analog stick is pretty simple: hold the stick in the direction (base) you want to throw, and the longer you hold it the harder the throw. A meter below the player’s feet shows the strength in three stages: green, yellow, and red. Green is a quick throw with little strength; you’ll use this when you’re just trying to get the ball out of your glove as fast as possible. Yellow is your normal throw; it takes longer, but has good speed behind the ball. Red takes the longest to wind up, but the player will throw it as hard as he can. Player attributes also play a role in how fast and accurate the throw will be in each stage, so you’ll need to know your player’s ability. Because of the new controls, I noticed fewer errors occur randomly. More often than not if there’s a throwing error, it was because I made the mistake of over throwing.

At the plate, the analog controls work just like they do in the 2K series. Swing back for the back swing and forward to hit the ball. Timing is key here as well, just like in real baseball. Get your foot down too early and you lose power; if you have a smooth swing with great timing then you’ll get all the power you need to put one over the fence. So you can just sit there and pre-load your swing and expect to hit the ball hard. Analog hitting will probably take the most time to learn.  Hitting wasn’t that easy before, and it’s not any easier with analog controls, but you can still guess pitch type and location, and you can still hit L3 to see if you were late or early on the previous swing. I found that most of my swings weren’t that powerful because of my timing, but after some practice I was finally able to hit a few home runs and it felt great getting the timing down. Analog hitting works, but it might be too difficult for some, but thankfully you can change all settings back to last year’s controls if you want to.

Along with the new controls come improvements in player models. At least in the demo (Giants vs Rangers) almost all the players look a lot like their real-life counterparts, and the new models make the players bodies look more realistic as well. In previous iterations players’ arms seemed a bit too short (“raptor arms”), and this year they’ve changed the models so they look more like real baseball players. Player animations also look much better this year, and it seems like they’ve added more specific player animations, at least for the Giants and Rangers players.

Commentary has already improved by bringing on Eric Karros, because Rex Hudler was terrible. Karros is a much better analyst in real life, so it only makes sense that he’s a better fit than Hudler for The Show. The commentary remains solid; not the best in the genre, but it gets the job done with not as much repetition as last year, at least from what I could tell in the demo.

The demo is only four innings long, and even after playing it many, many times, there are still some features I’m not quite sure about and won’t be until the game releases. The analog controls are nice additions, especially for pitching, but I’m not sure if it just works in demo form or if it can hold up to long gaming sessions. What the demo shows off is what seems to be the overall theme of more user control. Instead of random check swings, overthrows, and pitches floating over the heart of the plate, the user has much more control, and if things go wrong you have no one to blame but yourself. The new control scheme and all the new features added to this year’s title show how incredibly ambitious the developer’s are, and seeing it all coming together nicely, at least in the demo, has me very optimistic for MLB 11: The Show.

Every year SCE San Diego always finds a way to improve on what was an already great game, but this year they’ve added more new features to MLB 11 The Show than they have in some time. New pure analog controls, Challenge of the Week mode, co-op mode, and revamped player models highlight the new additions. Some of these are welcomed ones, while others, mainly the analog controls, need some work. Even though some features didn’t work out as SCE San Diego might have hoped, it’s still the small nuances in MLB 11 The Show that continue to make it the best baseball game on the market.

It’s always tough for a sports title to switch controls from one year to the next, because there will always be some community backlash along with the issues that come along with the implementation. MLB 11 The Show isn’t immune to these problems, but luckily, there hasn’t been that much backlash from the community. One of the reasons why is because you can always go back to the original timing controls, but more importantly, the analog controls work for the most part.

Analog pitching is the only way to go now. Switching back to the timing method just frustrates me too much to even bother with that control style anymore. Though MLB The Show isn’t the first baseball title to implement analog pitching, it’s the first one to get it right. Pitching using the analog stick is pretty simple: you pick which pitch you want to throw, pick a location on the plat,e and pull back on the stick, then push forward. Depending on the location you want it, you’ll have to either push slightly right or left. A yellow line and a ball marker on the meter help guide you, and if you hit those perfectly, more often than not your pitch will go where you want it to go. It’s simple and fun; even on harder difficulties I found that I had much more control over where the pitch was going. Some people have said the pitching is too easy, having come from the previous control scheme, but I say it’s “easy” because it actually works.

Fielding controls and hitting controls on the other hand could use a bit of work. The analog controls for fielding are pretty simple; hold in the direction of the base you want to throw to, and the longer you hold it the harder the throw, but doing so also increases the error rate. This year, SCE San Diego put more emphasis on fielder ratings, which means reaction to the ball, arm accuracy, arm strength, throwing on the run, etc. With the new fielding AI, any errors that occur are because of the user, rather than the game. Outfielder reactions are also more realistic this year. Take, for example, a player like Vlad Guerrero and compare him to an outfielder like Andres Torres. If a ball is hit to Vald, he’s going to take awhile to get there, and his first step isn’t going to be the fastest, but Torres will be quick to the ball and have a great reaction to fly balls.

While the user has more control over errors in general, which is nice, frequently when playing on higher difficulty levels, errors occur far too often. It seems that some players will always throw high or in the dirt even on routine grounders when throwing the ball at medium strength. This can easily be fixed with an update, and I hope it does, because some players just can’t seem to throw the ball with any speed without throwing an error.

Analog hitting is absolutely my least favorite addition to the franchise. It simply doesn’t work as well as I would have liked. In principle it seems pretty simple. Pull the stick back to start the players stride and then forward to swing. You no longer have to worry about using the left stick to move the sweet spot, either. But it’s definitely harder than it sounds. Analog hitting revolves around timing and the player’s batting stance. For a player like Buster Posey, who has a longer stride, I could never seem to get good contact with him as opposed to say, a Prince Fielder, who has a shorter stride. Since analog hitting puts an emphasis on timing and getting the front foot down before the swing forward, some players are just easier to hit with.

From playing online, I also found that a lot of people would accidentally bunt instead of swing, because bunting is simply a push forward on the stick. It seems the analog hitting is just too sensitive; if it’s not one fluid motion, then you might end up bunting. Yes, this makes hitting incredibly realistic, and there is something to be said for that, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that I’m playing a baseball game because I actually suck at hitting a baseball in real life.

While the new control system changes the feel of The Show’s gameplay, the game modes are where I would like to see more improvement. Franchise mode is still great, but nothing has really been done to the mode that distinguishes it from previous iterations. Road to the Show also can use some updates, though the one change they made did work out well.

In Road to the Show mode, you take a user-created player and take him from the minors to “The Show” as you improve his abilities throughout his career. Easily the most popular mode in the game, RTTS is still a great mode, and the new Player Performance Evaluator is a welcome addition. During your career you’ll gain training points for accomplishments during a game, but last year you were given tasks to complete. For example: Get a first strike, drive the runner in. Completing this would net you points; failing would get you minus points. Now instead of relying solely on these random events, you are given points based on your overall performance.

When you go up to hit and have an eight pitch at bat that ends in an out, you’ll still get rewarded with points for having a great-at-bat. Even swinging at the first pitch for a deep fly ball can net you some points; not many, but instead of relying on events, you’ll be graded just like you would in real life, by how good your plate appearances were. That said, there are some issues with it; occasionally I would get an RBI-Single but only be graded with a good-at-bat and six points, which seems strange to me.  How is that not a great-at-bat?

While hitting is easier to grade, a good pitching performance can not always be judged based on strikeouts or the number of pitches thrown. I chose to be a ground ball pitcher, and I would get some strike outs, but I would mostly get a lot of ground outs. Striking out a batter would net me the max points (21), but if I got a one-pitch, ground-ball out, I would only get a good batter rating and 11 points. Because of this, it doesn’t make sense to be a pitcher that isn’t a strike-out pitcher. Being a strike-out pitcher will get you more points, and get you to the major’s faster, which isn’t always the case in real life.

One of the best new modes to the game is Challenge of the Week. This arcade-like game mode gives gamers a chance to compete for real world prizes. Each week features a new challenge, and during the season SCE San Diego will pick some great pitcher vs batter matchups based on what occurred in real life. You play as the batter, and your goal is to rack up multipliers and points by getting as many hits as you can in the three outs given to you. You’ll compete via the leaderboard, which is fine, but the only issue is you only get one free chance per week, and each attempt after costs $0.25 each, or, if you buy them in a bundle, 25 attempts for five dollars. While I don’t like the micro transactions because it gives an unfair advantage to those willing to spend money to win the prize, I do like that game mode and kind of wish they would allow you to play without uploading stats to the leaderboard just so I can compete with my friends.

Another addition is Co-Op. You can now play 2 vs 2, 2 vs 1, or 2 vs CPU in most of the game modes in the game, including online play. You can chose to alternate pitching, hitting and who will be in control of the outfield or infield. This mode works well offline, but not so much online. It’s hard to find a match, and when you do, most people get disconnected or the game lags too much to play. It would also have been nice to assign specific players and positions to control instead of having to simply alternate. All-Star Baseball did it years ago, so I’m not sure why no other baseball game has done it since. Still, it’s nice to have the co-op option back in a baseball game in any form.

Online still falls victim to a bit of lag, though if you are using the old controls it’s much smoother. You just can’t control what others are using, and the analog system seems to cause some latency issues online. Online leagues are back, with the ability to assign AI teams now, which is a huge addition because so many people never played their league games. Being able to have CPU-controlled teams makes the 162 season a bit less daunting.

Every year. visuals and presentations improve, and I have no idea how SCE San Diego does it, because every year I say “this year’s The Show is the best looking one by far.” This year they changed the player models to more accurately portray a baseball player’s body type, and they seemed to have added much more detail to players’ faces and animations. They even added Freddy Sanchez’s batting stance, which looks perfect, and is a very unique stance. Every year more and more players look and move like their real-life counterpart, which is why so many people think it’s a real game on TV. Adding to this are the new camera angles. They’ve included all 30 team-specific broadcast camera angles, which is pretty amazing. There’s nothing like playing with your favorite team in the same angle that you watch it in real life. You’ll also get to edit the camera to suite your preference; the options are pretty much endless.

Stadiums look a bit better this year, too, though the surroundings still look terrible. Stadium-specific jumbotrons add much more to the authenticity of the game, and the lighting effects could not be more accurate. During a day game you will notice the sun start to shade certain areas of the field, and the effect looks even better for late games. Rain is now apart of the game, though most of the time it just looks overcast. The crowd seems to be on par with previous years; they cheer and boo – not always during the right moments – but it’s accurate enough. Some teams will have specific chants like the Yankees or Red Sox, which is a very nice touch.

The overall presentation is unlike many sports titles out there. They’ve even added a ticker that updates games happening all around the MLB: real-life games. You really can’t ask for much more from the broadcast presentation, other than improved commentary, because it’s beginning to feel a bit stale at this point.

In the end, it’s all the small things that set MLB 11 apart from other sports titles and really make it a great game. It’s the check swing hits, reaching over the stands in foul ground to grab the ball, the umpire getting hit by a foul ball and having to take a knee; it’s all of these random occurrences that happen in the real-life game that you never would expect to see in a video game. Though some of the controls don’t work as well, the old controls work perfectly and the improvements made to RTTS and the visual bump just add more to what was an already excellent title. Challenge of the Week will literally have players coming back every week to play the game, and with Co-Op finally available, you now have a reason to bring the game over to a friend’s house. MLB 11 The Show is once again the definitive baseball game.

MLB 11: The Show
Platform: PS3
Genre: Baseball
Release Date: 03/08/2011
Developer: SCE Studios San Diego
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
MSRP: $59.99


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