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MLB 11: The Show
Graphics: 9
Gameplay: 9.4
Sound: 9.5
Control: 9.2
Replay Value: 9.7
Rating: 9.3

In the world of virtual sports, baseball fans might have the best deal: not only is The Show one of the best simulators around, the MLB 2K series is none too shabby, and in truth, just another great option. Football aficionados can only rely on Madden, EA keeps slipping in their basketball endeavors so it falls to NBA 2K, and I never thought this generation’s hockey iterations were as impressive as the baseball titles. We’ll look into MLB 2K11 for you soon but first, it once again becomes readily apparent that The Show has most everything the die-hard diamond fan desires. Truthfully, I remain unconvinced that all-analog controls are as accurate as developers claim, but you have full control over how you play MLB 11: The Show, so don’t worry. Overall, this is a fantastic simulator with a boatload of heart.

Graphically, the series has never looked better. Character modeling is good and the detailing of the fields and stadiums is top-notch. One could argue that certain players just look weird (I don’t think they got Teixeira right), but the painstaking process of implementing each and every athlete’s likeness and stances must be respected. For the record, I did have a little difficulty seeing the ball in the field sometimes, and the visual presentation isn’t entirely devoid of errors; a few small issues can be seen during brief cut-scenes, for instance. That’s the professional critic speaking but strictly from a gamer’s standpoint, I fail to see how anyone can be disappointed. The vivid colors of the field, the spectacular animations on both offense and defense, and the ultimately refined palette turns The Show into a graphical tour de force. It’s the entire look and feel that is most impressive; despite a few hiccups, it all gels and comes together in a very sweet package.

As good as the graphics are, the sound outstrips them in terms of effectiveness and quality. The ambient effects are most appreciated; you’ll hear the field announcer talking to the crowd (the “lucky row” giveaway, for instance), the general buzz of the crowd when warming up, the rising roar during a long drive, and one can easily discern the splintering of a broken bat. The soundtrack is full of solid and various tracks and the commentary is extremely diverse and satisfying. The latter did drop out on me a few times, though; the crew was about to introduce something, and then…nothing. And it wasn’t because I skipped ahead; the commentary simply stopped. But that doesn’t happen often and when you consider the gameplay effects and menu-accompanying music, the audio is undeniably great. In short, when you take in a game in real life…well, it sounds a lot like this.

When you pick up this game, it’ll advertise the addition of several new elements: 3D, PlayStation Move compatibility (if only for the Home Run Derby) and “Pure Analog Control.” Now, as I hinted above, I have never been 100% convinced that analog control in a sports simulator is a better and more realistic option. I don’t believe pushing the analog in a certain way mimics the swing of a bat, so it’s not authentic in terms of the motion our hand is making, and I’ve often questioned the accuracy of such mechanics. And while I still won’t play MLB 11: The Show will all analog controls turned on, I will admit this is the closest that mechanic has come to impressing me. The best part is that you can choose exactly the mode of control you want for every aspect of the game: pitching, hitting, fielding and running. If you want analog for one or two and a classic setup for the others, fine.

Personally, I ended up using the analog for pitching (and I also selected the Broadcast camera angle, which is awesome), because it may be the single best pitching mechanic in baseball video game history. It’s difficult to explain in words but let’s just say that mistakes will often be exploited – remember, this is a simulator – and you are always forced to think exactly like a pitcher. With no balls and two strikes, you probably want to make him chase a pitch out of the zone. With the bases loaded, you want to rely on your best pitches and keep the ball near the plate. Furthermore, at any time, you can check out plenty of relevant statistics, including the batter’s pitch preference, and how he has fared against certain pitches in that game. And throughout every at bat, you will spot the specific habits and behaviors of both the pitcher and the batter; it’s so accurate, and adds so much to the immersion, it’s just plain scary.

I opted for the classic approach to hitting, just because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the pure analog option. The classic lets you pick X for a normal swing, Circle for a contact swing, and Square for a power swing. You can guess the pitch beforehand and when the pitch comes, you can aim your bat with the left analog while pressing one of those aforementioned buttons. I found this to work the best; I never felt in total control of the all-analog swinging mechanic. However, I want to be clear- that is not necessarily because that control format is broken; it could very well be that I just suck at it. I got the pitching and the running (hook slide by pressing the right analog in a particular way!), but when it came to hitting and fielding, I just used the standard style of control. For fielding, you just press a button that corresponds with a base, and hold it longer for a harder – albeit less accurate – throw. With the all-analog, you use the right stick for all throws, which I found difficult.

And you know, once I had my control setup exactly the way I wanted it, I just sunk in and played ‘til my heart’s content. I was a baseball player as a younger man and I wasn’t too bad at it, either; I also still have a mean card collection, so I think I’ll always love the sport. To see a game that nails down so many different aspects of the real-life experience; to have a virtual experience that seems to take every tiny element of this complex sport into account…well, it’s just a pleasure. The inherent challenge is stiff for two great reasons: firstly, we have so much control (stopping runners in between bases, controlled slides, pick-off attempts, defense shifts, total stat-tracking of almost every conceivable type, etc.) and hence, it can feel a little overwhelming at first. And secondly, it’s challenging because the AI is just about right, and the game reacts about the way it should.

I do, however, have a few small complaints. Earlier, I mentioned that seeing the ball on defense can be difficult; I often lost it on the outfield grass, for some reason. It just looks tiny on the screen. And as for fielding, I have a small issue with how the defense mechanic operates- you have three options; you can either have complete control over the fielders, let the game automatically do everything, or turn on the Assist option. This causes players to take a few steps towards the ball and then turns control over to you. For some reason, I would often get messed up because the game didn’t always seem to choose the best player. You can hit L2 to select the defenseman closest to the ball, but doing so – especially after hesitating with another player – can cost you big time. I also think the fielding animations were over-exaggerated and this is an issue, because if you throw when off-balance, your accuracy suffers.

Problem is, it seems to take too long for infielders to come out of their fielding animation, and I have to hurry some throws. I’m also not entirely sure how effective it is to “aim” the bat with the left analog; I seemed to get better results when ignoring it entirely and just pressing a button to swing. But that’s about it. This game excels in so many areas; it’d be impossible to list all the highlights. The Road to the Show Mode is so where it’s at and the new Player Performance Evaluator is unbelievable. You can try to take your favorite team to the World Series, as always, and you can even play co-op. I tested out Move in the Home Run Derby, which is super fun. I don’t think they did quite enough to spice up that mode, though; the Derby is a loud, lively, raucous event and that just doesn’t come through. Still, Move works really well and it’s strongly recommended that you try it.

MLB 11: The Show includes most every feature, strategy, tactic, and gameplay element any die-hard fan could ask for. It’s all here and really, I could go on writing and explaining for a very long time. But here’s the point- the game attempts to put our nation’s pastime at our fingertips, and it succeeds wonderfully. It’s not a perfect production and it does feel incomplete and even ineffective in some ways, but with brilliant, highly detailed 1080p visuals (with the option of stunning 3D), great sound, full control customization, and gameplay that relies on authentic physics and AI, the fans should be happy. One inning of play, from the recognizable stadium sounds to every player’s eccentricity and style to the intensity of a tight situation, will convince you. Even before you dive in and begin to learn every last intricacy; even with only playing a few innings in exhibition mode, you’ll be impressed.

And over time, you will envelop yourself in one hell of a sports simulator.

The Good: Brilliant, immensely detailed visuals. Great audio. Complete control customization. Huge amount of depth and stat-tracking. AI is consistently solid. Slick presentation. Look and feel of the sport sufficiently captured.

The Bad: Pure analog control doesn’t seem perfect for all gameplay situations. Fielding can be frustrating. Slightly over-exaggerated animations.

The Ugly: “Oh damnit, wrong button.”

3/8/2011   Ben Dutka