Friday, March 31, 2006

MLB '06: The Show

In 1992, Atari released an arcade machine called "Relief Pitcher."

It blew me away.

I still remember the first time I saw the incredible (for 1992) graphics. And there was an announcer, which was just as incredible, and it was Jack Buck! You could play a regular game, but the real hook was the opportunity to play as a relief pitcher. You'd be sent into a game in increasingly difficult situations, under more and more pressure, until you failed.

It was just brilliant. It totally reworked traditional sports game mechanics and fit perfectly into the arcade. Each situation was almost a mini-game, and in two or three minutes you'd know if you were moving on to the next "level" or not. I pumped endless quarters into that game for months.

Here's a link to see the game: I laughed out loud when I got a look tonight at what I thought "photorealistic" graphics were in 1992.

After Relief Pitcher, I was always on the lookout for a baseball game with a career mode, and I had to look a long way--all the way to Japan. Career simulators are very popular there, and I played several baseball games on a Japanese PS2 just for the career experience.

Still, though, it was never quite the same.

Until this year, that is, when Sony released MLB '06: The Show. There are all the regular modes you expect, but there's also a career mode, and one of the options is to be a closer.

It's been a long wait, but man, it was worth it. This game is just phenomenal. It's easily the best baseball game I've ever played. And on the PSP, it even hides the fugly jaggies, not to mention the widescreen display, which is perfect for a baseball game.

I know what you're thinking: how does it compare to High Heat? Well, it kicks High Heat in the head. It's not close, even with all the great user mods that have come out over the years for High Heat. MVP? Not close--again, even with the great user mods. MLB '06 has a greater fidelity to reality, by far, than any other baseball game that has ever been released.

If you want to know why, the single biggest reason is that players move and act like baseball players. The animation is very close to the quality of the Winning Eleven series, which is generally considered as the gold standard for sports animation. The animation is beyond phenomenal--it's uncanny. If you love sports games like I do, thrilling is not an exaggeration. I've waited most of my adult life for a sports game to move so realistically.

Great animation wouldn't mean much if those well-animated players were idiots. The A.I., though, is also outstanding, far better than what I've ever seen in a baseball game. Again, it nearly matches the Winning Eleven standard. The CPU runs the bases better than has ever been seen in a baseball game (not perfect, but a vast improvement). Players back each other up properly. Fielders make good decisions about where to throw the ball. Those all sound like simple things, but they've never been done so well before.

It's the little things, too. On bunted balls near the baselines, umpires don't call fair or foul until the ball stops moving. That is just one of many small details that are totally accurate in this game.

And in some ways, even the Winning Eleven standard is surpassed. The commentary in MLB '06 is so good that there is nothing to compare it with. Nothing. As excellent as the ESPN Football announcers were, or NBA 2K6 was this year, the commentary in MLB '06 is leagues better. And the number of context-sensitive comments that are made as the game develops are exponentially more frequent (and accurate) than have ever appeared in a sports game before.

Yes, there are a few warts--in a sports game, there always are. Fatigue is modeled so that position players seems to need more days off than they should, and sometimes the pitching rotation is managed oddly. My ERA in career mode isn't calculated properly (it's lower than it should be). Some of the options for game adjustment are in strange places (some are set at the opening menu, but others are set in the in-game menu--and those in-game changes are saved as universal, which is totally counter-intuitive). Yet this game is so jaw-droppingly sensational that I can live with those issues.

Right now I'm in AA ball and getting my head handed to me in my second season as a closer. I've bounced back and forth between AA and AAA, and until I make it to the bigs, I've turned off the announcers (which feels much more authentic, since big league announcers wouldn't be calling minor league games). And it feels great, for once, not be in control of everything. I pitch, but I don't field. If I'm getting rocked, I can't take myself out of the game--I've got to get myself out of trouble or survive until the manager takes me out. I usually come into the game in the 8th or 9th inning, and the game is almost always on the line.

The game also does a nice job of giving you options in terms of how you want to play. You don't see the game until you enter, but once you're in, you can play out the rest of the game if you'd like, regardless of whether you get taken out or not. But--and I really like this--you don't have to. You can can fast forward to the end of the game.

It might seem a little boring to do nothing but pitch, but that's not what happens. While you're in the game, you can bat for your team (but again, you don't have to--you can fast forward to the next half inning). That's a great touch.

And I particularly like the career mode because playing a 162 game season in a baseball game is a grind. I've done it twice (Earl Weaver Baseball on the Amiga 500 and World Series Baseball for the Saturn), but I don't know if I'll ever do it again, and I don't know many people who have ever done it at all. Career mode is a great option to experience the game without having it turn into a huge time sink--I can play fifteen minutes a day and still feel like I'm getting somewhere.

I can only hope that this comes out for the PS3 in 2007, and that they just increase visual detail, improve roster management, and leave the rest of the game alone. It's just too good to change.

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