Sports titles often get a bad reputation for being the same game with different rosters every year. Unfortunately the established precedent is that sports games can, and even should, come out with a new edition each year, so developers must find ways to try to adapt and change the formula enough to keep the experience fresh whilst at the same time not alienating long time fans. MLB 09: The Show may not be the most innovative game, but it does well in retaining the mechanics that fans enjoy and improving upon them to try and perfect the experience. It also introduces some new game mechanics that very few sports titles have, which makes for a completely unique way to play a Baseball video game.
MLB 09: The Show is the continuation of one of Sony’s only first party sports franchises. Anyone who has ever played a Baseball video game will be mostly familiar with the controls, but there are some particulars that differ from the norm which are worth further inspection. Controls in the game are mostly devoted to the pitcher or the batter. Playing as a pitcher is all about what type of pitch you want to throw and positioning in the strike zone. Pitchers each have their own strengths and pitching repertoire which dictates what kinds of pitches they can throw. A blue meter under each type of pitch shows you the confidence that you feel for that given pitch and thus the likely hood that you will throw it accurately. This can quickly make a bad day at the mound exponentially worse as each pitch for which you miss the mark decreases your confidence and thus decreases your chance to hit where you are attempting to aim for the next pitch.
At the start of each pitch your catcher will show you what pitch he recommends, as well as where he recommends you throw it. You then pick a pitching type, totally ignoring the catcher’s suggestion if you so choose, and use the left analog stick to choose where you are attempting to aim the pitch within the two dimensional plane of the strike zone (or outside of it if you so choose). A timing challenge follows where you must press the X button as a bar reaches the end of the meter to choose your power, and then press X again within a green region as the bar passes backwards to decide the control your pitch is thrown with. This bar can be affected by your pitcher’s confidence as well, and if you find yourself in a tight spot you’ll find that the green region for pitch control will get smaller as the bar increases in speed.
If someone manages to hit one of your pitches you will have a chance to start fielding. Auto-fielding is dependable and you can count on the computer to get to the ball usually. However, I wish the player controlled fielder was better chosen, as sometimes the computer will decide that it wants to do the fielding and will give you control over some outfielder nowhere near the action. You can press L2 to switch to the closest fielder to the ball, but it is confusing the first few times. Once someone has reached the ball you can throw the ball to a base using the face buttons, with first base being assigned to Circle, the second base to Triangle and the rest following that pattern. Unfortunately, your fielder's point of view changes the assignment of the bases. This can be turned off in the options, but again it's disconcerting the first few times you screw up your throw.
Batting is fairly simple when compared to pitching. You time your swing and press X or Square for a contact or power hit respectively. If you want to study up to increase your chances you can look up the tendencies of the pitcher you are facing using the menu system. This also allows you to take a guess at what region of the strike zone you think the pitch will come to and the batter will prepare and make better contact if you guessed correctly, but is less likely to hit the ball at all if it ends up in a different region of the strike zone.
Game mode options include many of the regularly included modes common in sports titles. Exhibition mode allows you to pick two teams and a ton of other options with no saved stats from the game. Franchise gives you the reigns of an entire baseball franchise to do with as you will: trading, scheduling and managing the business of baseball to your heart’s content. Season mode is self explanatory, and Manager mode allows you to control everything about the game other than directly control the action (which is a completely foreign idea to me). The most interesting mode for me personally is Road to the Show.
Road to the Show lets you take over the training and development of a single athlete. You are allowed to customize your player to a surprising amount of detail, even allowing you to pick an intro song from your own playlist. You train your player and play through games where he is involved (skipping any sections where your athlete has no involvement), and work your way from the Minor AA League all the way up to the Majors. Training allows for a huge amount of customization to the point that Road to the Show plays out like a Baseball RPG. You are given goals to complete each month or so that guide you along the path to the Majors, but there is no obvious consequence for choosing to ignore them and blazing your own trail to glory.
Any review of a long standing series should probably mention new features that are being introduced to the franchise for the sake of series fans. MLB 09: The Show adds online season leagues that allow players to run drafts and create their game schedules to play amongst their friends or just any random person that feels up for the challenge. There is also custom music, as well as fan yells and chants that you can record yourself and force the crowd to say during the situation of your choice. There is also a Replay Vault which allows players to store highlight reels and access “end of game” replays to see the top plays of the game. Finally, there's a Legend Mode; a new fifth difficulty level that will pit you against the greatest of the greats.
Visual presentation for MLB 09: The Show is well done for what it is, but not mind blowing in any way. The crowds have a lot of variety and actually hold up to close scrutiny more so than most sports titles I have played, but there were still noticeable clones in the stands and some strange behaviour, like people randomly walking up and down stairs constantly for no reason. There is a welcome amount of variety and attention to detail when it comes to the players themselves, with each batter having their own specific stance and swinging tendencies. There were never any noticeable technical issues during my playtime and the game runs smoothly without any framerate hitches.
Sound presentation is very realistic, with good sound effects that keep you in the moment and never seem out of place. The music that comes with the game is a painfully small selection of licensed tracks that most will probably find wanting. This is forgiven, however, since the game allows you to make your own custom playlist using whatever songs you happen to have on your PS3 hard drive. This is a great feature and I wish games that included it would advertise this fact, or mention it more clearly, since unfortunately there aren’t enough PS3 titles that do it for me to simply assume that it is included. The announcers were actually quite impressive, and seemed to be able to keep track and remember every event in the game, but they still repeated phrases enough for me to notice in the time I played.
MLB 09: The Show’s gameplay does a lot of things very well. There are many different controls that can allow a well versed player to do almost anything they care to on the field; there are even eight different control systems, and various sliders. This also leads to the issue of overly complicated controls, which can be extremely daunting for a new player. The large amount of game modes allow for a huge variety in playing styles, and the Road to the Show feature is considerably impressive. The developers seem to have taken the game in every direction possible whilst still keeping it grounded in the source material and not stepping too far in any other genre’s direction. While I personally would’ve liked a story to go along with the RPG-like feature of Road to the Show, I understand that it would just be seen as a hindrance to most sport fans.
The value in this title is impressive. There are many different playing modes for you to sink your teeth into, and fans who really want to play until their eyes bleed will find more than enough content to do so. It is hard to put an average playtime on a sports title due to the lack of storyline and standard of almost endless replayability, but I think the large variety in MLB 09: The Show’s content deserves to be noted and rewarded. Local multiplayer for two players as well as online gaming is included to help increase the value even higher. One mode that is sorely missing is a beginner's mode that would allow players to learn the basics of the game, as this would really help newcomers get to grips with the controls.
MLB 09: The Show is not just a great baseball game, but it is a great game in general. The amazing variety and number of game modes, all inclusive controls that allow you to do almost anything within reason, and unexpectedly fun Road to the Show feature make this a baseball game for any fan of the genre, but the standard visuals and complicated controls make it a hard game to recommend to just anyone. MLB 09: The Show isn't enough to make a sports game fan out of a non-fan, but it was a good attempt, and is certainly a must have for any baseball fan.