Sony’s MLB: The Show 13 stands tall as the current, arguably undisputed, king of console baseball simulations but it is still only in its sophomore season on the Vita. This second outing shows even more promise for the franchise than the first but it still largely lives in the shadow of its magnificent HD counterpart. Presentational hiccups and finicky controls are the most glaring issues here but if you are able to look past them you are treated to possibly the best portable baseball experience available today.
New for 2013 is The Show Live Mode that offers updates based on the outcome of actual major league games, which should be enough to keep players interested for the duration of the season. Other play options include taking control of one or more teams and guiding them through a season, the post-season (also new for 13), or multiple years in Franchise mode. The Road to the Show mode is still a major draw, allowing you to guide a player from the minor leagues to an All Star career in the majors.
On the field, The Show is still a winner. The various ways that fielding, pitching, and hitting have been interpreted through the in-game mechanics just seems to make perfect sense. That being said they've obviously designed with a console experience in mind. Take for example the pulse pitching system. The idea is that you should press the button to throw the ball when the diameter of the pulsating circle is at its smallest. The problem is that the timing is noticeably harder to master with the smaller screen and the less responsive button presses lead to some wild pitches that have the capacity to drastically alter a game at a crucial moment. On a more positive note, batting is a thrilling challenge that’s part guesswork and part timing that results in a feeling that is wholly satisfying when you are able to connect on a big hit.
The controls can be a tad iffy. As I already explained, timing the button presses just right for pitches can be quite bothersome but fielding has its own control issues as well. The small size of the baseball on the Vita’s portable screen, combined with the somewhat limited range of the analog sticks, can seem like a match made in hell when trying to scoop ground balls to make a play. The batting system has been further developed to account for timing, positioning, and contact which means you can make up for slightly off timing if you make solid contact and vice versa. The duels between batters and pitchers are perhaps the most thrilling part of the core MLB 13: The Show experience, though again, the minuscule dot of the digitized baseball can make it hard to adjust your eyes to develop the visual acuity necessary to rattle off consistently good at bats.
MLB 13: The Show’s Vita-specific controls are unremarkable. You can tap and swipe the front touchscreen to access various menus, though it’s usually easier to just use the buttons. On the field you can encourage a player on base to steal the next one by swiping the rear touchpad to the left but it will take a few tries to nail down the exact gesture required. On the plus side the Button Accuracy Throw fielding option is enjoyable, intuitive and forgiving if your timing is slightly off. If you want to do away with all the control issues entirely, you can take advantage of the game’s new Beginner difficulty setting which strips the game down to basic pitching and batting, having the CPU take care of everything else automatically. It’s actually a great way to orient newcomers to the game before stepping up to the challenge of taking the reins and being accountable for everything that happens on the field.
Baseball has never been the most graphically demanding sport to recreate in a videogame because the camera and players aren't constantly in motion like in more fast-paced sports games. Even so what the development team has managed to accomplish with the stadium interiors and player models is commendable. The level of detail is quite remarkable and convincing on the Vita’s 5 inch OLED screen. More than once, I've had onlookers take a second look at my Vita to make sure I wasn’t actually watching a game. Nevertheless, comparisons to the console version will not do the Vita version any favors. Graphical parity may be an unrealistic goal, but the Vita version comes with a few of its own standalone graphical and technical issues that are hard to excuse, namely drops in framerate, less varied animations and overly lengthy load times.
The audio presentation does not do much to astound. Commentary provided by Matt Vasgersian comes off as rather rote, though it is a good imitation of what you would hear during an actual radio or television broadcast. The noises emanating from the crowd respond appropriately to the performance of the home team, though you will need to listen through a pair of headphones to hear the nuance that went into the sound design. The eclectic soundtrack consists of tracks from artists representing an array of musical genres such as Blink-182, The Rolling Stones, Big Boi, and ZZ Top.
Online is a big part of the MLB 13: The Show experience, allowing you to download up-to-date rosters, and challenge players in head to head matches. A user with a 3G capable Vita will be able to check the leaderboards or receive up to the minute updates from the MLB.com News service. The community seems lively and passionate during these opening weeks of the season. Hopping online and finding an opponent with a similar skill level should be no problem at all with a reliable Wi-Fi connection.
The biggest issue with the MLB 13: The Show is it suffers an identity crisis. In terms of value, the show has plenty of modes and different ways to play. However, rather than make it a unique portable experience, the Vita version feels as though it’s intended to be supplementary to the PlayStation 3 version. MLB 13: The Show embraces the cross-play philosophy Sony has been trying so hard to push on PS3 and Vita gamers, so you can transfer cloud saves between both versions meaning you can continue to manage your team’s affairs during your commute. Unfortunately, the game is not a cross-buy title, meaning you will have to spend a pretty penny to take advantage of these features. It helps that the show is $20 dollars cheaper on Vita than the PS3 with the same amount of content on paper. At some retailers you may even be able to score a deal that bundles them together at a lower combined price.
Baseball fans should have a good time with MLB 13: The Show on Vita, but unless you want it explicitly because of its portability, the PS3 version alone should satisfy your gaming needs just fine. This is a shame, because the Vita’s unique interface and various other features have a lot of untapped potential to make its version of The Show a more unique, casual, and fun experience.