MLB 12: The Show Review
MLB 12: The Show has a very steep learning curve, but ultimately rewarding gameplay.
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MLB 12: The Show builds on the success of previous iterations of the franchise, pushing new, more finely-tuned mechanics for both batting and pitching, while also adding full compatibility with Playstation Move and the new PS Vita portable console. MLB 12 tweaks with the systems from last year's version, though it lets you revert to most of the older control schemes if you really feel uncomfortable in the new system. In addition, this year's version of The Show brings back the "Road to the Show" career game mode, while also adding a new Diamond Dynasty mode that works like a franchise mode that lets you build a team of real and fictional baseball stars (some earned, some bought via DLC) to compete with other players. MLB 12: The Show began shipping in March and is a PS3/PSVita exclusive developed by Sony Computer Entertainment San Diego.
MLB 12: The Show follows up on last year's success by introducing new mechanics for both pitching and batting. The changes aren't wholesale, however, with the game giving players the option of all but completely reverting to the mechanics from MLB 11. On top of that, SCE San Diego introduces some new game modes this year, with the new Diamond Dynasty mode, with Playstation Move support in all modes.
Generally speaking, baseball games come down to a few key mechanics. Apologies to the Alex Gonzaleses of the world, but it's all about pitching and batting. While fielding is important, it's the kind of thing you only really notice when something screws up or you happen to do something amazing. For pitching and hitting, however, every little tweak matters to hardcore players.
MLB 12: The Show certainly makes a bold decision, then, in introducing new mechanics for both hitters and pitchers. While both mechanics are largely optional, they allow for ever-finer control over where the ball is put into play. That increased control also comes at a risk, as guessing wrong or throwing a poorly-timed pitch can yield disastrous results.
For pitchers, the pitching meter from previous games is gone by default. In its place, a pulsing orb around your pitching target expands and contracts rapidly. By pressing the pitch button when the circle is at its smallest point, you'll put the ball closer to where you intended. This doesn't really give you the fine control you might expect, especially given that you can get much closer to your target by using the meter.
The best thing about the pulse pitching, though, is how immersive it can make the experience of pitching in a tight situation. When the hitters start getting to you and you know you don't have the right pitcher in your pen, things get dicey quick. In these situations, hitting your mark becomes very tough, but getting out of the situation feels extremely satisfying.
On the hitting end, there are several layers of control available to the player. At its most basic, you can simply time your hits, with the option to take a standard swing, a contact swing, a powerful swing, or a bunt. This can be extremely important to succeeding in modes like Road to the Show, where every at-bat is important. Knowing when to use a contact swing to just foul off a 2-strike pitch against when to try and power it to the wall is key to progressing in the game.
With Pure hitting, you use the left analog stick to more accurately place the bathead so that a you can get under or over a ball. You can also engage the right control stick in a down and up motion, similar to the mechanic used in Tiger Woods golf games, to engage the swing. Pulling toward you on the right stick lifts your forward foot up, while pressing the stick rapidly upward causes the hitter to take a full stride, stepping through the swing and powering the bat.
This opens up several options, but also presents specific issues. If you have a poorly timed stride, your hitter will be way off balance and unable to hit the ball. If you time it perfect, however, you can also direct the right analog stick either left or right. Doing so will result in either a more powerful pull on the ball, or cause you to hit it opposite field. For lefty power hitters like MLB 12 cover boy Adrian Gonzales, that gives you the ability to take advantage of park-specific features, like Fenway's historic green monster.
It's a fine mechanic, but it has an extremely steep learning curve. When first starting out, it's not uncommon to strike out quite a bit, even with perfectly timed swings. Pitch recognition also becomes key, as you'll need to see a breaking ball early in order to not overdo your stride. Once you really get a hold of it, though, there's a definitive, addictive satisfaction to hitting.
Road to the Show
The Road to the Show mode is, in many ways, the cardinal draw of MLB 12: The Show. In this mode, you create a single player, tweak their stats, and then enter the draft or select a team to play for. Beginning at the AA level as a starting pitcher or position player, you are then giving control over your player, with your success and failures determining how quickly they develop.
As a position player, your impact on a single game is relatively minimal, with the game fast-forwarding to only the events that your player takes part in. For example, while you will play every at-bat that your player gets (if you choose), you will only have to play the field when the ball is going to be hit in your direction. This doesn't mean you know exactly what is going to happen, though. On more than one occasion our player was told to move in by the manager, only for the ball to sail over our heads.
Your performance in batting and fielding (or pitching, if you design a pitcher) will result in a specific amount of training points, which you can spend on developing your stats. Working a 12-pitch at-bat and then crushing one over the wall, for example, may yield 20+ points, while a 3-pitch strikeout can actually lose you a point or two. If you play well, you'll advance up to AAA and eventually the majors, but play poorly and you'll get dropped to the bench, and won't even play in every game.
The controls in MLB 12: The Show are largely very responsive. We found that the hitting mechanics allow the batter to work at whatever level they are most comfortable with, with options to adjust those levels on the fly. Those just starting out can work at plate discipline in timing until they're ready to begin guessing pitch locations. Expert players can then begin to time their strides and swings appropriately, spraying the ball where need be, depending on the situation.
Pulse pitching wasn't nearly as intuitive, though, as even ace pitchers did not have complete command over their best pitches. This is fine late in a game or in a bases loaded situation (at this point, fatigue impacts your control and the pulses are more rapid and appropriate circles larger), but it often takes hold in the beginning of the game.
In the end, MLB 12: The Show will feel only slightly different to long-time fans of the series. It doesn't take long to adjust to the changes, or ignore most of them entirely. The rest of the game does tend to work pretty well, though we wish fielding were occasionally zippier. Fielding slow infield grounders, for example, sometimes results in a wooden response from fielders that is more reminiscent of your average rec softball player than a world-class athlete.
MLB 12: The Show, like most sports games, features a nearly unlimited amount of content in the form of franchise modes, online multiplayer, extra game modes, and the game's exclusive "Road to the Show" career mode. While it's certain to be replaced next year, the game does offer frequent roster updates to keep things fresh as the season continues.
The most notable element of the game is that "Road to the Show" career mode, which offers you the ability to customize a young draftee just getting to the AA level. While your opportunities are limited at first, solid performances and development soon see your player rise up the ranks of the organization, getting better along the way.
While other games have done something similar (FIFA's career mode, in particular, emulates this gameplay well), the discrete events of your typical baseball game contribute to the feeling of limited opportunity. As such, Road to the Show makes every at-bat feel crucial in the life of a developing young player.
WIth MLB 12: The Show obviously configuring a lot of odds behind the scenes to determine a pitchers form, it's tough to parse out what's adaptive AI and what is merely patterning catching you off guard. That being said, it's clear that pitchers favor pitches that they gain confidence in. Thus, if you really can't see and hit that 12-6 curveball to save your life, you're likely to see quite a few of them in successive at-bats. Like any good pitcher (or AI), the computer isn't going to rely on one trick, but the game does quickly adapt to your weaknesses, attacking them where possible.
The one thing we can say for the game is that, even at Legendary difficulty, we didn't feel that the game ever slipped into what is so lovingly described as "God mode." That would describe the annoying habit of some sports games to completely flip the odds against a player who is succeeding. With so much guesswork going on with every pitch, it wouldn't be hard for MLB 12: The Show to incorporate something similar. That said, though we lost a lot of games in The Show, we didn't feel beaten cheaply more than once or twice.
As with most sports games, there's not much in the way of storyline to push you along through the franchise and road to the show modes. There are some cinematics that are designed to give your character a little more life, but these are mostly relegated to showing your character either looking satisfied or frustrated after a performance. There are, of course, cinematics that you'll see when you hit a home run or win the World Series, but there's nothing that separates these from the same ones in any of the other gameplay modes.
Plot & Player Choices
In modes like Franchise and Road to the Show, you are tasked with taking over for either a team or a specific player, guiding them through multiple seasons. You can do this directly, by playing the game, or by simulating the in-game performance and focusing on a more macro management style. This is common in many games, but the Road to the Show, in particular, does a great job of putting you in the shoes of a player on the way up. While the penalties for performing poorly aren't that steep, there's a satisfaction the first time you begin to go on a tear, even if it's just at the AA or AAA level.
The commentary in MLB 12: The Road to the Show is among the best that we've seen (heard?) in any sports game. The announcers all offer cogent analysis that incorporates not only your performance on the field, but a feeling that the baseball world extends beyond just your game. They'll discuss things like who might win the World Series, as well as your performance overall in previous games.
Better still, the commentary team will often remark on specific strengths or weaknesses that you're having when hitting or pitching. For example, if you find yourself striking out because you've chased one too many breaking balls, the announcers will be all over it. The pace of baseball and its collection of discrete events makes designing commentary an easier task than it is for say, a soccer game, but MLB 12: The Show sets the commentary bar for other games to aspire to.
Graphics & Atmosphere Overview
MLB 12: The Show is an attractive game, with player animations looking better than they have in past years. The stadiums each have their own individualized feel, with small tweaks that really let you feel like you're at the park. The atmosphere definitely evokes the sense of summertime baseball, and it's impressive how different each of the parks feels as you play a franchise mode and move around the league.
The art design for MLB 12: The Show is pretty standard for a baseball game, focused on replicating the look and feel of a televised event. We were left wishing for a little more resolution in the textures, especially on faces, with the crowd faces, in particular, showing their age. That's a cost of rendering individual character models for the crowd, instead of choosing odd angles, 2D sprites, or blurring the background. Still, It can be a little jarring, with the crowd taking maybe a step or two too far into the uncanny valley. The parks themselves though all look gorgeous, and the variety of in-game cuts, lighting, and camera angles really puts this year's iteration miles ahead of the previous version in terms of replicating the experience of watching a game.
The graphics themselves for MLB 12: The Show don't bowl you over, though they're improved over last year. There's been some great work done with the animations, as pitching and batting feel smooth. The ball physics are slightly flighty, in our opinion, making it easier to diagnose where pitches are heading.
The in-game commentary is fantastic in this game, aided somewhat by the nature of baseball's discrete events. The commentary team of Dave Campbell, Matt Vasgersian, and Eric Karros do a fantastic job. Even when they occasionally repeat themselves, it doesn't feel forced in the way that it can in popular games such as the Madden or FIFA series, where the same advice is heard multiple times a game. Overall, the commentary is probably the biggest improvement over last year, and it might be the best in this year's crop of sports games.
Disappointingly, the roster of songs has shrunk in MLB 12: The Show again to 10 songs, and it's not long before you begin to get sick of just about all of them. We weren't particularly impressed with the lineup. They're not bad songs, but with a lot of time spent in the menus for the franchise and Road to the Show modes, the playlist could do with about twice as many entries.
The ambient sound effects really do a great job of making you feel like you're at the stadium, with the low hum of the crowd, the crack of the bat, and the sound of the pitch hitting leather really immersing you in the game. While there wasn't that much of an improvement over last year, in our opinion, we still feel that the game deserves credit in this regard. We'd like to hear a little more variety in some of the crowd noises and bat cracks, but in general the sound effects are spot on.
MLB 12: The Show builds on the already successful legacy of the PS3-exclusive baseball series, further enhancing the game's commentary, player animations, and game presentation.
In addition, The Show adds a new pulse pitching dynamic as well as more fluid hitting mechanics, though the changes can be reverse in the menu for those who want to return to last year's gameplay. The new setups work great for hitting, allowing new players to simply hit with timing while more advanced players can better direct the ball.
We're less impressed with the new pulse pitching dynamic. It does a great job of putting you in the pressure of the moment, especially when things don't go your way, but it's tough to get the same accuracy as with past games, even with the ace of your staff.
As always, the real star of the game is the Road to the Show mode, which still offers the best career mode integration of any game on the market. It's got plenty of competition now, but it's a great diversion when you're tired of your franchise or can't get a clean connection for multiplayer.
The game's adoption the Playstation Move in all game modes may be a bit premature, with it not working much better than last year when it was only available for home run derbies. Again, The Show has taken the right tactic by introducing it as a purely optional feature, as it still lags far behind the standard control scheme for efficacy.
Overall, if you're in the mood to get some baseball action in on the PS3, MLB 12: The Show is as good a place to start as any. It's graphically one of the best-presented sports game we've seen, with intelligent mechanics and a game presentation that doesn't get stale. If you're a baseball fan, it's worth picking up.