LAS VEGAS--Perhaps it's because we're so eager for the 2006 MLB campaign to begin but it seems like a miniature eternity has passed since the Chicago White Sox won the 2005 World Series. Luckily, we've got preview builds of games like MLB '06: The Show to keep us busy until the real thing kicks off this spring. Sony is showing the PSP version of MLB '06 at this week's 2006 Consumer Electronics Show, and after spending some hands-on time with the game, we're pleased to report that it's playing a lot like it's PS2 big brother.
The biggest knock against 2005's MLB on the PSP (which itself was a port of MLB 2006, last year's PS2 baseball game from Sony) was its lack of both a career and a franchise mode. While the version of MLB '06 we played was still missing a franchise mode (boo!), we were pleased to note that career mode has made its way to the portable version of the game. For those who aren't familiar, the career mode has you create a player from scratch, choosing attributes, physical appearance, defensive position, batting stance, etc., then trying to make the roster of a big league team by competing in spring training. Once you've got a spot on the team, you try to make a name for yourself in the big leagues through your play on the field. You also have some off-the-field options, including the ability to complain to the media about your coach, demand a new contract, or even go all Manny Ramirez on everyone and demand a trade at the end of every season.
In our time with the career mode in the PSP version of MLB '06, everything seemed to be running very similar to the mode found in the PS2 version of the game. You still have a number of different attributes to choose from when customizing your virtual player--including height, weight, and a number of face, body, and equipment variables. When it comes down to picking your skills, you'll be assigning skill points to everything from left- and right-handed contact, to blocking ability and baserunning aggressiveness. From there, it's simply a matter of finding which team you wish to join; a handy graphical interface will give you a quick glance to see if you have (or lack) depth at your particular position, which should help you make your decision that much easier.
On the field, the game plays much like the PS2 version, to its credit. Handy extras such as the guess pitch and the fast-forward features are here in the PSP game. The guess pitch feature allows you to do just that--make an educated guess on the next pitch coming your way. To guess a pitch, you hold down the right trigger and select the type of pitch you wish to guess by pressing its corresponding face button. Guess correctly, and an icon will show up in the batting box, indicating where the pitch will be when it crosses the plate. Guess incorrectly, and it's no icon for you, and you'll be less effective if you make contact with the ball anyway. Therefore, this is a feature best used sparingly or in those instances where you know a pitcher's tendencies.
The game's fast-forward feature is a great tool that allows you to speed through games quickly. In a regular exhibition or season mode game, you can fast-forward to the next half or full inning, skip to a specific inning, or even simulate all the way to the end at any point. In career mode, you can simulate to your next appearance or next at-bat, meaning you won't have to even play those games in which you're riding the bench, unless, of course, you want to.
Game modes in MLB '06 include exhibition, season mode, the aforementioned career mode, a home run derby, and the king of the diamond mode found in the PS2 game. If you're unfamiliar with king of the diamond mode, it pits two teams of various MLB luminaries against one another in an arcade bash-fest that has each team trying to score as many runs as possible in two-minute turns. There's no baserunning or defense to worry about; your only responsibility will be to knock as many base hits and home runs as you can in your allotted time and then hit the mound and prevent your opponent from doing the same thing. It's a fast-paced alternative to the slower tempo of traditional ball games, and we're especially curious to play it against a friend wirelessly.
Unfortunately, online play wasn't available in our build of the game, so we haven't had a chance to check out the ad hoc or infrastructure gameplay that bolstered last year's MLB for the PSP. We're hoping that the online portion of the game has been beefed up from last season though, as the 2005 game only allowed exhibition games and didn't keep track of player statistics. Here's hoping that gets amended this year--online season mode anyone?
Having a portable baseball game like MLB '06: The Show should be a great thing for hardball fans looking to bring their favorite sport with them wherever they go. Certainly few will find issue with the game's graphics--the player models and stadiums are very comparable to those found in the PS2 version of the game, as is the compelling commentary from guys like Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell, who did such a fine job in MLB 2006. Though the frame rate and load times could still use some work in the PSP version of MLB '06, we're happy to see the game coming to Sony's portable device and will be bringing you more on the game in the coming weeks.