Things have been looking up for Sony's MLB series of late. Last year's game, MLB 2006, was a well-received console baseball sim that included some innovative features, most notably the career mode. Also, thanks to 2K Games' deal with Major League Baseball, Sony's MLB series is the only first-party-developed MLB game on the market this year. Now, Sony developers are aiming to improve on last year's winning formula with MLB '06: The Show, announced just a few weeks ago. We got our first swings in the virtual batting cage with The Show to see how the game is shaping up before its spring debut.
Among the new features found in The Show this time around is a rivalry mode, in which you and a buddy can play up to 83 games against one another using the same teams, complete with full record keeping, pitching rotations, and roster management between the two teams. One nice feature here is the ability to make options adjustments at any time in the series. Should you find yourself outmatched going up against a more skilled player, you can dial up your friend's game difficulty to even the odds in the series.
Another fun aspect is the brand-new King of the Diamond mode, which is sort of a cross between a traditional home run derby and the old MTV Rock 'n Jock specials from years ago. Two teams of big leaguers will be pitted against one another to see who can score the most in a game. Each inning is timed, and both sides will have two minutes to score as many runs as they can when at bat. There are no infielders or outfielders; instead, there are wooden stand-ins that, if struck by the ball, will result in an out. Because there's no fielding to deal with, your only goal here is to score as many runs as possible while at bat, and to give up as few runs as possible when at the plate. It's a fast-moving minigame--throw a single ball out of the strike zone, for example, and you'll walk your opponent and put a ghost runner on base--and the runs build up quickly. Hitting certain objects will also gain you more time on the countdown clock, giving you extra opportunity to knock home runs. All in all, it's a pretty fun mode, but not necessarily something that's going to keep you away from the meat and potatoes of the game, which include the career, franchise, and online modes.
MLB 2006's career mode was our favorite aspect of last year's game and, to The Show's credit, this mode seems fully intact this time around, with the added bonus of being more attractively organized. Just as in last year's game, you start off by creating a player from scratch, picking his starting position, assigning attributes, then attaching yourself to a major league team in the hopes of making the 40-man roster. Playing your way through the spring training schedule is made that much easier thanks to the handy, returning fast-forward feature, which lets you speed through to your next appearance or at bat. The fast-forward system still has its flaws--you'll sometimes skip to a game in which you don't even play--but, all in all, it's a great way to move quickly through spring training (or the regular season, for that matter) and focus only on your created player. On the downside, as a pitcher (especially as a starter), you'll have only a handful of opportunities to make an impression, so you'll want to make the most of each and every one of them.
MLB '06: The Show's franchise mode has received some visual upgrades in terms of organization, but still seems to be boasting the same depth that last year's game enjoyed, especially when it comes to receiving feedback on your job as a general manager. By accessing fan and player feedback menus, you can see exactly how you're doing in a number of different areas. Both fans and players will give you fairly specific feedback on all aspects of your team, including their overall impressions of the team (fans will even let you know when a guy isn't getting the job done at his position), management, and the facilities themselves.
Players will also chime in with their thoughts on training effectiveness, including making specific training requests, as well as giving their opinion on their current salary (news flash: Some of these millionaires actually want more dough). And, should you wish to listen to their desires, you'll be able to allocate your training budget accordingly, funding extra training for things like pitching stamina, offensive power and plate vision, defensive aspects such as speed and arm strength, and overall conditioning for things like strength and flexibility. Then there's the scouting, rehab, and management staff you'll have to hire, the marketing budget you'll need to formulate, and of course, the games themselves to play...and that's just before spring training is over. After you hit the proper regular season, you'll not only be managing your team's day-to-day operations, but also controlling the marketing minutiae, such as the kinds of ad campaigns your players appear in, or choosing to take a loan out from one of several fictional lending institutions to help fund your grand plans for your team.
While online play was not playable in our builds of The Show, we understand the game will include a number of modes for play over the Internet--including head-to-head rivalry and king of the diamond modes--an MLB headline news service that will broadcast updated big league news, as well as 32-team tournaments, instant messaging, and downloadable roster updates.
When away from your virtual desk and playing the game in the field, The Show will feel familiar to vets of MLB 2006. Release-point pitching, which made its debut last year, is back and feels a bit more demanding than last year when it comes to making sure your pitcher releases the ball at the proper moment. Miss the sweet spot just a bit and you'll see pitches consistently miss the strike zone. When at the plate, you'll still be able to guess the pitch coming your way by holding down the R2 button and selecting the appropriate face button. Guess correctly, and an icon will pop up showing you the exact placement of the pitch before it crosses the plate.
There's still more we're curious about in The Show--including exploring the game-time decision feature, which presents you with critical game situations in which a player might be slightly injured, for example, but still able to go. Do you sit him and let him rest, or put him in a crucial game and risk even greater injury? As manager, the choice will be yours. We also are looking forward to checking out the online play, but we'll have to wait for a more complete version of the game before we can explore that in more depth. Spring training may be several months away, but we'll be bringing you more updates on MLB '06: The Show all winter long, so stay tuned.