One of the most pleasant sports gaming surprises of 2006 was Sony's MLB 06: The Show for the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable. Though the series had been on the rise through several previous iterations, it was MLB 06 that finally perfected the formula of excellent control, gameplay depth, and enough features to keep a baseball fan busy for months. Of course, that kind of success comes with a downside--namely, increased expectations from fans. At a recent Sony press event in Los Angeles, all eyes were on the next MLB game from the San Diego development studio, and after seeing what the crew has in store for baseball fans in 2007, it's clear that they aren't just resting on MLB 06's laurels.
The most compelling feature in the Sony MLB single-player experience in the past few years has been the career mode. First introduced in MLB 2006, career mode has you step in the shoes of a single position on the diamond and play through the career of a ball player--first as a minor leaguer struggling to make the big leagues and, eventually, as an MLB player. The mode has been refined over a couple of iterations, and in MLB 07 it reaches a new level of immersion into the life of a big leaguer with a variation on the classic career mode (which is also in the game) called "road to the show." The biggest change comes on defense. When you're playing in the field, your sole responsibility will be your assigned position. In classic career mode in previous MLB games, you play out defense as you would when playing any other baseball game--running down ground balls, throwing out runners at second base, and fielding flyballs. In road-to-the-show mode, you play from the perspective of your created player and are responsible for your real estate on the diamond, which presents its own challenges.
You're a pitcher, for example. Not only will you be responsible for dealing heat off the mound, but you'll also need to be wary of any balls hit your way (and, yeah, they come at you just as fast as you might expect). In addition, you'll be called to cover first base when the first baseman fields a ground ball, and you might even need to cover home plate if the catcher gets caught out on a wild pitch with a man on third base. Playing as a shortstop, for example, you'll need to scoop up every ball hit your way, and you'll need to have an eye on when to act as a cutoff man when an outfielder is looking to make a throw. And this isn't even counting your responsibilities at the plate.
So while your role in career mode has been focused to just the position you play, that doesn't mean you won't have things to do. Another big addition to the gameplay in career mode is the concept of goals. Not only will you have over-arching goals for your career (such as getting out of the minors, or winning a World Series ring or two), but your virtual manager in each game you play will provide you with goals to accomplish in the game. As a pitcher, your goal might be as simple as striking out the next batter or might include slightly more complex predicaments such as forcing a ground ball so your team can get the double play needed to end the inning.
The goals aren't just a good way to keep you focused when playing the game; they are also your primary way of improving your player's attributes. By successfully performing goals, you'll earn points that you can put toward your player's skills at the end of the game. It's a substantial, and tangible, improvement to the previous way of doing things, because it always feels like you are in control of your player's path to improvement. One other thing we liked was the context-sensitive nature of the goals themselves. No matter what your goal is, you're always given an explanation of the situation you are in (such as the number of men on base) and what needs to happen for you to succeed. It's a small presentation touch, of course, but it's one that seems to have a lot of thought behind it. Road-to-the-show games will be quicker than traditional career mode games, because the game will automatically fast-forward to the next sequence where your created player is involved.
Improvements won't be found just in the new career mode in MLB 07; several aspects of the gameplay are earning attention as well, and more than a few have to do with the pitching game. The pitching controls still work the same way, but a few enhancements serve to make things feel even more authentic. The first, and likely most important, addition is what's referred to as a pitch command system. Every pitch in a player's arsenal will now come with a meter indicating that player's confidence in that pitch. The more success a pitcher has with a particular pitch, the more his confidence meter will increase, and the more effective that pitch will be. However, increased confidence is a double-edged sword; if you keep going to the well with your split-finger, for example, it won't be long before your opponent starts recognizing the pitch (or predicting it in multiplayer games, using the guess-a-pitch feature) and hauls one off on you. Which in turn leads to a dip in your confidence rating. It's the vicious circle called the life of a big-league pitcher.
If you need some help deciding which pitch to throw, you can always do what real pitchers do and listen to the catcher. That's because of another new feature in the game that the developers are calling adaptive pitch intelligence. It sounds complicated, but it essentially boils down to the catchers calling pitches based on what they know about the batter at the plate, as well as your strengths and weaknesses as a pitcher. Before a pitch is thrown, the pitch type that is being called will be illuminated, as will a small icon in the batter's box indicating where the catcher wants you to place the ball. Most of the time, the catcher is going to call for pitches close to the edge of the strike zone, so you'll want to be extra accurate with where you place your aiming icon, a prospect that isn't always easy in the PSP version of the game, thanks to the handheld's touchy analog stick. Still, even if you manage to put the ball exactly where you want it, that's not a guarantee of an instant out. Instead, the catcher is calling against the batter's tendencies (based on data from thousands of real MLB in-game pitches, according to the developers).
The final aspect of MLB 07's pitching changes is more subtle, but no less important. Everyone complains about the umpires in real MLB games, but they aren't usually much of a factor in baseball video games. That will likely change in MLB 07 thanks to the introduction of umpire personalities to the game. As in the real sport, umps in MLB 07 will display tendencies just like the batters and pitchers. Some umpires will have a tight strike zone, and some will call questionable pitches as strikes, thanks to a wider strike zone. You won't get any information about the kind of game a particular ump calls, though; instead, you'll have to figure out what the ump is calling as the game progresses.
Most of the big news in MLB 07 has to do with the single-player game, with one notable exception: online leagues. Leagues can be composed of anywhere from six to 30 players, and the mode will also include full stat-tracking for all teams in the league. One person will be designated as the commissioner for each league, and that person will have authority to decide the length of the season (anywhere from six games to a full 182-game schedule) and recruit folks into the league. Players who earn championships in an MLB 07 online league will have the reward tacked onto their player profile, which is a nice little bonus. While online leagues are available in both the PS2 and PSP versions of MLB 07, the game will not support cross-platform leagues. One other cool online aspect of the game is the ability to upload your favorite slider settings. Others can download them and try them out for themselves, which should certainly prove useful for the most dedicated online league participants.
Beyond all the new changes, MLB 07 looks to retain all of the features from previous Sony MLB games; things like rivalry mode, king of the diamond, and franchise mode will be there, as well as smaller features such as game-time decisions, release point pitching, and the familiar fielding zone markers. Certainly MLB 07 has a strong reputation to live up to, and we look forward to seeing more of how this game develops in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for our continuing coverage of the game in the near future.