Sony's MLB series has been top dog for several years running now, and that hasn't changed in 2008. MLB 08: The Show doesn't have much in the way of new content, but it improves upon last year's game in almost every department, and it's the baseball game to get if you're a PlayStation 3 owner looking to play America's Pastime.
Its play on the field is where MLB 08 shines the most. Everything--the pitching, hitting, fielding, animations, and atmosphere--is sublime. Hitting is similar to what it was last year. You can guess pitch type and location, and are rewarded with a red indicator just before the ball is delivered if you guess correctly. There are two swing types: power and contact. Initially you may find yourself swinging at every pitch with a power swing, but you'll quickly find that picking the proper swing for each situation is paramount to your success as a hitter. What MLB 08 really gets right about hitting is the timing; there's just enough time between when the ball is released and when it gets to the plate to determine what kind of pitch it is and if it's a ball or a strike. This might sound insignificant, but it's something very few baseball games get right. From frozen ropes to ground-rule doubles to seeing-eye grounders, there's an incredible variety of hits, and what's more, they all come off the bat naturally, which is yet again an area in which other baseball games have difficulty.
Pitching eschews the trend of using the right analog stick and sticks with four button presses. The first button press is to select your pitch, then there's one to start the meter, one to set power, and one to determine effectiveness. Your catcher will call for a location based on the hitter's strengths and weaknesses, so you'll often find yourself taking a little something off of a pitch to make sure you hit your spot. You'll still make some mistakes, and your placement will suffer for it, but you're not punished overly harshly for making one little mistake. This method might not feel quite as natural as using the right analog stick, but it's effective and accurate, and that's what matters most.
One thing that tends to get overlooked in baseball games, by both the people who develop them and the people who play them, is fielding. That's not the case with MLB 08. Fielding just feels right. Players move at the proper speed, the fielding animations are incredible, and the controls are tight. Anyone who has watched Omar Vizquel turn a double play in real life knows how elegant and effortless he makes it look. Now you too can do the same, and it's a blast. That's right: Fielding is fun here.
Most of the changes made in MLB 08 are minor but go a long way toward making the game play better. One area that has seen some improvement, but not quite enough, is Road to the Show. In Road to the Show mode, you create a player at any position and try to lead him from the minors to (hopefully) the Hall of Fame. Whether you're a pitcher or a hitter, you're given a goal by your manager before each at-bat, and you're awarded points for achieving that goal. A hitter might need to drive in a run, get on base, or simply take a strike. A pitcher might need to secure a strikeout, induce a ground ball, or get ahead in the count. Thanks to new and more forgiving goals, you're more likely to earn points, which is a good thing because applying said points nets a minimal amount of improvement to your attributes.
Road to the Show has several strengths. For starters, you play only when your player is at-bat, pitching, or directly involved in a play. This makes games go by much faster than they would if you were playing every pitch of a nine-inning game. It's also nice to be in control of one player from the first pitch to the last pitch of his career. The player editor is extremely robust and there are hundreds of announcer-voiced names to choose from, so you really feel a connection with your onscreen persona; you'll be thrilled when he does well, and you'll get frustrated and start to press when he's mired in a slump.
That said, Road to the Show falters in a few areas that make it significantly less enjoyable than it could be. The biggest issue is that it can take a very long time to work your way from the minors to the bigs. We created a second baseman and signed with the Cubs because they were weak at the position. After a mediocre spring training, we were sent down to be a bench player in AA. After about a month of tearing up the league, we took over the starting role, and that's when the mode got frustrating. A few weeks later, the player we had supplanted was called up to AAA, even though we had fulfilled all of the objectives, such as hitting for a certain average, not striking out, and improving specific attributes during the evaluation period. Undaunted, we plugged along and found ourselves among the league leaders in every major statistical category, but time and time again we were told we weren't ready.
After 100+ games, we were hitting .417, led the league in hitting, hits, doubles, and triples, and were in the top five in home runs, steals, and runs batted in. We had also fulfilled every objective in the previous three evaluations, and the players above us were hitting about .240. The organization recognized that we had the skills and were in the midst of a great season, but we were told to stick it out in AAA. We asked for a trade and were rebuffed. Checking our scouting report, we found that what it was saying was based purely on our attributes and not our production, given that it chastised us for being poor with the stick even though we were leading the league in hitting with a batting average over .400. Furthermore, it said that we were a poor fielder even though we had made one error in our entire career. Eventually, frustrated at having played every at-bat in more than 130 games (including spring training), we simulated the rest of the season and got called up on the last day because of an injury, but we didn't get an at-bat. Going into the next spring, we declined our option because we were making only $30,000 a year and wanted some more cash. We went back to camp with the Cubbies, and after simulating spring training, we found ourselves back in AA. Yes, this is a somewhat plausible situation in real life, but people play video games to escape from the everyday grind, not to experience more of it. You may have an entirely different experience with Road to the Show (pitchers seem to have an easier go of it), but ours left a lot to be desired.
There are a few other ways in which Road to the Show could stand to be improved. Although the games in this mode take less time than a normal game, they still take too long. This is partially due to the excessive load times before and after each game, but it's mostly because of the time you waste standing on the basepaths watching and waiting for the hitters behind you to make contact. It's achingly boring to get on base as the lead-off man and then stand there for another 20-30 pitches with nothing to do. It's realistic, but it's terribly uninteresting. Fielding (which is fine in the traditional mode of play, but was problematic in Road to the Show last year) has been improved, and you can now see the ball easily and earn some points for positive plays, but it's still far from perfect. The artificial intelligence hardly ever throws anybody out, so running to cover second on a steal attempt is pointless. There are also too many ground balls. In the 100+ games we played, we handled exactly five pop-ups and one line drive. Lastly, your play in the field doesn't really seem to matter. You can go the extra mile and make a diving catch, or you can let the ball trickle through, but it never comes back to help or hinder your career.
If slogging your way through the minor leagues isn't your cup of tea--and unless your name is Crash Davis and you're trying to woo Susan Sarandon, it probably isn't--there's plenty of value to be found in MLB 08's franchise mode. Here you pick the team that you'd like to run and then you're presented with a series of goals that you must reach during the duration of your contract. Goals include: have a team batting average of .250 over two seasons, win two division titles, turn a profit, or make the playoffs. These objectives vary from team to team, so if you're taking over the sorry Tampa "maybe if we drop the Devil you'll like us more" Rays, then you won't have the same expectations placed upon you that you would if you were with the Yankees. Speaking of the Yankees, MLB 08's franchise mode lets you micromanage your team to such an extent that Hank Steinbrenner would approve. The draft, training, rehab, contracts, facilities, marketing, and banking--all the day-to-day aspects of running a ball club--are in your hand. We're still disappointed that you can't play anything less than a 162-game season because of the serious time commitment involved if you play all of your games, but Sony has added the ability to save midgame, which is a big help when you don't have time for a full game but still want to make some progress.
One area in which The Show stumbles a bit is multiplayer. You can play a single game, play in a league, download rosters, share sliders, instant message, and more, but lag makes the online experience less than ideal. If you're serious enough about baseball to commit to an entire online season, you're going to have to be willing to concede a few plays a game because of the lag and periodic hiccups that occur during most games. Two-player games on one system aren't really an ideal substitute, either. Given that the Dual Shock 2 lacks rumble, you have no way of knowing where the edge of the strike zone is when you're pitching, unless you pick your location while the indicator is still visible. Of course, that gives the pitch's location away to your opponent, who can guess its location before it's thrown. This is a problem because guessing a pitch's type or location correctly causes the CPU to automatically throw the pitch for you, which means that you're left as a spectator.
MLB 08's presentation isn't flashy, but it's beautiful nonetheless. Player likenesses are the best of any baseball game, and there's no shortage of individualized swings, stances, and pitching styles. The ballparks all look fantastic, and not just the big-league parks, either. Even the minor-league stadiums look great and are full of character and style. Players and stadiums are things that most sports games do well, but it's the little touches that The Show gets right that make it so attractive. You won't notice many of these instances right away, but you'll come to appreciate them as you spend more time playing. You'll see fans batting beach balls around in the stands, players will pull pranks on each other in the dugout if you leave the game sitting for a few minutes, and third-base coaches will tap-dance out of the way of foul balls hit sharply in their direction. Player animation is outstanding and the transition from one to the next is generally seamless. Here, too, the game does the little things right. Not only do players react to and field a ball in a lifelike manner, but they also follow through in a manner equally as accurate. If you scoop up a lazy ground ball and casually toss it to first, it looks just as realistic as a player scrambling for a hot shot and then firing it off to first base while he's off balance. It's rare that you'll be 20+ hours into a sports game and still find yourself impressed with new animations, but it happens here.
The Show's audio sneaks up on you and then continues to impress in a similar way. At first the commentary comes off as accurate but nothing special, and you'll probably be a little annoyed with Rex Hudler's non sequiturs. Then, as you continue to play, you'll notice how Matt Vasgersian is always right on top of the action; how Dave Campbell has an uncanny knack for recalling previous at-bats for players; and even how Rex is right when he chastises hitters for laying off pitches at which they should have swung. Their commentary even helps the gameplay. MLB 08 has realistic umpires, each of whom has his own unique strike zone. The broadcasters are all over this and quickly point out when an umpire has expanded or contracted the strike zone. It not only makes you aware that, yes, the umpire did just call that strike a ball, but also that you need to be aware that this will probably happen the rest of the game and adjust accordingly. The rest of MLB 08's audio is of a similar high quality. Fans have specific chants for their team and react realistically to what's happening onscreen. The sounds of the game--the crack of the bat, the sound of a player sliding into a base--are all spot-on as well.
Instead of adding new content or reinventing the wheel, the developers at SCEA San Diego refined things they were already doing right, and in the process made a great game even better. Hitting, pitching, and fielding all look and feel fantastic. There's no shortage of ways to stay busy, whether you want to run a whole team, follow the career of a single player, or manage a game from the dugout. It's a shame that, even after another year in development, Road to the Show isn't quite as refined as the game's other aspects, but it's still an interesting mode that generally manages to be enjoyable in spite of its flaws. If you're looking for a great baseball game that covers all the bases, look no further than MLB 08: The Show.