MLB 11: The Show may be a victim of its own success. The best baseball game on the market has gotten so good the past couple of years (if you overlook some of the bugs that afflicted MLB 10) that it has built up huge expectations. And the latest edition of Sony's long-running hardball franchise should mostly meet with the approval of the hordes out there who mark the calendar up to Opening Day like they were kids waiting for Christmas. But this is a rather quiet release again this year, with the main additions to the boilerplate list of features being an analog control system and tweaks to the role-playing-lite Road to the Show mode. All of these additions do make for a better baseball game than last year's release, although you can't help but be a little disappointed that more isn't brought to the table than the hit-and-miss new control scheme and some tweaks for wannabes trying to make it to the bigs.
The feature set of MLB 11 is pretty much identical to that in both MLB 10 and MLB 09. It comes loaded with all the expected modes of play. Road to the Show lets you create a player and guide him from the buses of AA life to the bright lights and big cities of the major leagues. Franchise play lets you take over an entire team. Exhibition allows you to get into one-off games with the clubs of your choice. Online options support single games and leagues. Net play is largely the same as last year, with only some commissioner and schedule-editing features changing things up somewhat. The various connection bugs and glitches from last year appear to have been mostly ironed out, though. Online play certainly seems much more stable and lag-free in the first week after the launch than it was at the same time a year ago with MLB 10. An odd hitch occurs when net traffic is high in primetime, and the needle on the pitching meter still sometimes goes MIA when you're on the mound, though these problems are rare and easy to overlook. And you can also manage games, take on rivalry matches, and go for the fences with the Home Run Derby. The latter supports the Move controller, and it works pretty well. As expected, you swing it to take your cuts. Being able to use the Move for just one small part of the game, however, makes it little more than a novelty.
A few frills have been added to some of the above options, though nothing is going to stop any presses. Up to four players can take part in co-op action, both online and off. You team up on the field and can swap at-bats with buddies. Games can also be played cooperatively against the AI, giving you an interesting option when head-to-head action grows stale. Of more interest is the all-new Challenge of the Week, a solo experience where you try to clock points in specific situations, such as Joe Mauer hitting against CC Sabathia. Leaderboards are tracked here and prizes are awarded, so look to this feature to be pretty popular. You have to pay a quarter for each attempt after your first freebie, though.
Road to the Show has been fleshed out with tweaks that make developing a pro more realistic in subtle ways. You now adjust sliders at the start of player creation to set up what kind of major leaguer you want to create. You establish an archetype, which means you choose to set up the likes of a speedy center fielder or a hulking third baseman who hits moon shots. New training modes now pop up as you progress. These hitting, fielding, and pitching minigames are more purposeful than before and tend to deal with useful talents such as learning to take and recognize pitches. System depth is now a major concern as well. Get drafted by a team deep at your chosen position, and you might find yourself outplayed by a rival, which of course means you have to get used to riding a bus for a while.
Before, at-bats and innings on the mound were sort of all-or-nothing propositions. If you got a hit or an out, you would clock training points to be doled out to various skill categories. If you recorded an out or gave up a hit, you wouldn't clock any points. Now, everything is rated in a more nuanced fashion. Long, loud fly outs earn some points. Hanging in there for a good number of pitches before going down earns some points. Forcing a batter into a lot of cuts even if you eventually surrender a single earns some points. And so on. Overall, this new system is a more realistic way to showcase player development. But it's a little overly generous in some regards, giving out points when you mess up. Earning points for a good at-bat by hitting a weak dribbler that turns into a double play doesn't seem worthy of praise, even if you took a pitch or two during the at-bat.
One issue that hasn't been addressed with Road to the Show is lengthy loading and saving times. Expect at least 20- to 30-second delays every time you start a player appearance and then the same again when you end it. Since appearances for most position players generally amount to no more than a few minutes with a few at-bats and a handful of fielding attempts, this means that you're sitting around waiting for a good part of the time spent "playing" the game. This can be quite frustrating, and as a result, getting through a season or three in your player's career takes much longer than it should. Road to the Show would be a lot more entertaining and addictive if you could quickly move from one game to the next without the lengthy breaks. These delays are as annoying as waiting for pitching changes in the majors when a manager starts flipping righties and lefties in late innings.
Pure Analog Control is probably the headline-grabbing addition to MLB 11. This marks the first time that the previously button-only game has embraced the use of the right analog stick on gamepads. Now you can hit by pulling the stick back and pushing it forward. You can throw in the field by pushing the stick toward the base of your choice. And you can pitch by pulling the stick back until you reach the sweet spot on a vertical meter and then pushing forward until you release the ball. The pitching interface is one of the best ever seen in a baseball game. You have a tremendous amount of control, at least once you get accustomed to how delicately you need to push the right stick to move the ball around the strike zone. Get too rough when pushing forward, and you hit batters in the back and bounce balls to the plate. With experience, you can start painting corners, although your work on the mound never seems automatic, as it can with button-push pitching systems. The system is challenging and realistic, yet also possible to master with lots of practice. In short, it is absolutely fantastic.
Analog hitting and fielding aren't nearly as good. The hitting feels weak. It's a nice system when it comes to timing, since you need to rear back and get into position and then lean forward into pitches in a smart manner to make serious contact. But even then it never feels like you're getting good wood on the ball. There is an odd disconnect with analog control that doesn't exist when hitting with the buttons. Throwing in the field is more problematic. The hardness of your tosses is measured by how long you hold the stick, but everything is way too twitchy. A red-yellow-green bull's-eye icon below the player with the ball shows the hardness of the toss, but everything happens so fast that it's impossible to make any use of this information. Hold a fraction too long, and your resulting overly hard throw is in the dirt or way high. Hold a fraction too short, and you double-clutch or toss an underhand lob if you're throwing to a nearby base. It's easy to make throwing mistakes and tough to get the new fake-throw mechanic to work at all. While the pitching control uses a well-tuned scale of motion, the fielding controls feel improperly calibrated.
But, these control quirks aside, MLB 11 is great on the field. It is more authentic than its predecessor in many understated ways. At-bats feel more lifelike. Batters now fight off pitches more successfully and hang in there with a lot of foul tips. You can get a piece of pitches now that would have struck you out last year, thanks to a new contact button swing. At the same time, AI batters no longer all hit like they're the second coming of Ted Williams. You can actually fool them now, instead of having to fight tooth and nail for every K. Pitching is more realistic too, partially because the above two factors make you feel like you're always in a tight (but winnable) battle, and partially because there seems to be more of a gap this year between the majors and the minors. There is a real step up every time your player is promoted in Road to the Show. Making it to the bigs and seeing the snap on breaking pitches is scary after getting used to what the scrubs throw in AA ball. You pay for this with the overall length of games now reaching around an hour, but what you're doing for those 60 minutes or so resembles real pitcher-batter duels more than ever. Stats are solid across the board, due to lifelike game results. There are no crazy offensive explosions or anything else to make you shake your head in disbelief; it's just baseball, pretty much exactly as it is in the real world, right down to the number of hits recorded and the pitch counts in an average game.
MLB 11's presentation remains mostly incredible. There are some minor jaggies, and one annoying animation hitches every time the catcher throws the ball back to the pitcher when you're viewing the action from one of the behind-the-mound camera angles, but sunlight, shadow, and stadium architecture combine to place you on what sure seems to be a real ball diamond. You can watch the sun move through the sky during late afternoon starts and can pretty much tell the time at any given moment. The changing light conditions establish a feeling of time and place that makes games seem more real. On-field animations are so varied that you rarely see a player do the exact same thing twice. Every little stretch, argument with the home plate ump, foul off the tootsies, and routine catch in the outfield appears unique. New editable camera views taken from major league broadcasters let you perfectly mimic how games are presented on TV, too. Audio effects in the stadiums are also well done, from the crack of the bat to crowd noise that swells at key moments. Commentary is merely OK. Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell are joined in the booth this year by former Dodger star Eric Karros, but a fair bit of the dialogue has been recycled. Campbell's color commentary also seems out to lunch a great deal of the time, mixing up the number of outs, making reference to teams having a great season right around opening day, and so forth.
Following in the footsteps of a predecessor so good that you have a tough time meeting expectations isn't a bad problem to have. Still, even though MLB 11: The Show is an undeniably great baseball game, it is stuck in a bit of a rut with just subtle refinements setting it apart from its predecessor. The one real quality addition is the new analog pitching interface, which is so stellar that it is hard to go back to the old pitching controls. You can make a good case for this being the best baseball game ever made, just as you could have made the same case for last year's MLB, and the one before that. But at this point in the franchise's evolution, it would have been nice to see the core of the game mixed up a bit more, perhaps with something like more historical league options or extra pure management features for simmers or even full-blown Move support. Though its latest iteration doesn't improve upon the previous one as dramatically as it might have, The Show is still the king of baseball gaming.