MLB Hands-On

The PSP version of MLB plays a lot like its console big brother. Check out our hands-on look.



SAN FRANCISCO--At this evening's Sony PSP press event, we had a chance to check out the handheld version of Sony's always-surprising baseball title, MLB 2006. Currently set for an early April release, the version we saw tonight was by no means final code, yet it remained a solid enough build to give us a good idea of where the hardball entry is heading as its development cycle winds down.

In short, MLB 2006 looks and feels a lot like its PS2 brother, which should come as no surprise, seeing that both are being developed in-house by 989 Sports. The similarities are most notable in the pitching interface, which is very similar to the version found in the PS2 game. Dubbed "release point pitching," the mechanic makes very careful use of the pitching meter and requires strict timing to keep your tosses under control. Release too early and the ball will float into the strike zone. Let go too late and the ball will sink low and maybe even catch dirt. While it sounds awfully familiar to the PS2 version, in practice, the pitching meter moved a lot quicker than we were used to in our time with the handheld version, making spot-on pitches few and far between. Also, we found the left analog stick, used to aim your throw in or out of the strike zone, far too sensitive to maintain consistent accuracy. Whether these interfaces will be tweaked in the final version of the game remains to be seen.

Though there's not much to report that's new when in the batter's box, you will be able to guess pitches using the R1 shoulder button. The same upgraded fielding mechanics found in the console version of MLB are here for the PSP as well, with large icons illuminating the landing spot of fly balls in the outfield. The greater your outfielder's fielding abilities, the larger that icon will appear on the grass. Just as in the PS2 version, this feature seeks to meld the player's actual skill in playing the virtual game of baseball with the virtual abilities of the player being controlled. On the downside, it was pretty easy to lose sight of the ball on grounders hit through the infield, if only because the ball is so small on the PSP screen.

MLB for the PSP will include several main game modes, including a quick play mode for exhibition games, online play, and a season mode. The sheer variety of game options in season mode is impressive. You'll not only be able to choose the team of your liking to take through the season, but also be able to toggle on and off things like automatic baserunning or fielding. Once in a season, you can progress through the games on a daily basis or simulate chunks of them in a sitting, much like several of the other Sony PSP sports launch titles.

Graphically, MLB does enough to get the job done. The PSP's smaller screen means you won't see a lot of details of the pitcher on the mound, and when the ball is put into play, the camera pulls back so far as to make the players appear as little more than blobs of pixels. Still, the game runs at a vigorous pace (for a baseball game, that is), features slick fade-ins and fade-outs in between menus and during in-game screens, and doesn't skimp on the animations. We saw plenty of varied fielding animations, including bobbled balls, dramatic double plays, and some nice diving grabs from the outfielders. There was a nice variety of unique batting stances as well, though we didn't have nearly enough time with the game to gauge their prevalence. From a sound standpoint, the best tidbits were unique umpire calls for things like foul balls and close plays at first base.

If we had one overarching complaint about MLB for the PSP, it would be the load times, which were pretty atrocious. However, this being a preview build, we're optimistic that 989 will be able to trim those times down to something more manageable. Let's hope 989 makes that a priority, in fact, because the PSP's already suspect battery life doesn't need the kind of strikes against it these types of loading times would create.

All in all, MLB for the PSP is looking to be a fairly direct translation of the PS2 game it borrows its name from. It's a stripped-down version, to be sure, but the same solid baseball mechanics that have made the MLB series a dark horse in the console realm look to be well in place here on the Sony handheld. Look for a full review of MLB when it's released in early April.

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