For MLB 06: The Show, Sony has taken a huge step towards making MLB a true powerhouse franchise for the PSP. The core gameplay is intact and tweaked to mild improvement, a new Career mode has been added to great effect, and players can now hook up to Sony's online service to hook up news from MLB.com. King of the Diamond mode has been added as an off-kilter minigame to enjoy, and the title is a much better product in terms of depth and value. There are some minor hitches along the way, but if this game is any indication, MLB 07 is going to be an absolute monster.
The pitching controls, at their default setting, mimic the EA-derived golf-swing meter, whereby the player detrmines the power of the pitch at the end of the meter and then the accuracy on the "downswing." Each pitcher's windup is taken into account for how fast this process goes, so with some pitchers it's much faster than others, and with runners on base, working from the stretch hurries it up considerably. One of the perks of a system like this is that it allows the user to tweak their own speed and placement, so if they want to take something off of a fastball, or if the player wants to adjust the placement of a given pitch outside their cursor position, they can do so. Last year, the analog nub was a bit troublesome to position ptiches with, and while it has been made slightly easier, it's still a chore to work with on the edes on the strike zone, and since that's where players will hope to find success, it can be frustrating (and cramp-inducing) to do this."Classic" controls for this are available as well and represents the way in which pitching used to be the standard for the franchise.
The fielding is generally pretty well-done, though there seems to have been some sort of trade-off in this year's game to improve the animation quality even further in exchange for some lack of flexibility in fielding. Basically, outfielders never make dead run over-the-shoulder catches, infielders occasionally fail to pick up grounders if they're on the move in a way the game did not anticipate, and, at times, a less-than-ideal fielder is chosen to make a given play. On quick ground balls in the infield, is often the difference between a routine out and a single, which varies from effectively harmless to disastrous depending on the situation. It seems the game is concerned with making an act look realistic, and it often results in players not being ready to handle the ball, even though a player moving to their left to pick up a grounder would have their glove ready to snag the ball. Sometimes, players just run, the ball skipping right between their legs, onto the outfield grass.
There is also an abnormally high amount of passed balls and wild pitches in this year's game, much moreso than in the real sport. While the fielding is decent overall, it's a good thing Sony included gameplay sliders, because errors, especially in the minor leagues, are all too common. Two to three errors a game per team is de rigeur for average fielding teams there, and even in the major leagues, inexplicable errors (Gary Sheffield dropping a routine fly ball, for example) pop up far too often unless players adjust said sliders (which don't seem to have an impact on the mentioned pitcher-catcher disconnect). Also, the throwing strength is not in proportion to running speed, which results in an astounding number of triples and inside-the-park home runs unless the player tweaks accuracy and arm strength both. It's not a huge issue, since it can be remedied, but the default settings should have been a bit more accurate in relation to the real sport, since MLB 06 is strictly a baseball simulation. It seems that one of the toughest tuning issues in baseball games is the running and throwing speed of fielders and the running speed of baserunners, and MLB 06 didn't quite nail it.
Hitting is done very well, with the four difficulties affecting how much the player has to do in order to be successful at the plate. Rookie difficulty asks only for timing; veteran asks for some general location accuracy and gives the player the option to hit for power or contact, and it becomes more demanding on the difficulty levels beyond. Also, by holding down triangle and up or down on the analog nub prior to a pitch, the player can influence the general intent of the hitter to hit the ball into the air or along the ground, respectively. It's a polished and natural interface that fires on all cylinders.
Baserunning is one of the toughest control elements in sports gaming to nail down, and, like last year, MLB 06 does a decent, if imperfect, job of controlling how players make their way around the four corners of the diamond. The shoulder buttons order runners to hold or move forward, and players can toggle which runner to control by hitting the appropriate face button as well. While baserunning is decent as a whole, tagging up could have been done better. It seems to unecessarily split hairs, requiring more effort than the player should be forced to expend, since it's one fo the more routine actions in baseball. An automatic tag-up function would be well-appreciated.
The presentation of each game is vastly improved this year, where Angels color commentator Rex "Wonder Dog" Hudler joins the booth of Matt Vasgersian and Dave "Soup" Campbell. Last year's commentary by Vasgersian was solid, but Dave Campbell's yelps and exclamations were jarring and unintentionally laughable; this year's addition of Hudler adds the ex-utility man's enthusiasm and trademark comments in to soften Campbell's sometimes jarring input. Overall, it's a huge improvement, and one of the better commentary presentations around; that it's on a PSP game is doubly impressive. If the player lets the game progress naturally, the dialogue will be smooth and spot-on, though repeated phrases will pop up depending largely on common pitch counts and pitch types.
While there aren't any umpires on the field, their presence is made well-known with accurate calls all around, but perhaps the most inventive and surprisingly excellent use of baseball's dedication to the human element is the flexible strike zone. While the standard 3X3 grid (with hot and cold zones that change with a given player's recent history in each zone) still applies, umpires will still call strikes on outside pitches, balls on ones that sneak into the zone, and other assorted borderline pitches, including the occasional outright bad call. It might not always seem fair, but baseball is a pretty arbitrary sport at times, and the inclusion of this kind of element really helps the game feel even more real than it already would. Gritting one's teeth after walking a hitter on what should've been a strike is particularly satisfying in some bizarre way, and the player can always count on Matt Vasgersian to chime in with his disapproval of an iffy call. That veterans and all-star quality players receive preferential treatment ices the cake on what would seem to be such a minor improvement, but in practice is huge.
The graphical presentation is solid all around, but there are a few issues with player photos occasionally looking a bit wide and the size of some inset player models (say, on first base) looking pretty bad. The PSP only has so many pixels, but it's still a bit unfortunate. There is also occasional slowdown, typically on fouled off liners, where the ball is rocketing into the stands, which are populated by what is essentially a large amount of cardboard, low-res standees. It seems to be a bit more than the system can handle, but for the most part, it's not much of an issue. The stadiums are all well-designed and faithful to their real-life counterparts, and the minor league stadiums, while not real, are each themed and entertaining in their own way, with some impressive inspirations (like the bridge with traffic overlooking one in particular).
The sound is fair, with the crack of the bat and the snap of the ball in the catcher's mitt contributing to the feel of being at a real ballgame. The audience performs on a pretty generic level, but is always impressed by either explosive offense or overpowering pitching, and the umpires, while not on the field, still make sure their voices are heard. The soundtrack is fair, licensed stuff, but is nothing terribly great or poor. The audio broadcast, as mentioned prior, is excellent.
The focus of MLB 06: The Show is Career mode, an RPG mode of sorts in which the player creates a player, walks onto a Spring Training squad, and tries to make the Major Leagues, or, as the game loves to call it, The Show. The player creates their character, doles out attribute points to skills they deem most appropriate (with key skills, like power and stamina, artificially capped to prevent players form being superstars out of the gate), and picks a team to join, with MLB 06 displaying each team's relative depth at a given position. This is important, because a player who tries to join a team that is particularly deep at their own position will likely spend their entire first year in the minors, even if they play superstar baseball in spring training and the season. While current play matters, a player's given stats, which would apply directly to any games simulated, matter even more. Everyone wants to play for their hometwon favorites, but sometimes it's not in the player's best interests to start there.
The player goes from season to season, with new offers from varying ballclubs at the end of each contract, from as low as $30,000 for a Double-A position to the millions of dollars salary to start in the Major Leagues. Players have more ability to drive up their asking price on teams thay've spent time with, but they can only negotiate so much before a given team completely cuts off negotiations. That this process is interactive is quite engaging, but that it can be so abuptly cut short is disappointing. After winning the Cy Young award in his first Major League season, this reviewer was trying to make over $3 million a season with Detroit and was promptly cut off. Another exposed flaw in the Contract process is that it gives more attention to tenure than recent statistics. In the modern free agent market, a player with a great contract year usually rakes in extra money due to a better performance (like Johnny Damon), and pitchers are at a high premium as the quality of the position still attempts to catch up with the most recent expansion of the Major League Baseball in the '90s. That a Cy Young award winner who won the award at 20 years of age and is 21 could get no more than $4.2 million over two seasons is ludicrous when pitchers like A.J. Burnett make several times that despite mediocre career numbers.
After each game the player partakes in, they are awarded "Training Hours", based on the quality of their performance, which they can use on various attributes. Each attribute goes to either 100 (for most stats) or to 50 (for pitch-specific skills, though each skill takes two inputs of poitns to improve, making them effectively the same), with the player needing to put more points in as a given skill improves. It takes several years for players to get to superstar-level with good play required to accure enough points by the player, so it's not something that is easily exploited or abused, even at Rookie difficulty. This mode has serious legs, but had Sony pushed it to extremes, it could've been even better. Allowing the player to control only their own player, for example, with no input on other parts of the game would have been a great way to keep the Career mode pure; as is, players can only hit, or only pitch, or only play their given avatar's appearances, but they can't lock out other players, so it takes some added tweaking to make it as faithful as possible (after a few seasons, this reviewer turned off user-controlled fielding on the aforementioned Cy Young award-winner and never hit unless the pitcher was taking their cuts in interleague play).
The game experience itself is pretty smooth, and although there is considerable loading, both into the game and out, the actual flow of the experience is pretty solid. Players in a rush can turn off the added presentation components and just play a terirbly quick game of baseball, whereas those looking to soak up the experience can have all the bells and whistles going for constant replays, further commentary, and an overall leisurely-paced game of stick.
MLB 06: The Show also includes a mode called King of the Diamond, which plays quite similarly to the pinball-type baseball games that attribute hits or outs according to where players hit the ball. It's a neat mode best enjoyed with two players, but the standard mode against the CPU provides a surprisingly meaty challenge as well, as the player is forced to spot and throw pitches very quickly before they get forced to throw an absolute suicide pitch down the middle, and patience is rewarded on hitting despite the time-limited nature of the mode. It's not something most players will find themselves coming back to time and time again, but it is entertaining in limited doses.
The only major mode missing from MLB 06: The Show is Franchise; while there is a Season mode available, it's only for one year at a time. As far as major issues go, this is the only one present, really. It would have been nice to take a team over for, say, 30 years, signing new talent, putting has-beens out to pasture, and generally wheeling and dealing over several decades. That it's not an option is disappointing, but it is offset somewhat by the exciting Career mode.
While The Show offers online roster updates, a welcome addition to any sports game and by now a necessity, it takes a severe blow due to the inexplicable lack of an option to save these rosters. Recent acquisitions or releases, such as the Angels' signing of Jeff Weaver, ahaven't taken place yet, meaning to use him, players have to log on, udpate their rosters and keep their systems on to use him. Once the game is turned off, the updates are lost. This is a major oversight, and, along with the lack of a Franchise mode, is a fair-sized knock against the title. It seems very much an unfinished component, and Sony has yet to effectively address this issue a month after release.
The online modes also include a buddy list and instant message functions, though this reviewer has not taken the online portion for a spin and therefore cannot comment on the smoothness and reliability of the online versus gameplay.
There are still a few glitches here and there, such as CPU-controlled fielders waiting too long to act on defense, the extremely rare non-reaction fielder glitch (in which case the computer fails to react to the ball, which this reveiewer experienced once in well over 200 games), and some commentary hiccups when players try to hurry the game along, but overall, MLB 06: The Show is leaps and bounds better than last year's effort. It isn't perfect, but it is definitely a great game of baseball, and Sony's dedication to improvement is quite evident here. Sony's been quietly improving their MLB franchise over the past few years, and it's really starting to pay off. MLB 06: The Show may be the best handheld baseball game yet, and it bodes extremely well for next year's edition.