Not long after the launch of the PlayStation Portable last year, Sony published the plainly titled MLB, which was basically just a quick-and-dirty port of the company's PlayStation 2 baseball game with the graphics dumbed down and some features removed. Those cutbacks notwithstanding, MLB was well received because the gameplay was solid and the presentation was still snazzy overall. Once again, the PSP version of MLB '06: The Show isn't quite a pixel-for-pixel, feature-for-feature duplicate of its PS2 counterpart, but you'd be surprised at how small the gap in quality between the two games is this time around.
This sophomore outing improves upon its predecessor in nearly every way. The previous game didn't have batter-walk-up animations, TV-style replays, or home run celebrations. This latest installment does. Last year's game offered a modest set of play modes, the most involved of which was a season mode that only allowed one full season of play. This year's game, by pleasant contrast, offers a full boat of play modes. Offline, you can play games in the exhibition, season, and career modes, or boil it down to the batter-versus-pitcher matchup in the home run derby and king of the diamond modes. Best of all, the season and career modes both let you manage your chosen team for multiple seasons. Wi-Fi support allows for local and online multiplayer games. The online mode has been fleshed out this year to include buddy lists and instant messaging functions, as well as a news feed that can be read online or off.
Curiously, the PSP game is still missing a few of the features that the PS2 game has. Some of them are no big loss, such as the rivalry mode or the two legends teams. Also not so bothersome is the lack of a franchise mode, since the season mode does at least let you perform many of the functions that a traditional franchise mode would. You can draft rookies, make trades, sign free agents, negotiate contracts, shuffle players back and forth between the minors, and juggle lineups and injuries. What is bothersome, however, is the outright absence of any player- and roster-editing functions. The PS2 game has a full range of editing functions so that players can keep the game up-to-date. That these functions were left out of the PSP game is absurd.
Brand-spanking new to the PSP game this year is the career mode, which lets you create a rookie player and guide his career from its humble beginnings in the minors up through to retirement from the bigs. The CPU will handle lineups, trades, and substitutions for you, but you can still control the players out in the field, if you want to. Every time your player gets a hit or makes a flashy play, he'll earn training points that you can put toward upgrades in 18 categories, such as speed, durability, and plate discipline. Meanwhile, an interaction menu lets you call team meetings, beg for playing time, complain to the media, and request a trade or call-up. Good performances will earn your player more playing time, better contract offers, and additional promotions, whereas negative performances could see him sitting on the bench or dwelling in double-A limbo.
As for how the game is played on the field, all of the various interfaces offer simple, basic controls for beginners and numerous optional features for experts. Hitting primarily involves pressing a button to swing the bat. On the basepaths, you can advance and retreat runners with the shoulder buttons. For fielding, you simply need to use the analog nub to move the fielder and the main buttons to select which base to throw to. By pressing the button before the fielder catches the ball, you can "preload" the throw, which will result in a smoother transition and a faster release. Pitching has the most complicated interface, in that for every pitch you have to go through the steps of selecting a pitch, aiming the throw, and setting break and accuracy using the now-standard release-point meter. Aiming can be a pain since the PSP's analog nub is so sensitive, but there aren't any time constraints placed on the pitching process, so it's not a deal breaker.
Experts and quick learners will want to take advantage of the numerous optional features inherent to each interface, which provide pinpoint control over nearly every aspect of play. The hitting interface includes "guess pitch" and "guess location" functions, which, if you guess them correctly, will improve the quality of contact and outright show you where the pitch will cross the plate. You can also adjust the angle of your swing and specify whether to swing for contact or power, which is a new feature this year. On the bases, you can control runners as a group or individually, and preload stolen base attempts by simply pressing the left shoulder button and the main button that corresponds to the runner's current base. One thing the game doesn't let players do is specify the type of slide a runner makes when approaching the bag. That would be a nitpicky feature to have included, to be sure, but every other baseball video game has it, so why not this one? Fielding, the game's most straightforward interface, only has one optional function, which is the ability to attempt a leaping catch by mashing the right shoulder button. Meanwhile, the already feature-rich pitching interface also lets you perform pitchouts, intentional walks, and pickoff throws, if you so desire.
Budding managerial wannabes will appreciate the different management functions that the game offers. Before the game starts, you can check the disabled list and adjust your lineup and pitching rotation. During the game, the pause menu lets you warm up relief pitchers, substitute players, and make visits to the mound. You can also press and hold the select button to bring up a scouting report that shows the pitcher's pitch count, stamina, and confidence, as well as the batter's confidence rating and personal hitting chart. One of the few aspects left out of the player's control is defensive positioning. That will surely annoy people that like to micromanage the alignment of their infield and outfield, but the CPU does at least seem to be a good judge of when to put on the shift or position infielders at double-play depth.
In addition to the rich controls, MLB '06: The Show also puts forth a remarkably authentic portrayal of what actually happens during live baseball games. The frequencies of pop flies, ground balls, errors, putouts, and double plays seem to be in line with reality. Plays don't seem preordained either. On the mound, the CPU does a wonderful job of mixing up pitches and changing speeds, and it will intentionally throw junk pitches outside the strike zone just to trip you up. Just as they do in real life, pitchers tire out and lose their stuff as the innings go by. Again this year, every player has his own confidence measure, which influences the quality of contact for hitters and the overall effectiveness of pitchers. A player's confidence increases with timely hitting, good plays, and strike pitches, and decreases when strikeouts and errors happen or hits are given up. Unlike last year's game, confidence in MLB '06 can be built up or torn down with merely a few pitches or a single at bat. Its effects also seem more evident this time around, as you can really notice the change in a player's abilities when confidence is at one of the extremes. Another subtle improvement made to MLB '06 is that ace pitchers now get the benefit of the doubt over rookies and scrappers. The video game renditions of Roger Clemens and Bartolo Colon will get strike calls in their favor on pitches that are clearly outside the zone--as they do in real life--whereas the umps typically enforce the zone for everyone else. Four different difficulty settings are available, and they all seem about right. If, however, you're not happy with a specific aspect, such as player contact or CPU arm accuracy, you can adjust 16 individual sliders in the tuning menu.
Owners of last year's game may recall that it had a few minor, albeit recurring bugs. Fielders would sometimes throw the ball into the stands, catchers would sometimes let pitches sail past them, and, once in a while, the CPU would just let the ball land and do nothing while your base runners rounded the bases. In this latest game, fielders no longer give the fans an impromptu souvenir, although those other two bugs still happen, but with far less regularity.
Online play is also much smoother this year. Buddy lists, multiple game rooms, and an instant messaging function make it easier to find and set up games. Furthermore, the network-related hiccups that often plagued games last year are much less prevalent this time out. If your connection to the other player is poor, the controls will still lag terribly. But when the connection is good, the controls and timing are pretty much identical to how they are in offline games.
Tying everything together is the game's presentation, a combination of crisp graphics and sublime audio that do a great job of conveying the sights and sounds of the ballpark while also somewhat duplicating the look and feel of a television broadcast. Player bodies and stadium layouts are right on the money, for the most part. Miscellaneous details, such as dirty uniforms and animated stadium billboards, also help contribute to the big-league atmosphere. Beyond the outfield, you'll notice that the cloud cover gradually moves by as time passes, and in some stadiums you can even see cars driving by on the highways in the distance. Pretty much the only knock against the visuals is that the baselines and the edges of the field sometimes become jagged or distorted in the replay and walk-up views, probably because the hardware doesn't employ antialiasing. Apart from that, the graphics are generally crisp and clear. With regards to the audio, the crack of the bat and other such cues are fairly authentic. The crowd also adjusts its volume level according to what's happening on the field, although it doesn't chant for specific players like the crowd in the PS2 game does.
This latest game's broadcast-style nuances are livelier and more dynamic than those of the previous game, mainly because batter walk-ups, instant replays, and home run celebrations have been incorporated into the presentation. During gameplay, there are also many more play animations to see. Not that the previous game was lacking, but it's nice to see a wider variety of circus catches and bonehead bobbles, as well as all of the various things that fielders do while milling around between outs. The play-by-play audio is turned in by a three-man booth consisting of Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell, and Rex Hudler, who are all former players and current on-air personalities for various networks. Campbell and Hudler mainly chime in with quips and situational calls here and there, while Vasgersian handles all of the general player introductions and play-calling. Vasgersian is a joy to listen to. His delivery is eloquent and generally accurate, and his transitions are seamless, even when his in-game persona has to rapidly change gears to account for a surprise play or a player substitution. Owners of last year's game will notice that the commentators are more talkative this time around, and that they don't repeat themselves as often.
All told, MLB '06: The Show for the PSP is a rock-solid baseball sim. The absence of any sort of player- and roster-editing functions is really the game's only significant flaw. Otherwise, this portable marvel offers a healthy selection of play modes, has the intricate gameplay that fans crave, and puts forth the same level of audiovisual panache that its counterpart on the PS2 does.