MLB '06: The Show Review (PS2)
When the “experts” looked at the 2005 Major League Baseball season, it was hard to find any of these gurus who picked the Chicago White Sox to finish any higher than third in the American League Central. It was the Twins’ division to lose. The Cleveland Indians looked like the young upstarts with the firepower to make a run at the top, or maybe nab the wild-card. The sleeper team in the division was, believe it or not, the Detroit Tigers. The pundits had the ChiSox no better than 3rd, but most slotted them at the bottom battling the Kansas City Royals for last in the Central.
For those of you who only follow the virtual game and don’t pay attention to the real game, the Chicago White Sox, in 2005, blew through the regular season with a 99-63 record (the best in the AL) then dispatched the Red Sox in a sweep, took out the Angels four games to one, then swept the Astros out of the World Series in four straight. 11-1 in the playoffs. They went 110-64 on the season and grabbed their first World Series title since 1919.
On the pixelated diamond, the folks at EA Sports and 2K Games are waging the great baseball battle. EA Sports would be the gaming equivalent of the New York Yankees. The amazing pedigree is there. They have all the money to throw around, not just to improve their team, but also to hurt others. 2K Games has kind of been the Boston Red Sox. The rivalry. The hate. You can’t be a true fan of both.
Who are the White Sox in this analogy?
The team at Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) comes into the season as the underdogs. Their title, MLB 06: The Show, is PS2 and PSP only. No Xbox. No Xbox 360. No PC. No major fanfare. Their name doesn’t even come up in the “exclusive license” conversation. Incidentally, while 2K Games does hold the MLB license, their deal only extends to third-party titles. That blocks EA from using the MLB, but leaves the door wide-open for first-party developers like SCEA. Don’t say I never taught you anything.
I’m not going to make you read a dozen paragraphs to figure out how I feel about this title. I feel like I need to tell you right up front that I absolutely loved this game. Not liked. Not enjoyed. I loved this game.
MLB 06: The Show is by far the best total sports gaming experience I’ve had on a console. Baseball was my first love. But, it seemed like the older I got and the further I was removed from my playing days, the more that the NFL, NBA, and even NHL replaced Major League Baseball in my affections. I loved baseball because of the experience. The experience of playing on the sandlot or the local park. The experience of going to a game and taking part in a party with your senses that you couldn’t avoid. Ernie Harwell on my A.M. radio while I tried to stay up late to catch those West Coast games. Even the experience of watching a game on TV growing up. I still to this day cannot hear the National Anthem in any setting and not hear George Kell’s slow Southern voice immediately after the last note saying “…and we’ll be back with Tiger baseball.” MLB 06: The Show rekindled my baseball passion.
As strange as it sounds, I have to start with the audio and sounds in this title. I know most reviews throw you two sentences on this topic sandwiched in with the graphics and animations section, but this belongs at the forefront.
In the history of sports gaming, we’ve seen the evolution of commentary in titles. There have been some bad ones; there have been some good ones. Some go with the "less is more" philosophy, while others just overwhelm you with what equates to white noise. MLB 06: The Show utilizes a three-man booth of Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell, and Rex Hudler providing, undeniably, the best commentary in the history of sports gaming. It's not debatable, it's not even close. The job they did on the in-game commentary is so many light years ahead of the competition that it almost doesn’t seem fair to compare them.
The flow of dialogue is natural and conversational. The information never seems canned or pre-recorded. You honestly feel like these guys are watching the exact same game as you are. They talk about statistics, history, previous at-bats, streaks, and everything else you'd expect from a baseball broadcast. It takes about three to four minutes from pressing the ‘X’ to advance into the game to the first pitch if you let the full opening run. In most titles, you’ll watch it once and skip through. I’ve played dozens and dozens of games and not skipped it once. But, even if you do choose to skip through, it never affects the flow of the commentary by abruptly chopping anything off. It’s truly a remarkable achievement.
It’s not just the commentary that makes the presentation top-shelf either; the total A/V experience is perfect. The stat overlays are timely and informative. The transitions from inning to inning or even batter to batter give you a true TV-style look and feel. The feel is so authentic that you almost forget you’re playing a game. The cut scenes are perfect and never overdone. Dejected batters. Frustrated pitchers. These scenes accurately add emotion to the game flow.
The on-field visuals are fantastic as well. I’d be lying if I said the player models; stadiums and crowds were as good as the competition. I don’t have a better way to describe it other than to say they have that distinct "PS2 look" to them. A lot of players suffer from the old “little head, big body” syndrome, but it doesn’t take anything away from the experience. And even if the look is not perfect, watching them move is darn close. The animations move seamlessly in and out of transition, leaving a smooth and natural look that rivals any other title currently on the market.
That said, what’s a good plate with nothing on it, right?
You can please my eyes and ears all day, but if it’s not fun to play, my interest won’t last long. Fortunately, the gameplay in this title is as strong as anything on the market today. Pitching, batting, fielding and throwing all feel natural and responsive. I’ve always been a sucker for zone-based hitting and the Zone Control Batting in MLB 06: The Show is excellent. Take your high, level, and low hacks using your normal contact stroke or try the new Power Swing assigned to the square button. I love the Power Swing because it’s difficult to master, but pays huge dividends in the right scenario. Get in a hitter’s count and sit fastball when you know the pitcher has to toss you something in the zone and you’ll get a chance to knock the cover off. The pitching AI really works the zone and seems to, more often than not, throw the right pitches in the right situations while still making the occasional gamble and paying for it.
While we’re at the plate, I do have to lodge my #1 complaint about this game. There are far too many balls fouled back to the screen. That’s it. That’s the worst part of the total experience for me. Pretty tiny in the big picture.
Running the bases is pretty intuitive as well. There did appear to be certain circumstances where I had to manually advance my runner and others that he went on his own. It was a little frustrating at first, but once I learned to watch for it, it was easily handled.
On the defensive side, pitching uses the standard meter style that has become the go-to interface in today’s baseball titles. While fatigue obviously will affect the meter and your ability to throw strikes, it was also nice to see that a pitcher’s confidence had a direct effect on this meter as well. If you’re feelin’ it, the bar widens, allowing you the opportunity to throw more accurate pitches. If your confidence is rattled, the centerline will disappear all together making it increasingly difficult to pinpoint a location at all. It also seems to raise the chances of hanging something in the zone for a quick spanking.
I was able to find a unique experience and level of challenge on each difficulty level. Plus, the game is “tweakable” for those who like to go the fine-tuning route in their gameplay.
All the modes of play that you would expect are there including a deeper and re-defined Franchise mode. A franchise staple, Career Mode, is back and even deeper than before. I’m a sucker for this mode and only wish that there was a way to properly utilize the Fast Forward feature defensively for position players.
The new mode that bears a lot of attention, especially for those of you who have a brother, father, buddy or roommate that you game with regularly is the all-new Rivalry Mode. My brother and I kept a mode like this in a spiral notebook back in the NES Baseball Stars days. You and a friend set up a “best-of series” ranging anywhere from 7 to 83 games! The game tracks everything through the life of the rivalry from wins and losses to home runs and batting average. It’s the ultimate mode for bragging rights.
There’s also a lot of fun to be had with the King of the Diamond mode. It’s a one-on-one pitcher-versus-batter game with cardboard cutouts representing the position players. You get a time limit to score points by “hitting it where they ain’t” ,so to speak. While simple in nature, it’s shockingly addictive and a good way to brush up on your skills while having a little fun. Oh, and did I mention it’s available online?
Speaking of online, while Sony’s online experience has long trailed Xbox Live, MLB 06: The Show provides that first real XBL-like experience on a PS2. The menus and options are all there and easy to navigate. Exhibition, King of the Diamond, Tournaments, they're all there, and the servers are usually packed full of eager players ready to take on a really solid and mostly smooth online experience. It’s nice to see Sony step up and trim the gap in online connectivity.
I know a lot of people packed their PS2’s away in mothballs or sent them on the eBay express with the release of the Xbox 360. When a new console is released, there is always talk about a “system-seller.” That’s basically a game that is exclusive to a single console and is so good, it makes purchasing the console worth it. If you’re a sports gaming fan, MLB 06: The Show is, hands-down, the PS2's best “system seller” in the console’s history. It’s also the greatest total sports gaming experience since LINKS 2004.
You’ve heard the phrase about “setting the bar high”, well; the commentary and presentation in this game completely replace the bar. It’s not only higher than the competition; it’s an entirely different bar.
MLB 06: The Show is not "technically" a perfect title. There are a few minor hiccups that I found along the way. However, the total gaming experience cannot be described as anything short of perfection. MLB 06: The Show is the greatest baseball game of this console generation.
Second Opinion: Mark Fossen
Last year, I gave this title a 9/10 and thought it was only a step away from perfection. This year, I agree with Clay: it's taken that step. From presentation to gameplay to features, it's the complete package. My only qualms are the killer load times in Career Mode, and the lack of an auto-load or auto-save feature. Since you'll unlock teams though your user profile, it would be nice to not have to remember to load and save it manually.
My single favorite aspect of MLB is their excellent implementation of the "Guess Pitch" feature. It may not be strictly realistic, but it communicates the feel of waiting for your pitch and having the discipline to wait out meaty pitches that aren't what you're looking for. Batting becomes an exercise in patience as much as reflexes, and you can take pride in earning a walk or simply extending an at-bat. Honestly, the on-the-field gameplay is so rich, fun, and rewarding that I haven't spent much time in the other modes. Playing simple exhibition games with various teams is very addictive as each game seems to have its own personality, its own ebb and flow.
It's tough tearing myself away from my Xbox 360 to a land of last-gen graphics and complete separation from my Friends list. Few games make me pop open my PS2 anymore, but MLB '06: The Show is one of them - and it's a must-buy for any PS2 owner remotely interested in baseball or good gaming in general. I've cast my vote in our year-end awards for MLB the past few years, and this year looks like more of the same.