MLB '05 Review (PSP)

Baseball titles for handheld gaming systems have left a lot to be desired over the years. Outside of the underappreciated Baseball Advance, there hasn't been a portable baseball game that's been anything more than a diversion. Recently, the handheld playing field has been altered completely by the arrival of the Sony PSP, which holds the promise of portable games that can match their house-bound console counterparts. I reviewed 989's MLB 2006 for the PS2 just a few weeks ago, and thought it was "a strong title that’s addictive and fun". Even after more time with the game, I still think it's the best baseball title released this year. After that excellent effort on the PS2, how does their PSP version (called, simply, MLB) match up?

When you hit the diamond, MLB plays as good a game as you'll find in this year's baseball releases. Though a lot of features have been trimmed in the move to the PSP, the gameplay is completely intact. In fact, it may play a better game of hardball than it does on the PS2. The PSP controls seem to allow for a greater analog range. I end up seeing a lot more hit variety on the PSP: choppers, bloop singles, and seeing-eye shots all over the infield. When pitching, the analog stick is really free, allowing for a wide range when trying locating pitches. Due to the small screen size, the excellent pitching meter becomes more difficult, and adds more challenge to the game. Pitching from the stretch is amazing; even more so than in the PS2 version, as you have such limited time to work with a very small meter.

Will all the pluses that come from the new controls, there's at least one negative as MLB has some serious control issues when it comes to baserunning. Though it's described in the manual, I haven't been able to lead a runner off, and it really affects your ability to steal bases. The other part of the control scheme that doesn't port is the vibration. Though it's an afterthought in many games, the PS2 version used vibration feedback to let you know when the "Guess Pitch" feature had accepted your guess. It was valuable gameplay information, and without it I sometimes find that I've made a guess that simply doesn't register. While not a critical issue, it'll be something for developers to consider in the future: if vibration is an important part of the feedback, something else needs to take it's place on the PSP.

There is a full set of sliders available for game tuning, and this will certainly please players who should be able to adapt their MLB 2006 settings to MLB. The game may need some tweaking, especially with the arm strength of the CPU fielders. However, in another strange omission, there's no way to really save or load these sliders. They will be stored as part of your season, but there is no way to create your own set of sliders that you can load for exhibitions. You'll need to edit the sliders each and every time you play outside of "Season Mode".

This is the area of the game where there is a massive drop-off from the PS2 version. While the on-field play is intact (if not perhaps improved), the off-the-field content barely resembles the feature-rich PS2 edition. There's "Season Mode" and "Quick Match" ... and that's it. The wonderfully inventive "Career Mode" is missing, as is "Franchise Mode", and even the "Home Run Derby". The "Season Mode" that's provided is decent, though it feels awfully anemic if you're played console sports titles. You can set lineups, track stats, and sim though games if necessary, but there's not much else there. There is decent in-season trade AI, but the CPU does not offer any trades (and the trading block is missing). The simulated stats are good, but the newspaper-style presentation to keep you up on the rest of the league is missing.

Maybe the most critical missing element is a complete lack of roster management. There are no downloadable rosters, no way to trade or load roster files, and no way to create or edit a player. I find it difficult to believe this is a hardware limitation, as 989's Gretzky NHL for the PSP at least allowed for basic roster editing. Though trades can be made in "Season Mode", there's just no ability to keep up with the real MLB. Since players like Barry Bonds, Tadahito Iguchi, and Huston Street are missing with no way to create them, you're looking at a game which really can't replicate your favorite team, or the league as a whole. Though it isn't so bad at the beginning of the season, by the trading deadline this will feel a bit like a museum piece: "Remember when Roger Clemens was an Astro?”

Though the manual describes it in detail, "Manage Only Mode" is not available at all in the game. This may have been a late change, but it's still pretty unfortunate to have a mode that a lot of people are interested in simply disappear - and still be listed in the manual, to boot. I can't help but feel this points to a game that got rushed out the door. There are AI issues with "Manage Only Mode" on the PS2 and it looks like it was scrapped late from the PSP after PS2 users complained.

This is another place where things are pared down from the console version, but it's a great decision here. The game itself plays with minimal presentation: no replays, no walk-ups, and no play of the game. While some players might miss the tv-style presentation, it's a great choice on the PSP, as it really speeds the game up, and keeps the focus on playing baseball.

The graphics are thoroughly impressive, and show off the system. Though you'll see more jaggies than you will on the PS2, and there are some infrequent framerate issues, the game looks fantastic. The textures carry over from the PS2, the animations are perfect, and the stadiums are rich and detailed. One subtle concession to the smaller PSP screen is that the ball, when put in play, gets just a bit larger. In flight, it's almost the size of a player's head, and while this is unrealistic, it really helps make fielding work on the four-inch screen.

While the graphics will amaze you, the real star here might be the commentary. Whereas most PSP games have skipped providing any kind of substantive commentary, MLB includes full play-by-play and color commentary from the team of Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell. It's as complete and detailed as you'd find in a home version, and really helps the feeling that you're not playing a pared-down game.

I'll give MLB credit for including a full online mode. Most PSP launch titles have provided only "Ad Hoc" local multiplayer (if that), but MLB provides full internet multiplayer, where you can use any Wi-Fi hotspot to play PSP gamers from across the country. Once that credit is given, you'll find that as with most everything in MLB, online is bare bones. There is a single lobby. You can only play with default settings. There is no way to change your starting lineup or pitcher. There are not even any records kept of your online wins and losses.

While I can abstractly appreciate the fact that with no records there's less incentive for cheats and cheese, it's simply inexcusable in this day and age to not even offer any form of stat tracking. Once you get in the game, it plays a bit smoother that it's PS2 counterpart. But only a bit - it's still mighty laggy, and the timing is completely different from the offline game. Online is there and it's playable, but there's not much more that can be said about it.

MLB is very close to being a revolution in portable sports gaming. The gameplay is the best I've seen in this year's baseball titles, and the graphics all but equal those of the PS2. However, a complete lack of all the features we have come to expect from a modern sports game means that apart from exhibition games, MLB just doesn't have the depth to stand on it's own. It plays a great 9 innings, but it isn't a replacement to the PS2 version of the game - just a portable version of it. I don't know if the decision to limit the game comes from marketing or technology, but I do know that if it was more feature-rich, MLB would be a solid 5/5 title that set a new standard. I'm disappointed to see it come so close and fail, but it's still far and away the best baseball you can play on a portable.

MLB '05 Score
out of 10