Reviewed: April 11, 2006
Released: February 28, 2006
Students: Do you know that kooky preacher guy who hangs out around the steps of the Student Union shouting about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ? Yeah, you know that guy? Well, I have to believe that he is right…dead right. Drop your class work immediately; call your loved ones, call your neighbors, make peace with yourself because the end is near. Hurry!
No, I have not had a sudden religious revelation; the planets just have aligned themselves in a way that a number of very strange things are happening – events so strange that they must be signs of an impending rapture. Massive storms pounding the Midwest, Hurricane Katrina decimating the south, tsunamis in Indonesia, and now…Sony goes out and makes a good baseball video game.
I know we all said that hell would freeze over before Sony first party would ever deliver a good sports game from former 989 Studios, but with MLB ’06: The Show they finally have. And although MLB 06 does not really offer up anything that the competition has not already offered many times over, it is the first Sony sports game in a very long time to actually honor the Sony tradition of quality and not make a mockery of it.
Now, I hear the questions already;
“Didn’t 2K Sports buy exclusive rights for the Major League Baseball license last year?”
“So how did Sony get to release their own MLB game?”
Because 2K’s MLB exclusivity deal was not quite as solid as EA’s notorious NFL exclusivity deal, and only give 2K the rights to games made by “third-parties” and not to games made by “first-parties”. So, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft still have rights to make their own MLB games should they want to – and since Sony already had an established franchise, wallah!
That is exactly why EA was smirking like the Cheshire cat over 2K’s expensive deal, calling it a very expensive farce. EA simply rebranded their MLB franchise with the NCAA teams, and it shipped a few weeks back. Now, 2K still has just as much competition as they ever did before, and yet they shelled out millions to the MLB. Ironic, eh?
But let’s get back to Sony’s game.
The sport of baseball is very unique in that while each game involves over eighteen distinct players, over ninety percent of the action really only revolves around the 1-on-1 interactions between the pitcher and batter.
This mental battle, in which the pitcher and batter both try to read the other’s expectations in each given situation and then try to deliver the unexpected, all takes place in a brief slice of time between when the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand to when it crosses home plate.
By stripping this 1-on-1 interaction down to its core, it really makes it apparent that the game of baseball requires equal parts intelligence, skill, timing, and luck. As a result, when rating a baseball title it is often extremely difficult to gauge how accurately this pitcher-batter interaction is actually being replicated by the coding. Is the game actually reading the situations and then making a calculated decision, or is it simply throwing out random pitches hoping to get the swing-heavy humans to strike themselves out?
Whichever is the case, MLB 06 is a real joy to play. From batting to pitching, MLB 06 combines a few tried-and-true control conventions to give users a fresh take on the sport without sacrificing familiarity. The result is a bit of a “best of” of the genre, and a great game to play with a friend.
The pitching interface is quite similar to EA’s power meter from their MVP series; pitch type is selected by pressing the corresponding face button, and then location with analog stick and the X button. The two-way pitch meter then rotates first back for power, then forward for accuracy.
Depending on each pitcher’s forte, certain pitches might have faster or slower meter speeds – and high-pressure scenarios like loaded bases also speed up the pitching meter to reflect the situation. The interesting – and often aggravating – result of this, is that catchers often miss poorly pitched balls, allowing the opposition to steal one or more bases as you scramble to get the loose ball.
Fielding uses the SEGA/2K style of base-to-button assignments, where the diamond-shaped face button layout on the controller represents the base layout on the infield – O for first, ? for second, ? for third and X for home plate. A direct press from anywhere on the field will automatically throw the ball in the corresponding direction. A cutoff can be called with the quick press of a shoulder button.
The movement around the outfield is just as awkward as in any of the other baseball titles, although one really nice feature is the fly ball indicator – which not only shows the expected location of the balls landing, but also a detailed of indication of the ball’s spin which often teams up with the wind to cast the ball a bit off course. As a result, fielding fly balls in MLB 06 is not always a sure out like it is in most other games.
Where the others are trying to utilize analog stick batting, MLB 06 sticks to its roots and uses a zone-style, button-batting technique. Basically, the batter has the option to pick from a standard “contact” swing to get the player on base, or the less accurate “power” swing to try to get the ball over the fence. The left analog stick is used to choose the swing zone, and the right analog chooses the intended location and hit type (left field, right field, grounder, fly, or combinations thereof).
The actual process of making contact with the ball is just as difficult as it has ever been – as judging pitch speed, type and location are quite difficult on the two-dimensional media. Most players will find themselves being chastised by the announcers for swinging at garbage pitches, but that is just the nature of video game baseball.
Aside from the standard quick play, tournament and dynasty modes – MLB 06 features a number of single and multiplayer pitching and batting mini-games to get your game on with. While not nearly as addictive as EA’s Tetris-styled offerings earlier this year, the games are still a nice diversion from the ordinary. MLB 06 also features first-party online support that runs a bit smoother and looks cleaner than EA’s game.
One of MLB’s greatest attributes has to be its outstanding level of visual quality. Honestly, for a PS2 game, one would be hard pressed to pick MLB 06 out amongst a crowd of similarly themed Xbox titles – it really does look that good. From the spectacular stadiums to the superb player animations, the overall level of detail is way beyond one has come to expect from our lowly ole’ PS2 consoles.
In fact, I was shocked at how similar MLB 06 looked to SEGA/2K’s World Series offerings of the past few years. I know, I know – it is only a baseball game, so really how different can it look, right? Well, there has always been a noticeable difference between the SEGA/2K and EA camps, and MLB 06 definitely leans more toward the bigger, crisper, cleaner, brighter visuals of the former. Heck, MLB 06 even takes a stab at offering a three-dimensional polygonal crowd like the SEGA/2K games – something EA still doesn’t do with its sports titles.
All-in-all, MLB 06 is a real treat for the eyes.
Again, Sony pulls out all the stops with MLB 06 – this time with the sound quality. From the great sounds of the stadium, to the realistic crack of the bat – MLB 06 is one of the best sounding baseball games on the rack.
One of the most important aspects of any baseball game – the press box announcing in MLB 06 is some of the best I have ever heard; seldom sounding like pieced-together sound bites, the overall flow of the play calling comes off without a hitch.
Truly amazing is how the announcing references prior at-bats and plays within innings, or during side changes. I was completely floored the first time I head the announcer allude to how my early inning double play had failed to stop the opposing team from taking the lead. I am not sure how Sony managed to pull all of this off, but it sure gives the game a sense of continuity that is often missed in sporting games.
Despite the current state of MLB “exclusivity” with 2K sports, you still have a handful of options for a hardball game – you can either go with 2K’s always-solid MLB series, or you can go with EA’s NCAA game what with its awesome new control scheme. Or, you can drop a chunk of cash on MLB 06 The Show, and get the best of all worlds - solid gameplay, tight controls, online play, a library of MLB teams and stadiums, stunning graphics and sound. Looking at that list, how could a baseball fan go wrong with MLB 06 The Show?
My first “professional” game review was all the way back in 2000 for EA’s Triple Play 2001, and in it I commented on how the game had single-handedly revived my love of for the game of baseball. Six years later, and I have played and reviewed more baseball games than I even care to remember – which is kind of funny for a guy who simply cannot stand to watch a single game of baseball, much less follow the happenings in the league.
But, regardless of my aversion to the actual live-action sport, I do really enjoy playing baseball on my video game consoles. And while each one of the dozen or more titles has won me over with one gameplay aspect or another, few have provided the total package – MLB 06 does.
I truly never expected Sony to drop a baseball game of this caliber in my lap, especially after the endless string of duds that have rolled out of 989 Studios of late. In fact, MLB 06 alone very nearly makes up for the seven years of bunk since, well… darn, let’s see…Coolboarders 2.
Seriously though, while MLB 06 The Show may not be the most innovative games to hit the racks, and while it may not be a deep into the sim-aspects of the game, it is one of the better baseball games out there for one reason – fun. The game is a heck of a lot of fun to play, and the great graphics and sound are just icing on this very tasty cake.