It's hard to make good baseball games. There's a reason that hardball fans talk about all-time favorites like RBI Baseball, High Heat, and MVP '05 with a gleam in their eye; for every legitimately great title based on America's Pastime, there are piles of others that failed (and often miserably). That's also why I get so jazzed every time I drop MLB 08 The Show into my PS3. It gets added to that list of top-flight baseball sims, and establishes the foundation of what should be a spectacular run of excellence for years to come.
MLB 08 The Show is the best this-generation baseball game yet. Sporting silky-smooth gameplay, crystal-clear visuals, and solid controls, it's a complete package of major league awesomeness. It's also overtaken its competition this season, rendering MLB 2K8 an afterthought in the two-team battle for your baseball dollar on the PS3. It's a shame that Xbox 360 owners don't have the option to play The Show, as they're missing out on a compelling experience that all baseball fans deserve.
From the first pitch, all of the player animations are beautifully rendered to form a cohesive, singular game in motion. Pitching, fielding, and hitting all look wholly natural, featuring the distinctive characteristics of all the game's greats. Dontrelle Willis's freakish leg kick, Gary Sheffield's maniacal bat-rocking, and Dice-K's trademark swaying, swerving delivery match their real-life counterparts to the letter. Many of today's stars are instantly recognizable because of these quirks, as well as the best face-modeling I've yet to see in any sports game. It's clear the gang at Sony appreciates the nuances of the players that make up the sport.
All this visual fidelity would simply be window-dressing, however, if the fundamentals were somehow lacking. Not that this should have been expected, considering that core gameplay was by far the best feature of last season's less-than-groundbreaking PS3 debut. Pitching is an exercise in art, factoring in all the variables that seem to be forgotten when real baseball gets converted into a gaming medium. Just because you time your three-tap pitch meter perfectly doesn't necessarily guarantee that the pitch will go exactly where you want it. Your pitcher's confidence in that pitch, his energy, and the opposing batter's strengths and weaknesses all factor in as well. Some consider this to be a problem. To them, I scoff. After all, even the best pitchers in the game don't throw no-hitters or shutouts all the time, and they all have to work hard to get out of jams now and then.
It's no piece of cake at the plate either. Each pitch affords you two options to guess about what's coming toward you – the location and the type. You think Josh Beckett is about to try and blow a low fastball by you? Guess correctly on both accounts and you'll know before the ball leaves his hands that's what you're getting. If you miss the location but get the pitch itself right (or vice versa), an indicator will let you know as much. At no time do these guarantee your success, as you'll still have to use your skills to make contact with the ball. Every little bit helps, though. The bottom line is that it's tough to have consistent success in the big leagues, and MLB 08 balances this give-and-take beautifully.
As you'd expect, The Show offers exhibitions, seasons, franchises, and online play – plenty to satisfy Joe Baseball Fan any day of the week. However, it's easy to get lost in the new-to-the-PS3 Road To The Show mode, which is the best non-traditional single player campaign I've ever played in any sports game. Road is an incredibly compelling experience that invites multiple replays over several careers. The basics are simple – create a player and guide him through a career striving to make it in the bigs. There are no short cuts to the majors, either. It takes lots of hard work, cunning, and more than a little bit of luck to forge your alter ego from a green rookie to a grizzled veteran.
Road To The Show is brilliant in its simplicity. Instead of playing an entire game's worth of innings for your team, Road gives you the perspective of your player alone. Among other things, this means you can tear through a month's worth of games in an hour or so. As a pitcher or hitter, all you do is take your pitching appearances or at-bats and let the chips fall where they may - your manager and GM choose what team you play for, when you play, and what your role is. Many situations you're presented with also have goals attached to them, such as driving in a run or getting a ground ball out. Accomplishing goals gains you points, which can then be used to build up your player's attributes RPG-style. Choosing how to allocate these skill points is an art unto itself, as your team gives you career-advancement targets that don't always match up to your own individual aspirations.
At the end of the day, MLB 08 The Show is the only baseball game you need right now. It's a near-perfect baseball package, sporting a barrel full of improvements from last season, gorgeous animations, solid online support, and the most compelling single-player mode you could ever ask for. There's no doubt that you could happily play The Show all year long and beyond without losing interest - there's just that much to do. Run, don't walk, to put The Show in your starting rotation.