For countless Americans, spring means baseball. For countless consumers, baseball is best enjoyed on a video game system. And for hundreds of thousands of fans, the baseball game of choice is MLB: The Show.
The baseball game of choice is MLB: The Show.
All right, that's a bit much for the opening to a review, but the Show series has been consistently excellent and it has really outdone itself this year. The graphics look a little sharper, with literaly hundreds of new animations thrown in, players react more intelligently in the field, and you can use the same saves on both the PS3 and the Vita (see our MLB 12: The Show Vita review for details), but the action centering on home plate may be the first thing that will blow away a lot of players. MLB 12: The Show introduces pulse pitching as an option and provides batting choices aimed at satisfying all skill levels.
In addition to the traditional pitching interface, you can now select pulse pitching, which centers on a pulsating circle you can position when setting up your pitch. The exact behavior of the circle will vary with your pitcher's confidence and fatigue level. Press X when the circle is at its smallest to throw a more accurate ball; pitch when the circle is at its largest and you'll sacrifice most of that accuracy. It sounds simple, but it took a bit of getting used to. Beginners may find some more success with the default style, since there is already a lot to get used to in selecting pitch type and location, but pulse pitching is a big step closer to total command of where the ball ends up.
Of course, there is a guy called "the batter" on the other side of this pitching bliss. If you're at bat, you also have some tricks to exploit. At its simplest, batting relies on timing the swing, so beginners can just set it on novice, flick the right stick with good timing, and hope for the best. The game is nice enough to show you some feedback post-action, telling you whether you swung a little too early/late or with good contact. You can certainly enjoy the game at this level, but it's no fun needlessly hitting a performance wall. Incorporating full analog controls comes with a learning curve, but that's more than made up for in positive results.
Zone analog batting debuts this year, just a year after the standard analog control scheme, which is still an option. With zone analog, you control the stride and swing with the right stick but you also use the left stick to guide where your swing is headed. With practice, this is definitely the best way available to ensure that you don't strike out against the top pitchers. It brings one more element of randomness under better control and really made me feel like it was worthwhile to invest a lot of practice time in the game.
Speaking of practice, MLB 12: The Show is more friendly to newcomers than a lot of other sports titles are. You can work on different aspects of your game while picking up some helpful feeback. Video tutorials are there to cover the new features, but the best way to become a better player is to play. With The Show, you can start on the bunny slopes with simple pitching and batting schemes and work your way up. (Yes, a skiing analogy.) And don't forget to work on your fielding: the ball physics this year are significantly improved, so you will want to be ready for all kinds of unexpected hits and bounces.
Once you're ready, you can play an exhibition, go through an entire season, or you can really get wild. My favorite mode is Road to The Show (I think that "T" should be capitalized in this case). The Road is a career mode wherein you take your player from an itty-bitty minor leaguer through to baseball stardom. I still think NBA 2K12 did it better in making you feel more "big time" with endorsements and glamour, but The Road is no slouch. It helps that MLB 12 is so darn good at presenting the game. Press conferences and Nike billboards are cool, but it's the broadcast simulation (complete with excellent voice work) that really adds polish. Developer SCEA did an excellent job in that regard.
After retiring as a ball player, one of the best gigs a legend can find is managing a team. The franchise mode returns, allowing you to build a dream team, but this year we also get Diamond Dynasty, which takes it even further. You start with several customization options governing the look and identity of your team, then you are assigned a mix of real and "dynasty" player cards. These latter cards are tied to players you can customize, develop, and grow into your own baseball dynasty. Winning online (or even single-player) games and completing collections of player cards gives you rewards that you can use to build your dynasty further. Better cards can be unlocked or purchased in the PlayStation Store.
Realism and fun rule the sports genre, and MLB 12: The Show has them both in respectable amounts. The added control is a huge plus and the various game modes are done well. It's good to see a successful sports series show this level of improvement. An even better training mode and a fleshed-out Road to The Show would be icing on what is already a very filling cake.