More than any other sports game that many of us Stateside have ever played, MLB: The Show has the power to dazzle spectators. Even non-baseball fans seem incapable of escaping its spell.
Sony's San Diego Studios long ago mastered the art of authentic baseball presentation, and have seemingly only needed to make minor tweaks since then. It's evident in every facet of their games -- the breezy conversation of the announcers, the way fans will reach down for a ball that bounces just out of reach, and the grimace of disgust on a batter's face after being called out on a particularly close call. Little has changed in MLB 12: The Show, for better or worse.
That MLB 12 looks exactly the same as its predecessor was evident when we loaded it up for the first time, and a roommate looked up from her computer and asked, "So wait, how is this different from last year?"
If you want us to be completely honest, it's not that different at all. Even the references to the now-three-year-old Target Field as the "Twins’ beautiful new outdoor stadium" sounds like something straight out of MLB 10. Because that's where it came from. Wait, there is the new Miami Marlins stadium. But still, is that a dramatic update compared to the big changes you see from other sports games? Not really.
This year's edition is mainly marked by touch-ups and tweaks, the most notable being the new "Zone Plus Analog" control scheme, which seeks to fix last year's Pure Analog scheme. Following complaints that the Pure Analog controls made it impossible to choose where to hit in the zone, Sony San Diego has added in a little cursor that marks where the swing will make contact. It's not a bad addition, even if it's more or less inaccessible to all but the most advanced players.
The Zone Plus Analog scheme adds yet one more variable to an already highly-complex control scheme, making MLB: The Show one of the most difficult sports games we've ever played. As in the real game, making contact means being able to gauge whether the pitch will be a fastball or a changeup and where it will be in the zone, all while it zips through the air. Doing all that, winding up, and placing the cursor in the right place for a well-timed hit can be a bridge too far at times, and resulted in much cursing as we swung feebly at expertly placed strikes. Even after reducing the difficult to "veteran," we had our share of hearburn. Finally, we just threw up our hands and went back to good old Zone with its nice, familiar buttons.
As for the pulse pitching, well, the less said about that feature the better. While Zone Plus Analog at least has the benefit of being an advanced control option with a true to life rhythm, the rapidly shrinking and enlarging circle that comprises pulse pitching mostly just made us feel nauseous. It wasn't hard to time the pitch button with the circle, but it wasn't satisfying either. It wasn't long before we went back to the much more intuitive analog pitching, which does a far better job of capturing the overall rhythm of throwing the ball.
The tweaks to the controls aside, MLB: The Show's other major feature is Diamond Dynasty -- a monetized, collectible card game-type feature that ought to be familiar to most sports gamers, as it has appeared in Madden, NHL, FIFA, and other major franchises. We're told the mode has its fans, but to us at least, it's always come off as a rather uninspired way to squeeze more money out of devoted players by charging a fee nominal for the packs of cards. We suppose we should wonder what took Sony so long to get into the act.
Here's the thing though. Even if you're collecting cards and building a custom team, Diamond Dynasty is an online mode, and there's little to suggest that online play has significantly improved over previous iterations. In our test match, it was every bit as lag-filled as ever. The timing is such that you have to swing the bat <i>after</i> the ball has disappeared, or you will be marked as having swung too early. Things may improve on retail servers, but we doubt it. This is a netcode issue, if anything. Given how precise the frames need to be, isn't it time that Sony San Diego find a way to adapt something like the netcode GGPO? It's done wonders for fighting games like Street Fighter III: Third Strike Online Edition, which require equally precise timing.
Online has been a nagging issues with this game for years, and no amount of PlayStation Move support will fix that (Note: MLB 12 features complete support for PS Move now. We were unable to test that particular feature, but it's there, for those who are interested.) And there are other features that could use updating as well. We love that franchise mode has better trade logic, but why is there no accountability for losing too much? No goals like the ones found in Road to the Show? There's always new places to take the single player, but franchise mode has hardly changed over the years.
With that in mind, there's less incentive than in years past to pick up the PS3 version of The Show this year. If you're the lucky owner of a PlayStation Vita, think about that edition first, which at least has the novelty of being portable, as well as supporting cross-compatible saves (if you're really itching to play both). We're not asking that Sony rebuild from scratch, and thus risk throwing out a great baseball sim out with the proverbial bathwater. But there is a sense of diminishing returns with this franchise that is becoming worrisome. It still has the power to dazzle, but Sony should take care lest the best baseball series of this generation grow stagnant.