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MLB 09 The Show
Score: 83%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: SCEA San Diego Studio
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Sports/ Sports (Baseball)/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
Just in time for Spring Training, a new installment of the veteran franchise arrives for PSP. MLB 09 The Show follows a strong run of three years, which is an eternity in gaming. The difference this year that is immediately apparent is that more work seems to have gone into gameplay and mechanics than graphics. MLB 09 looks like last year's game, and if you aren't moving forward in this industry, you are definitely losing ground. Where sports games tend to get a free pass is from die-hard fans that prize function over form, checking player rosters and stats before they worry about the pretty stuff. If it's right under the hood, most fans will accept MLB 09 The Show, but we have to call attention to the obvious shortcomings.

The game's interface seems overly complicated, with diagrams and button commands crowding the ball players in many instances. Sure, it's a complicated game to learn, so the helper text is appreciated for a few innings. After that, you'll wish for a cleaner look to the game. Nobody can deny there's great atmosphere built up here, with the feel of the ballpark coming through nicely, and a realistic backdrop for your games. The announcers repeat themselves way too much, which is a function of how the game is built. You can turn them off and just play to music, which is no consolation prize considering you have the option to load your own music into the game for overall soundtrack or just player walkups. Where the graphics do justice to the action is in the motion-capture and player photos. The problems come from how poorly the crowd is depicted, looking generally like bleachers full of cut-paper dolls. Embarrassing, to say the least. The replays are nice enough for simulating what you'd watch on television, but also greatly drag out the play time, which is a luxury that baseball can hardly afford.


Gameplay:
Playing MLB 09 The Show on PSP allows you to pick-up and play in a sport that does tend to drag out a bit. And by "a bit," we mean "a lot." Baseball fans don't mind, and will relish any opportunity to see their favorite players and teams exercise on the field of their choice. Four years of development have created a virtual labyrinth of game options and features, but seasoned players only want to know what's new. The MLB 09 additions include greater visibility into the roster, including coaching staff. You can really start to think and operate like an owner, in addition to getting your kicks at home plate. Drafting is now synched with the real-life seasonal picks, all tied to really robust online gameplay. Sports gaming has generally set the tone for how to do online, and MLB 09 The Show is no exception.

There is a Quick Play option from the main menu for those that just want to get into the action. This launches you right into the full list of teams, where you choose your match-up and play ball. This will give you a chance to sample the batting and field mechanics, to learn the ropes before there is reputation on the line or you're defending a record in online matches. You'll get deeper into MLB 09 The Show by creating a profile and checking out Exhibition Mode. Every conceivable option can be customized here, with the caveat that you're just playing against the CPU in a series of matches that you define down to the team stats and lineup. More casual players will like the Manager Mode, which basically takes the twitch reflexes out of Exhibition. You craft the basic strategy based on what you know of your team's strengths and the other team's weakness, issuing orders as if you were directing the game from the dugout. Road to the Show Mode takes the opposite approach, putting you in total control of a single player you create and play; the sensation of developing a career while everything in the game runs around you is a neat twist to the typical team-based approach to play.

Bracketing these options are Season Mode and Home Run Derby. Season is basically the most grueling team challenge in the game, while Home Run Derby is the lightest, almost mini-game aspect of single-player control. Both are just icing on the cake after the other goodies, and we haven't even peeled back MLB 09 The Show to the online play. Depth is not a problem here. The online play in MLB 09 The Show is more than just play. Leaderboards are updated and can be reviewed after connecting, plus you can upload custom options for other players to download and try. Message boards and direct messages to other players are nice in theory, but won't spawn many epic works considering the awkward PSP text entry mechanic. Online feeds are available in addition to a Sportscast that gives real-time stats on games being played. This has the potential to be the modern equivalent of my grandfather's tinny radio, where he listened regularly to ball games. Fans like to get their updates, and the PSP is a handy way to check in on games, scores, even the stats for runners and innings! With all this information, it's easy to forget that the online play options are plenty robust. Players can strike up impromptu games or those arranged with friends, or get involved in Online Leagues. This is a slice of professional gaming for the amateur, armchair sports gamer. Joining a league can mean bringing your team to the competition or simply overseeing games as a Commissioner. It's all very social, implemented well, and will work nicely once the audience of gamers reaches critical mass.


Difficulty:
MLB 09 The Show includes several interesting features that play directly into the level of challenge for you as a player, plus some customization. Customizing the level of difficulty will have direct impact on the type of pitches thrown and the accuracy of opposing batters. Faults and wild swings are few and far between once you dial up the difficulty, or you can play Legend Mode Batting to get a feel for what it might actually feel to face off against a fast pitcher. There are some helper options in the game, similar to what you would find on an actual field. This comes from the assists you'll get as a pitcher from your catcher, as he suggests the type of pitch and ideal placement. You can play it how you want, but the game adjusts dynamically to reward you for throwing consistently or punish you for wimping out and avoiding certain pitches. On the field you'll have helpers in the outfield if you can't get to the ball in time, but grabbing the ball means you'll have to power it through to the correct base and tag out your runners. Baseball is such a cool game because of its dichotomy; unlike some games where the ball just switches sides, baseball features two totally different styles of play. Carrying this through to the PSP means learning lots of controls, making for a considerable learning curve. We hate having to refer back to the manual, but you'll be capable of playing a full game without peeking after just a few innings. The neat thing about MLB 09 The Show for seasoned players is that there are handicaps and special controls available to make the experience more realistic and challenging.

Game Mechanics:
Rarely does a game require 3-4 pages of instruction just to teach controls, but MLB 09 The Show doesn't pull any punches. The micro-control possible in the game is available if you want it, or you can pull out Manager Mode and just treat MLB 09 The Show like a baseball RPG. The basic commands for throwing are a typical, three-click style where you initiate the pitch, set power, and finally set accuracy. Stronger players can shake off the catcher's call and throw anywhere in or out of the batter's sweet spot, and toss the ball to a base if a runner takes a lead that's too aggressive. Batting introduces quite a few more dynamics, including the option to guess the pitch for added oomph if you connect. There are subtleties in the batting role that are controlled by the analog stick, allowing you to give the ball different trajectories and make it harder to field. Once on base you can choose how you want runners to move, en masse. You can also control individual runners to set up big plays and throw off the pitcher. It's all a blur for the first few games, and you'll want to master the basic controls before worrying about special moves and "influencing the ball" after batting. The beauty of this control scheme is that it rewards seasoned, patient players. The downside is that it may completely freak out players encountering this franchise for the first time.

Whether you're a veteran yourself or a newbie, there's something for any baseball fan to enjoy in MLB 09 The Show. It feels at times like a baseball sim crossed with a baseball news service crossed with a traditional baseball videogame. This identity crisis may not need any clearing up, but there's a bit of a wall to climb for newer players. The graphics need to improve, again for the benefit of gamers that judge a book by its cover before plumbing the depths of MLB 09 The Show. Online play is where the money is for this version, although the improvements made in roster control and customization are enough to keep you engaged in solo play. The density of this game's interface and corresponding control scheme is too far gone, and needs a serious slim-down before next year's installment. These faults aside, MLB 09 The Show is like any new chapter in a franchise that long ago ceased to surprise, but continues to entertain.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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