No developer has pumped out as many titles as 989 Sports since the PSP launch. Before you start thinking that might impact quality you should take a look at MLB. MLB on the PSP spells a chance to bring the baseball experience to a handheld and really do it right. They looked at the other handheld versions such as the ones on the GBA and wanted more, a lot more. MLB, much like other games that have crossed over from their PS2 counterparts, spells a step up from their console counterparts as well as a step back.
First off, I am going to be forward when I say that sports titles are not my usual flavor of games. Just like trying a food you don’t like, every once in a while you have to go back and make sure your tastes haven’t changed. I think my tastes might change a little…at least for handheld sports gaming. Batter Up! Lets take a closer look at MLB for the PSP.
So I sit down to play MLB during a short flight to Los Angeles and before I know it I’ve got a pair of adults sporting New York Yankees hats peering over the top of my seat at 10,000 feet. The guy next to me is trying not to be obvious about it, but I’m gonna guarantee that he’ll have eye fatigue from side-glancing at my ongoing season. Soon the stewardess (a guy) comes over to tell the two gentlemen behind me to sit down, but before he can complete that sentence he blurts out “Whoa! Holy crap!”. ‘Holy crap’ indeed. The graphics in MLB are absolutely jaw-dropping for a handheld. I’d go so far as to say they are jaw-dropping for a console.
Once you kick off a season, you’ll get a quick tour of the ballpark in which you’ll be playing. As you get your first at-bat you’ll really get to see the work that 989 has put into this version of MLB. The player animations are sharp and well executed. The players take their stance at the plate and either have a locked-down batting stance or a fast and loose bat-waving stance. They are varied enough where every player isn’t swinging the bat exactly the same and adds some realism to the game. Nobody is pointing at the infield, but it is certainly on-par with the console counterparts.
The animation detail continues into the outfield after you manage a hit. The outfielders will dive, running-scoop, bare-hand, or otherwise pull of the usual crazy moves to try to pick up the ball. As your team digs in for sliders and fantastic catches their uniforms will get dirt and grass stains. Play on for a while, however, and you’ll start to see a few of the jagged edges. The audience is the two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs that you saw in early sports titles. Additionally, you’ll also notice that there are some graphic glitches when you swing for the fences only to hit some invisible force-barrier that lobs the ball back into the field. You might also see this occur when you line-drive through the grass and the ball suddenly drags through the field rather than the bounce you might expect.
Don’t let these minor glitches get you down, the game’s graphics are unparalleled thus far and the animations are jaw-dropping for any handheld title, even if they are a bit small. The backgrounds are not just background, they are animated and update as you score runs or pick up outs. The only thing missing is the Circle K strikeout meter for The Big Unit as he grinds up batters with his 95+ mph fast balls. All these goodies come without nary a hint of slowdown – all the better to keep the game moving.
Something that, to my knowledge, only the PSP has managed on a handheld, MLB comes with color commentators! Your games are commentated by Dave Campbell and Matt Vasgersian and I have to admit that it added quite a bit to the game. While they are occasionally very far off from what is going on in the overall game, they are dead-on with what is going on in the micro-environment. They will call the strikes and occasionally make comments such as “He’s going to find himself back in AAA if he keeps swinging at stuff like that.” or “Way too late on that swing for Jason Giambi”. When you finish up the inning they will call out where you are in the inning structure as well as tell you how many players you left stranded and any errors you made. Overall, it adds a great deal to the gameplay, even if some phrases are occasionally repeated or out of place.
The music seems to be comprised of a few background tracks made for the title with four tracks licensed from bands including Switchfoot, The High Speed Scene, Pillar, and a mix track that includes various artists. They do add an air of realism to the game as these could be easily be tracks you would hear at a ballpark. Sure, there could be some more licensed tracks but you only hear them between innings so its not like there is a lot of opportunity. I found myself hitting X to get back to the action.
The controls in MLB are broken into three sections – batting, pitching, and fielding. Pitching is a two step process in the game, you’ll select the pitch type you’d like to throw and where you’d like to throw it using the analog. You’ll hit X to initiate the throw which moves a small bar within a band of color. Just like most baseball games you hit X once in the arch to determine the power of the throw and again near the bottom for a level of accuracy. Pitches will also be more or less effective depending on your pitcher’s confidence. Their ‘sweet spot’ for pitching accuracy and power will be higher or lower based on this confidence and a quick visit to the mound will help restore it if your pitcher begins to flag from too many hits or missed throws.
Rookie batting is also a two step process. You can either try to time your swing and hope for the best or you can try to guess the pitch and make a more concerted effort for that homerun hit. It is pretty simple and you’ll have the process down in a few innings. When you up the ante and use the All-Star Batting system you position the analog within the nine strike zones and then time your swing accordingly. Good cuts take some real practice and you will take a good degree of practice.
Fielding is fairly easy, when a ball is hit you’ll see an enlarged ‘shadow’ called a Fielding Marker which shrinks as the ball descends towards the ground. You can pre-load your throws by selecting a player before throwing your pitch. This allows you to immediately throw to a particular baseman as soon as the ball is in play. If you don’t want to fool with the option, you can simply have the CPU handle it. There is definitely a learning curve to the controls, but time and practice will ease the curve, just like real Baseball.
MLB kicks off much as you’d expect – first up is picking your game mode. It brings up the first step back for the title, there is no franchise mode. You can play quick-play to start a pickup game or hit the diamond to kick off a season. Don’t let the lack of a franchise mode steer you away though, with 30 stadiums and online play you’ll find that there is a lot to like in MLB.
To review this game I checked out MLB 2006 on the PS2. This game feels like a second-cousin to the console title. For instance, the picture-in-picture mode is here, the baserunning is in, and you can even influence your batting to ground out, sacrifice, or bunt.
The load times are roughly 30 seconds for the initial start-up. Once you get to the menu its another roughly 30 seconds of loading before you can get to the actual game. Given that a game can take upwards of a half of an hour a load time of a minute is really nothing.
Although there is a learning curve to the gameplay, it is a great deal of fun and despite some occasional glitches; it stands up well, even against its bigger console counterpart.
There are two modes of online play, Ad Hoc and Infrastructure. Infrastructure play allows you play with your friends regardless of where they are, all you need is a hotspot and somebody to throw the heat with. I tested out the Ad Hoc mode while on a plane to Los Angeles with somebody else on the plane. While he beat me soundly, it was a lot of fun to just pick up an online game with another human being on a handheld.
The missing franchise mode hurts a little bit, but overall there is a lot left to enjoy – even if only in small portions.