Baseball is a polarizing sport. Either you love the drama of every at-bat, every line drive and double play, or you think it's boring as all get-out. It's a tough experience to translate into a game, especially in a manner that's, you know, something you'll want to keep playing.
The MLB: The Show series by Sony's San Diego Studio has been the top baseball sim for several years and a solid exclusive to Sony's platforms. But this year is a big one: Sony's launched a new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, and it's debuted MLB 12: The Show on the platform, hoping to achieve parity between the handheld version and the PS3 game, the latter of which certainly hasn't been neglected this season.
MLB 12: The Show is true to baseball, to both the sport's highs and lows. You may have that dramatic at-bat, with two outs in the bottom of the 9th and runners at the corners -- you're on the edge of your seat, biting your lip, hoping to survive the oncoming emotional tidal wave. But then you have those other moments when a solo home run in the first inning will be the only run the entire game, the remaining eight innings a constant tug-of-war between two clubs who are evenly matched, resulting in an overall uneventful experience. This is baseball. This is MLB 12: The Show.
Unlike its competition, in MLB 12: The Show, you won't ever feel gamed or gimmicked. The AI behaves largely as it should, and isolated hiccups in player behavior, like missing an easy catch or making an error when throwing to first base, hardly become trends. I noticed some errant physics, occasionally -- balls speeding up after hitting a base, for example. These few hiccups notwithstanding, MLB 12: The Show is about as solid as a baseball game can get.
This year's installment is true to the series' reputation as the benchmark franchise for all baseball sims. MLB 12: The Show features improvements on both sides of the plate: a new pulse pitching mechanic and zone batting. Pulse pitching places a pulsating wheel around the chosen point of delivery for your pitch. It's based on timing; the goal is to hit the button when the wheel is at its smallest. The smaller the wheel, the more accurate the pitch. It's a nice improvement that helps speed up the process of pitching and adds an element of uncertainty to each delivery, amping up the drama of each pitch.
Zone batting, a more substantial new feature, places a yellow cloud within the strike zone, allowing the hitter to move it to where they anticipate the next pitch will be delivered. It lets batters finely tune their swing like never before, rewarding patient batters and adding another layer of complexity to an already deep simulation experience.
The last big addition is a PS3-exclusive feature called Diamond Dynasty, a mode that allows players to cobble together their dream team with in-game collectible cards and go up against others' squads online. You can trade and sell cards online, and if this all sounds familiar then you've played FIFA Ultimate Team or Madden Ultimate Teambefore. Ultimately, Diamond Dynasty is a nice distraction and a decent palate cleanser, but doesn't offer the long-term distraction and value of MLB 12: The Show's biggest single-player mode, Road to the Show.
In Road to the Show, you create a player and take them through the minors and try to get them into the big leagues. Want to make Kenny Powers, a 32 year old closer who's overweight and only has a fast ball? Go for it -- I did, and it was glorious. Want to create a situational slugger, a power DH or pinch hitter whose job is to get on base at clutch moments? Just about anything you can come up with is doable here.
Every week or so, your player will have advancement goals, usually tasking you with increasing specific stats like reducing your WHIP or meeting a certain batting average goal. Training exercises are also tossed in, and in every game you play, you earn experience points that you can then use to increase certain aspects of your player. No matter who you make, you're going to have a great time struggling to get them to the majors.
The Show is special this year, due in part to the launch of the PlayStation Vita and expanded PlayStation Move support. Last year, players could use PlayStation Move in Home Run Derby, but this year you can play every aspect of the game with the peripheral. While I was unable to spend time with the Move, I was able to really dive into the cross-play with the Vita. Good news: if you have a PS3, a Vita and can afford two versions of the same game, then you'll love cross-play.
Cross-play allows you to share save files between the PS3 and Vita in the Season, Franchise and Road to the Show modes. It's especially useful in Road to the Show: depending on which position you play, you'll spend a lot of time out on the field, so being able to progress your player on the bus or your lunch break is useful. But, again, not everyone is going to be able to experience that because it requires a hefty financial investment.
The Vita version is largely on par with its big brother. My favorite feature is actually one of the handheld's smaller additions: the use of the touchscreen when pitching. You can tap in the strike zone where you want the ball to go, then deliver. It's just a smart addition.
The downside of the Vita version of MLB 12: The Show is that load times are really long. It's weird, because not only are certain assets installed, but it's also not a UMD -- why a cartridge would have such long load times is beyond me. It can be frustrating, especially when booting up the Vita, though some of that frustration can be alleviated by keeping the Vita in sleep mode.
Unsurprisingly, MLB 12: The Show is a great time on both the PS3 and Vita. Sony's San Diego Studio has put the same care and diligence into this year's entry as it has in the past. Simply put, MLB 12: The Show is an excellent experience that honors and respects one of America's oldest institutions. Get off the bench and get in the game -- you won't regret it.
This review is based on retail copies of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions of MLB 12: The Show, provided by Sony.
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