MLB 13: The Show review: Five-tool player

Baseball has roots as deep and interwoven in the culture of America as any other tradition, a pastime that Baseball legend and Hall of Famer Ted Williams says is "the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." MLB 13: The Show is beyond a good performer, setting the bar that much higher with utilitarian improvements that push to evolve the solid core experience rather than simply offering new modes of play or flashier presentation.

MLB 13: The Show is, like its predecessor, the best baseball video game to ever hit the market. Developer Sony San Diego is the die-hard fan rocking the nosebleeds, calculating pitcher ERA and WHIP in a crummy little note book at each and every home game. Their care and diligence has paid off yet another year, as MLB 13: The Show is, in a word, excellent.

MLB 13: The Show champions the best parts of iterative development, a triumph that doesn't feel like a rubber stamp sequel despite the lack of any one dramatic improvement or addition that I can point to as this year's theme. Instead, the tweaks and changes in MLB 13: The Show come from practical points of view, changes that mean to build even more upon the series' flawless foundation.%Gallery-181276% In a lot of ways, it's a sad commentary on the state of sports games today when one studio is so dedicated to putting out a truly better all-around product than the year before – and not simply trying to figure out what inconsequential things can be done in the brief development window available before shipping next year's game.

As for improvements, the most significant are the animations and overall look of the PS3 game – MLB 13: The Show is beautiful, sometimes hauntingly so. Player likenesses are a good example of Sony San Diego's commitment, because some of these guys' numbers wouldn't call out for such a detailed recreation in other games. When the umpire makes a bad call, you'll see the hitter argue; you'll see lifelike reactions, and it makes it all that much more believable.

And now with so many batting stances and swing styles pulled from real-life hitters this year, that level of nuance to each player adds even more value to the already strong visuals. Hitters who changed their stances have had it reflected in the game – like White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham's new lower stance and recent Yankees acquisition Kevin Youkilis's tighter swing. There are tons of additional pitching motions, home run swing variants, minor league and spring training stadiums and so much more heaped on top of last year's full-to-bursting offering.

The hitting engine has also been tweaked slightly this year. While last year the series had its physics engine totally re-calibrated, MLB 13: The Show sees a more subtle change for a wider variety of hitting outcomes. Last year, the zone batting had a lot to do with ball placement and this year it's even more emphasized – experienced players can drive grounders and pop up sacrifice fly balls with greater consistency using the zone hitting mechanic introduced last year.

This year's new game mode is called Postseason, and it's pretty much what you'd expect: a shortcut directly to the playoffs. I don't quite get the thinking behind this mode, to be honest – when so much of the tension and conflict of the postseason is about the struggle and triumph during the regular season, why cut all that out and jump right to the end? Especially in what I consider to be The Holy Grail of baseball games? The real joy of MLB 13: The Show is in playing all those innings, meticulous team management and working for the payoff. It's not about just getting to the playoffs, winning, watching the cutscenes and calling it a day. It's not like you ever have to play this mode, it's just odd that resources went into making it rather than something more significant.

Road to the Show mode returns, wherein you create a player and guide their ascension through the ranks of the minors before cracking into the Major Leagues. Position players will have to power through particular scenarios that, based on performance, yield points that can be used in training to improve certain facets of play. For example, a closing pitcher will have to come in and, with bases loaded, get three outs in a row to save the game. A short stop will have tough defensive plays to make or may have to perform a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner. Catchers will have to deal with several back-pick situations.

Honestly, if MLB 13: The Show has one flaw, it might be that the game is crafted pretty exclusively for die-hard baseball fans. There's not much room for those who may not be the most knowledgeable or are just curious about the sport. There are too many systems to fine-tune, too much information to cull and far too little spectacle to cater to a more casual interest. In Road to the Show, for example, little explanation is given for why you have to do certain things in each scenario – the game assumes you've already got some baseball knowledge rattling around in that noggin of yours.

It's also worth noting that I did notice a few hiccups while playing online this week. Specifically, I ran into a nasty, random lag spike that would happen during a pitcher's delivery animation. This happened across several different games over the course of a week, against a multitude of opponents at different times. It wasn't frequent enough to break the game, but it's incredibly disheartening when you've played an amazing game of baseball only to be felled by a quick, cheap home run or something completely out of your control. Ultimately, however, the occasional online hitch is just a small blemish on an otherwise flawless product

PS Vita
Last year was the series' first time on the PS Vita, when it was used to promote the new cross-platform play feature on Sony's handheld. Last year, you could upload your files to the cloud and resume your Back to the Show career anywhere. This feature returns and works as crisply as it did in its debut, and some of my complaints about lengthy loading times have been addressed, though they're still too long overall.

Sadly, the PS Vita version just doesn't have that overall feeling of polish and tender loving care present in the PS3 version of MLB 13: The Show. The visual fidelity shows no signs of improvement over last year's version, with chunky player models and ugly, muddy textures running rampant throughout.%Gallery-181295%
The other big implementation on PS Vita is cross-platform online play in Home Run Derby mode. It works well enough, both when playing on PS3 or Vita, but Home Run Derby mode is kind of like owning a Ferrari and never taking it out of your driveway. Sure, you've got the sleek leather seats and pristine paint job, but what's the point unless you're going to take that thing out onto the road and see what it can do?

The actual gameplay is responsive and satisfying, yet nothing has really changed from last year's game. MLB 13: The Show on Vita is functional and by no means a step backward, but rather it feels like treading water. It doesn't feel like an evolution of last year's entry.

MLB 13: The Show can be tailored to emphasize whatever you like most about baseball. If you're a statistician, there are countless graphs and plenty of data to mine. Sluggers can swing to their hearts' content, laying the burden of pitching entirely on the CPU – or vice versa. However you want to play, whatever you want to play – it's all been accounted for with exceptional care.

At first glance, MLB 13: The Show almost feels like Sony San Diego's first speed bump in the series, just because there aren't any major flashy improvements or added features on the surface. It only takes a few games, however, before all of the minor improvements to last year's offering reveal a much more potent simulation experience underneath. For those looking for big, back-of-box new features and modes, the minor improvements may not command the $60 price tag, but MLB 13: The Show is well-deserving of any die-hard baseball fan's attention.

This review is based on retail copies of the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita versions of MLB 13: The Show, provided by Sony. The PlayStation 3 version was the primary version tested.

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