Review: MLB 09: The Show

Generally, PSP titles cannot hold up to their big console brothers’ editions. Unless you’ve got an innovative puzzler or cutesy game that relies more on its charm to be a good game, chances are the product isn’t going to be that spectacular. It’s become a platform that continually receives the short end of the stick when it comes to receiving viable titles, but it’s still great for one very important thing: portability. There has always been a dearth of excellent sport titles for portable play, especially in an age where consoles continually dominate the field rather than their handheld counterparts. This year’s MLB 09: The Show for the PSP has outdone itself as a real competitor for the bigger and more fleshed out renditions that you’ll be paying the big bucks for. Not only is it excellent as a PSP title, but it is only outshined by its PS3 edition – that’s saying a lot, when you consider the percentage of shovelware that handhelds continue to endure year after year. MLB 09: The Show is a great game of baseball for those of you who like your sports action on the go.

What you have here is a good, old-fashioned game of baseball that comes in many different shapes and forms. Obviously, nothing major has changed in the way of mechanics or rules, as this is only an update of the franchise since last year. Baseball hasn’t metamorphosed into a bloodsport in just one year, so all that’s left to speak of are the updates to the usual rosters and the slight upgrade in graphics that is always expected. If you’re a newcomer to the franchise, you’re presented with a slew of gameplay options and modes to explore. You have the choice to play an entire season with the team of your choice, which can provide hours of entertainment one could only find on a handheld, and you can even step into the shoes of a young rook making his way up through the ranks in Road to the Show mode.

Road to the Show presents the option to evolve your player in the way you see fit, such as starting him off older so that he can withstand spring training and lending a hand in how his career is shaped. For those of you looking to live out your baseball dreams, both modes offer a stimulating experience that should be well-received by fans of the sport. If neither mode tickles your fancy there’s always one simple game to play through when you’re short on time, or you can take your career online via the PSP’s internet capabilities.

No matter which mode you choose to play through, the path to greatness is difficult. If you want to succeed with a long and rewarding career in baseball, you’ll need patience and some killer timing. Veterans of the franchise will already know that in order to make any sort of real progress, you’ll need to learn and memorize different types of pitches. This isn’t Wii Sports; consistently making contact with the ball can be challenging and frustrating when you’re not acclimated to which direction or which type of pitch is coming your way. Pitching is no walk in the park, either, as throwing the same pitches over and over will lead to your downfall when you find you’re tossing out runs inning after inning.

Base runners can be a bit of a headache, as they only run at one speed – slow. This can become quite frustrating if you’re needing a quick burst of speed to hit home with. The controls for assigning a runner a base are also a bit finicky. They may take some time to master, especially if you’re new to baseball titles.

Perhaps one of the most important additions to this year’s game is the implementation of a save anywhere feature. There’s nothing worse in any game than when you’re needing to put it down for a bit, and the nearest save point is hours away. Now you can breeze through a simple exhibition match, a fulfilling baseball career, or even a Road to the Show playthrough, then save and quit at your leisure. This is absolutely invaluable, and one of the game’s biggest saving graces.

You honestly can’t expect too much from a diminutive PSP release, but as far as graphics go, Sony has outdone themselves. Though for the most part, you’ve got a typical yearly update that is most comparable to the PlayStation 2, surprises are lurking in many corners. Player models very closely resemble their real life counterparts, though riddled with jagged textures and edges. In some cases the frame rate does begin to chug, but overall it sports a smooth ride throughout each game. One glaring issue I had with the graphics overall was the fact that, like previous editions of the franchise, the umpire and various facets are invisible.

While every other obvious addition to a real life game of baseball is present, why in the world would such an important corner be cut? Aside from the fact that you’re being handed a bat from an invisible man, the crowds are atrocious. Perhaps in the future, Sony can implement some believable crowds and animations for said droves of fans, as the current setup just isn’t working for me. Portability is key here, and it’s certainly done well. If you’re looking for shiny, next-gen graphics, drop the extra cash on a PS3 version – you won’t find them here. What you can find hereĀ  are stark, accurate representations of baseball stadiums around the country. This is the closest one can get to actually visiting the stadiums and experiencing them firsthand, save for the PS3 version, and the best environments I’ve seen on a baseball title. These graphics aren’t perfect by any means, but Sony has done an impressive job with what they have to work with.

Commentators such as Rex Hudler and Dave Campbell reprise their roles to bring a much more authentic feel to the virtual representation of America’s pastime. They have done an excellent job in calling the action, and it’s rare that you will hear a repeat of a previous call. After quite a few hours of play, it was only noticeable a few different times – it’s obvious there was a great deal of effort put into recording the voiceovers.

Aside from the typical sound effects, cheering crowds, and play-by-plays, the game presents a varied soundtrack from some unknown and underground artists. While this is good exposure for those involved, I can’t say I was particularly blown away by the inventory. Lucky for me and those of you who like to load up your own music, Sony has implemented a feature known as “MLB My Music,” where you can stream tracks from your memory stick, replacing the onboard soundtrack. You can even go so far as to assign different songs for the entrances of different players. If you want to take the time, you can record your very own commentary. This was a rather intriguing feature that I’d love to see added into a bevy of more games in the future. Overall, an impressive showing.

Taking advantage of the PSP’s online abilities, MLB 09: The Show provides some entertaining multiplayer options. My time spent with the areas available were relatively free of lag, and matches were quickly created when choosing an exhibition game. For a simple baseball title on the PSP, The Show’s options are admittedly more fleshed-out than some high profile Nintendo titles. Go figure. Player matching ensures you are setup with another gamer who shares your skill level and overall goals within the game. One concern I do have for the multiplayer aspect is the fact that in a few months after release, online will likely become dead, as many gamers are undoubtedly flocking to the PS3 version in lieu of the cheaper PSP port.

If you’re in need of a good baseball title, then it’s likely you’ll want to keep hitting this one up again and again. It’s the best of its kind, especially this year after 2K’s dismal showing. Since you can never truly “complete” the game, you’ll find new reasons all of the time to keep plugging away at the title. Whether it’s the excuse of needing to create the perfect pitcher or to improve your stats, you’ll be enjoying this portable sports game for quite a while – especially if you find yourself with lots of free time on your hands while traveling.

While this is indeed a smaller port of what is a major console release, it’s important to note that it’s just as full-featured as its more expensive counterpart. Updates to earlier franchises are appreciated, and sports nuts will take more pleasure than is necessary from the up-to-date rosters and stats, but in the end this is just last year’s The Show with a fresh new coat of paint. That may sound a bit more negative than it’s intended, but 2009’s offering steps up to the plate (har!) some engaging baseball action for any fan of baseball, from the casual to the hardcore.

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