Sony's third installment of its flagship baseball series on PlayStation 3 continues to impress, combining sharp visuals, engaging atmosphere, and rock-solid gameplay. Building on the firm foundation created last year, MLB 09: The Show is more a refinement to the series than an overhaul in both play mechanics and game types.
Game modes are identical to MLB 08, save for a new practice option. Once again you're able to compete in exhibition, road to the show, franchise, season, manager mode, and rivalry. The new practice mode will let you work on the timing necessary to solve Tim Wakefield's knuckleball or Josh Beckett's curve as you set foot in the batting cages to take your hacks. The road to the show option, which follows a single athlete throughout a career, incorporates these practice sessions to improve your technique on the basepaths or at the plate.
Franchise mode is largely the same as last year's, but with an expanded 40-man roster and enhanced management options in the form of waiver transactions, arbitration, the rule 5 draft, and contract renewals. You can also record and save replay movies, test your skill at a new legend difficulty setting, and upload and share rosters.
Another big change is support for live drafts and flexible schedules for your 30-team online league. Yet the actual online play is still, sadly, a mess with lag. Hitting is extremely difficult, with the ball jittering its way toward you with missing frames of animation. Making contact is thus more luck than skill. On the bright side, if you've ever wanted to break the Major League strikeout record of 20 per nine innings, you'll do it easily online.
MLB 09's greatest asset is the intensity of the batter-pitcher showdown. When you're on the mound, you will fear a rival team's 3, 4, and 5 hitters, unless of course, your opponent happens to be Kansas City or Pittsburgh. The reason is that the computer makes you earn each pitch, patiently waiting for a mistake to hammer into the gap or in the stands. Since each hitter remembers what you've thrown at him, you have to vary your pitches, hit your spots, and hope your pitcher has the stuff to keep the batter off-balance. Compared to MLB 2K9's brain dead batters, it's like throwing to Einstein.
In the box, you can take comfort in knowing that the computer doesn't just throw strikes. It will nibble the corners and throw outside the zone. You will draw walks if you are patient, something that's easier said than done in many baseball games.
The interface is nearly identical to previous versions, with the developers continuing the tried-and-true timing system for hitting, which involves tapping a single button instead of positioning cursors or rocking an analog stick. Pitching relies heavily on the real-life abilities of the hurler to execute the throw, though you're able to determine power and accuracy using an arc-shaped meter.
Fielding has significantly improved, with the ability to instantly break out of the "canned" motion-captured animation sequences that marred last year's game. The result is smoother, more engaging defense. The only drawback is that there's no way to vary the strength of a fielder's throws as in the MLB 2K series.
Last year's MLB 08 was the best in Sony's baseball series at the time, and MLB 09 enhances the 3D engine even further. Player models are the most realistic seen in a baseball game to date. A new dynamic lighting system renders accurate shadows during afternoon games and subtle transitions from dusk to night. Fields will deteriorate over time, dirt will appear on uniforms, and even the JumboTrons feature team-specific animations. You'll notice small details each time you play, from vendors that actually walk up and down the stairs, to team mascots that strut and dance for the crowd.
Commentary once again uses a three-man booth, which can lead to some repetitive or generic observations. The play-by-play by Matt Vasgersian is excellent, as it feels like he is actually watching the plays on the field instead of reading from a script. Yet the color analysis offered by Dave Campbell and Rex Hudler doesn't always add anything meaningful. Fortunately, the crowd is as active as in past versions, so home teams will loudly boo the opposition's star players, hang K-cards for strikeouts, and roar with approval as you take or protect the lead late in the game. Not only can you edit the music that plays during batter walk-ups, but you can also record your own chants with a microphone. Goodbye generic voice #6, hello Homer Simpson.
MLB 09's choppy online play is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise stellar game. For those hoping to enjoy the multiplayer leagues, chat system, and live drafts, this is a big problem. Of course, you can always brush up on your skills offline while the development team gets to work on improving the net code. In terms of realism, challenge, and sheer enjoyment, MLB 09's brand of single-player virtual hardball easily takes home the pennant this season.
Source: EA Sports