Review: Simple name, simple features, great baseball.
989 Sports has been quite a busy developer since the release of the PSP last month. At launch alone, SCEA's sports division released Gretzky NHL, World Tour Soccer, and NBA, as they begin fresh in an attempt to make people forget the rocky and difficult PS2 era. The newest entry into the 989 line of PSP games is definitely the best, though ? that being MLB. While it technically is a stripped-down, reworked port of the PS2 version of MLB 2006, 989 has carefully retained the best things about that game, and fixed up some of the problems with that console version. Those who need a Franchise mode or endless features will definitely be disappointed, but if all you need is your basic baseball options, realistic gameplay, or want another game that's playable online via wireless play, MLB is a very good bet, at least until MVP Baseball comes out next month.
To a cynic, MLB seems about 5 years out of date; without a Franchise mode or any kind of extra fluff, MLB might be dated. But in some ways, the simplicity is refreshing; with just your basic Season mode with great stat tracking and some typical; trading, free agency, etc., fans who've been overwhelmed by the complexity of recent hardball games on consoles will find a lot to like here. Since we're dealing with a portable console that you don't tend to spend hours at a time with, the lack of a Franchise is forgivable, but I'd expect as developers learn the ropes of the PSP, Franchise modes will return to confuse the hell out of some baseball fans. In addition, there's basic exhibition games against the computer, and two types of wireless play. While EA seems more interested in mini-games and basic Ad Hoc wireless action, 989 features both Ad Hoc (which is typical head-to-head 'link' play against a PSP close by) and Infrastructure (the standard online play, only with the use of a wireless router or Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to a bare-bones network structure for cross-country play).
Like a portable game should be, MLB is great for pick-up-and-play action. It can be a slightly complciated game at first, but as you play and advance through the season or play more games against human competition, the little nuances come out and it becomes an intuitive, fun game. Hitting the baseball is very High Heat-like in some ways, without batting cursors and other various annoyances. With each difficulty level comes some extra options for hitting, but for the most part it remains the same. Rookie hitting is easy; just swing the bat and use the d-pad or analog nub to hit a fly ball, a grounder, or just pull the ball down the lines. You can guess a pitch as well, which reveals the exact location of where the pitch will end up, adds some more power to your swing, and knowledge of what pitch is being slow helps with timing as well. On Veteran and All-Star, the addition of location guessing changes the game up, since if you guess not only the pitch but the spot its going, you can do some serious damage. This is actually quite difficult so there's no real shame in spending time playing the game on Rookie, which occasionally presents a decent challenge, until you really get a grasp on the game.
Pitching is very similar to MVP Baseball, but with some extra tricks. Once you choose your pitch and line it up in the strike zone, a pitching meter like MVP shows up, with its two button-press system; one for speed, the other for accuracy. A quirk in the deal is the confidence meter built-in; if you're getting out after out, the accuracy becomes easier to hit and pitches find their location much easier. On the other hand, if you keep giving up hits and runs, the accuracy becomes harder to deal with and pitches will miss their desired spots which can cause even more damage (and you can actually throw wild pitches, something I haven't seen done well in years). This is where you can use the 'visit mound' option to calm down your pitcher. Pitching becomes tougher yet when you're in the stretch, as the meter moves faster and harder to pinpoint perfectly. The depth of the pitching is quite surprising, especially since strategy is so vital in MLB. You absolutely cannot just keep tossing fastball after fastball, as you'll get pounded into submission very fast, even on Rookie. Instead the game forces you to show variety in pitches and locations. I was very surprised how much better your pitching game gets when you mix up pitches and locations. It's definitely the best system I've seen in a baseball game for quite some time. However, if you don't like it, you can use a classic pitching system that lets you pick a pitch, aim, and throw, with the force put down on the X button dictating the power of the pitch.
Running the bases is easy, though it could use a little work. It's easy enough to advance/return both individual runners and the entire group of players on base, but sometimes the AI logic that designates whether to go or stay automatically is a bit goofy. When a ball is hit to the right side of the field and there's a runner on 2nd, that runner should head for 3rd but instead they stand there in the lead-off position, waiting for you to make that decision; and frequently the time you take to press the button to forward the runner is enough to get that player caught on the throw from first for a double play. The same thing occasionally happens when there's a base hit, and the delay can mean the difference between making the turn at 3rd or just holding the runner there. Perhaps there should be a 'pre-load' running control that's not actually stealing bases, but a run on contact option before you actually put the ball in play. Unless there is and I missed it. Fielding is pretty basic with nice pre-loaded throws to get the ball out of the hands of a fielder immediately and a very nice fly-ball marker which helps see things better on the smaller PSP screen (compared to a TV, of course).
All of this, and more, makes MLB one nice baseball sim. There's stuff you just don't see a lot in baseball games; broken bats, beanballs, intentional walks, wild pitches/passed balls, etc. It feels like a baseball game. There's good balance in hits, with plenty of chances for singles, doubles, even triples sometimes (since occasionally a fielder will actually juggle the ball for the extra time needed to leg out a 3-bagger), and there's never a constant run of homers either. Though sometimes games can have more hits than you might expect (I pitched a game and allowed 2 runs on 12 hits while I scored 7 runs on 21 hits), MLB is a fine game of hardball that feels like a real game. It's lacking a bit in the presentation department, which lacks flair compared to console versions (when you hit a home run, the announcers barely sound excited and treat it like no big deal), but that's a small nitpick in the scheme of things. Otherwise this is the best bet for baseball on the PlayStation Portable. And if you don't want to actually play, you can fast-forward a game to a point in time where you take over, or do a 'gamecast' like management system where you can hop in at any time ? perfect for finishing a game off quickly on the go, unless you're anal like me and have to be part of every pitch and every swing.
As a downsized port of the PS2 game, MLB has graphics comparable to that game, but ultimately not quite. The PSP makes much of the game small, though despite smaller players, funky crowds, and jaggies abound, the awesomely detailed stadiums, outstanding player animations, and smooth gameplay really makes up for any visual problems. It's a very speedy game with a slick framerate, and little slowdown that can cause problems. It's worth mentioning again the awesome animations for players ? and not just swings and pitching motions, but the whole package for double plays, diving catches, plays at individual bases (the different ways you can make a play at first is huge and all have damn-realistic animations to match). MVP may wind up being the better looking game overall but matching the little tricks of MLB will be very tough to recreate.
In an unfortunate event, Vin Scully, the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is no longer doing commentary as he has for a long while now for 989 baseball games. In his place is 989 voice veteran Matt Vasgersian, who does a good job with veteran color commentator Dave Campbell. They tend to repeat and lack excitement frequently, but it could be worse. The sounds of baseball are represented well, from the crack of the bat (both clean and broken) the cheering and jeering crowd, umpires making the calls, all the things you'd expect from a day at the ballpark. The only thing missing is music during the game and between at-bats, but the latter is subdued by the lack of player introduction between hitters, old-school style, though there is some occasional music between innings. Finally the menus are laced with licensed music from bands I don't recognize but probably are big with the kiddies.