Fear the beard.
That's the rallying cry that led the Giants to their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco. And as a guy who grew up going to games at Candlestick with his dad, the virtual collection of misfits and (more importantly) champions was the first thing I wanted to see when I turned on "MLB 11: The Show."
And I wasn't disappointed.
From Brian Wilson crossing his arms into an X and pointing to the sky in celebration after a save to the way Tim Lincecum's hippie hair flaps in the wind to Pablo Sandoval's quirky walk-up animation to the cyber kayakers in McCovey Cove, the Giants received an overhaul worthy of their new status as diamond kings.
Only thing missing is a cheat code to unlock The Machine.
Then again, "The Show" is rated E for everyone, so Brian Wilson's masked sidekick will need to stay in the background for at least another year.
But don't think the team at Sony's San Diego studio stopped at just upgrading the champs. "MLB 11: The Show" is anything but a roster update with a few new custom animations thrown in to fool consumers that this game is something new. In fact, this might be the biggest jump in terms of both control and game-play enhancements the series has ever attempted in a single year.
"People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring." -- Rogers Hornsby
The biggest change to the game comes with the addition of pure analog control. That's right, buttons are about as hip these days as players wearing stirrups, so Sony has finally changed the control scheme for hitting, pitching and throwing to be all analog-based (although if you want to play old-school and use buttons, you can still find last year's controls in the options menu).
"This is the feature everyone has wanted in our game for years, but we didn't want to do it until we could do it right," says longtime "MLB" producer Chris Gill as he sits down to demo the game for me inside Sony's San Diego studio. "People have been asking for a new way to play the game, and now everything you do, whether you're swinging the bat, throwing to first or pitching the ball, it's all done with the right analog stick."
What this means is for hitting, gamers pull back on the stick to start the batter's stride, then push forward to swing the bat. This is all about timing, since if you start your stride too early, pause, and then swing, your stride will be off and you'll lose power. Start your stride too late, and you're going to be behind on the ball when you finally swing. It takes a few innings to get used to, but by my second game, I hit a few homers and felt comfortable enough to start really enjoying the new approach.
Before each swing, you can also try to guess the pitch and location just like last year, as well as choose whether you want to take a normal swing, swing for power or hit for contact. Hitting for contact is what's new here, as this is more about simply trying to put the bat on the ball and advancing the runners than anything else -- your batter will take a severe power penalty when selecting this option. On top of that, if gamers want an additional challenge at the plate, Sony has added true zone hitting into the game. Here, hitters can select the option of not only needing to fine-tune the timing of the stride and swing, but will also need to move a cursor onto the ball as it reaches the plate in order to make contact. According to Gill, this is an option the hard-core fans have been wanting for years. "Again, if we were going to do it, we wanted to make sure we did it right," he explains.
In terms of pitching, the meter the game has been using for years has been revamped a bit to incorporate the new controls. Once pitch and location are selected, gamers will pull back on the right analog stick. This causes the ball on the meter to drop toward a line about three-quarters of the way down. As soon as the ball hits the line, the pitcher will then press up on the right stick, but here's the twist -- if your location is on the outside part of the plate to a right-handed batter, you'll need to press up and to the right in order to guide the ball into the target that will appear at the top of the meter. This is all about mastering the stick, as you'll need to not only time the movements right but also hit your spot. This really adds to the pressure of each pitch. One mistake, and you might fire the ball right down the middle, then watch it fly by your head so fast you get virtual whiplash.
Another cool aspect to the analog mechanic is the fact that the velocity of each pitch is actually determined by the speed with which you press up on the right stick. So if you're looking to add some extra oomph to a Matt Cain fastball, all you have to do is push up harder during your delivery. Obviously, if you're pressing up faster, it will be more difficult to pinpoint location at the top of the meter, but this really adds to the fun and complexity of the system. After a few innings, I had the new system down good enough to feel cocky, and then I messed up and gave up a 420-foot shot to Josh Hamilton. But this actually made me smile, since I knew I still had some work to do (and really, no one should be able to master a new pitching system that fast and I was stupid to think I could).
The most trouble I had with the new controls came in fielding. While I hit a couple of home runs and struck out plenty of batters using the pure analog system, it felt like I committed more throwing errors in three games than I did all last season playing "The Show." After a while, it got so bad that I started feeling like the second coming of Steve Sax.
The problem is, in order to play out the animations smoothly, you're supposed to preload your throw using the right analog stick (and if you don't preload the throw, there is a strange pause that happens right before you unleash a wild throw over the first baseman's head). So essentially, as you run to gather the grounder, you should already be pushing toward first base to throw the runner out just like you did with the buttons last year, only it doesn't seem to work as well (or I just couldn't get the timing right). The thing is, the longer you hold toward first, the harder you throw the ball, but at the same time, throw direction is also manipulated by how accurately you move the stick toward first base. So if you hit the stick at more of a three-quarter angle either way rather than pushing exactly to the right (to represent first base on the stick), the ball flies offline. The game is still early in development, though, and the various producers assured me that they are still tweaking the analog fielding system, so hopefully this aspect gets fine-tuned before it ships. Otherwise, I'm headed back to buttons when it comes to throwing the ball.
"A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings." --- Earl Wilson
On top of the new control scheme, "MLB 11: The Show" also features a fun new co-op mode that can be played both online and offline. Co-op can be 1 versus 2, 2 versus 2 or even 2 versus CPU, with online games using up to two consoles max -- meaning if it's a four-player game, two players can be on one console playing against two players on another console. The game then enables each team's captain to assign duties for each showdown. For example, if I'm playing with a friend, I can choose to pitch every other inning and control the infield while he controls the outfield, or I can change things up and have him pitch while I control all the fielding. When we're up to bat, we can alternate spots in the order or even choose to have just one player hit and one player pitch. There are so many options to choose from, you can really play this mode however you desire.
I played almost a full game of four-player ball, and I have to say, I was hooked. Between the trash talk and the dirty looks you give your teammate when he makes a baserunning error or strikes out with the bases loaded, the competition level really rises as you add more players into the mix. It's so fun, in fact, I think co-op will make "The Show" one of the best party games of the year. Either that, or the best way to end a friendship if the trash talk gets too heated (and believe me, it will get intense).
If co-op isn't your thing, there's always the new Challenge of the Week online mode where you can prove your "MLB" talent to the world while also winning real-world prizes for those cyber skills. This is basically a quick online competition, and every week there is a new challenge; the person who gets the most points at the end of the week wins a prize like a signed baseball from the game's cover athlete, Joe Mauer, who is covering the game for the second year in a row. There will also be monthly prizes, semiannual prizes and a grand prize (gamers might win something huge like a trip to the All-Star Game or World Series). These challenges are fast-paced (should take only 2-3 minutes), and the one I tried was simply getting as many hits as possible before getting three outs with a certain batter. The more hits you get in a row, the more points you pile up. The farther the hit, the more points you acquire. So as you get on a hot streak and smack homer after homer, you can almost feel yourself sitting at AT&T Park as the Giants beat the Red Sox in the 2011 World Series (what, I can dream). And since the challenges are based on real-life events, we might expect something like batting as Josh Hamilton against former teammate Cliff Lee to open the season.
"Baseball is a fun game. It beats working for a living." -- Phil Linz
After taking a few swings in Challenge of the Week, I was able to sit down and get my hands on the updated Road to the Show career mode (Road to the Show 5.0). I created a shortstop, got drafted by the Rays and was off to my first game. New this year is the ability to turn assisted fielding off. That means when the ball is hit to you, the computer doesn't help you get moving in the right direction. It's up to you to generate the quick first step and get to the ball, making defense feel even more realistic. Other improvements include the ability to use "sliders" when creating your player in order to give him the abilities you want. So if you want a power-hitting third baseman, you can boost his muscles, but it will come at the expense of his speed. The mode also features enhanced minor league substitution logic, so now when your player starts out in development, he will get the chance to play the whole game -- the minor league managers will keep you in now in order to help develop your abilities. The advancement system has also seen a significant overhaul; player stats actually come into consideration more than previous iterations of the game. Your player will constantly be compared to the other players at his position inside the organization, so if you want to advance, your stats will have to be better than theirs. This comes into play in promotion as well as demotion; if the guy who is one level below you starts playing better, you might lose your spot on the roster.
Dynamic goals (think: take a strike or don't strike out) have also been removed from Road to the Show in order to help the flow of the game, and they have been replaced with a player performance evaluator. This new system analyzes entire at-bats, including how many pitches you saw, your swing timing, the type of contact made, your plate discipline, and the results; then you're rewarded or penalized based on what happened. Then, depending on how you do in the game, the mode will trigger new training for your character. The training this year is based on a level system. So when you start, you're on Level 1 hitting and, as you advance, the trainer will ask you to do more difficult challenges that include contact and recognition training for batters. So if you swing at too many pitches outside the zone, you will head off to discipline training, where you are supposed to swing only at strikes. In the first level, you might see only fastballs, but as you level up, you will learn to lay off the breaking pitches, as well.
Think that's all that's been added to the game? Think again, as the exhaustive list of improvements made to the "MLB: The Show" franchise also includes "move" support for the game's home run derby mode, 3-D game play (you need only a 3-D TV and glasses) and a camera editor that enables you to customize any pitching or batting camera to your own personal specifications. There are even the exact broadcast views for every MLB team so you can play the game as your favorite team from the exact same viewpoint you watch them play for real. Amazing.
Other highlights include Eric Karros joining the booth alongside Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell, completely redesigned stadium-specific JumboTrons, and dynamic rain and cloud coverage that takes into account not only stadium location but also a wet field, which will now affect the on-field results. There's even a new fake throw system that enables fielders to fake like they're throwing the ball to a certain base in hopes of catching an aggressive runner on another base off guard (simply press throw twice to pull off the fake).
For online sports fans, the people at Sony admit to past trouble when it comes to playing their game over the PlayStation Network, but say they are doing everything in their power to ensure a better, smoother and lag-free experience for "MLB 11."
"We've been working a lot on online," adds senior producer Jason Villa, "and right now with our testing it's as close to offline play as it gets. We're going to continue to improve the stability as much as we can. Some people will tell us they have great connections, others don't, and it's hard to determine what the cause is. You never really know until you ship and get out on the shelves, but believe me, we're doing our best to make sure it's as good as we can possibly get it."
Other online improvements include flexible divisions in leagues (2, 4 or 6), custom roster support for league play, and the ability for commissioners to set AI controlled teams so that you can play in a league with 30 teams even if you have only a handful of human players. Commissioners also have the new ability to simulate or reset games to help advance the league. In addition, there's a new XP system that will grant XP points whether gamers win or lose online. The winner will now get 75 percent while the loser gets 25 percent of the points, and Sony hopes this alleviates the problem of competitors simply pulling the plug on online games once they fall behind. Winning percentage will also play a factor in your skill rank and help determine whether you're a rookie, veteran or legend, not just your overall XP value (so don't automatically assume someone with 5,000 points is brilliant at the game, look at their win percentage).
"Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." -- Ted Williams
I've been a fan of "The Show" franchise for many years now, and I have to say, the 2011 edition blew me away. I spent a full day playing the game, and the following week I attended Sony's New York preview event where I sat down and played another full nine-inning game. When I got back to my hotel room following the event, I still couldn't get the game (or the awesomeness of Brian Wilson's polygonal beard) out of my mind. It's similar to how I felt the first time I saw "NBA 2K11" -- sometimes you just get that feeling that you're playing something special, and "MLB 11: The Show" is shaping up to be one of the biggest sports games of the new year.
If only they would add orange cleats ...