Truly, there are only two seasons: winter and baseball. Luckily, MLB 11 The Show's season is year-round. Widely regarded as one of the best sports series this gen, largely in part to San Diego Studios' ability to continuously improve each iteration by leaps and bounds – rather than simply providing an annual roster update – this year's Show is no exception, introducing new modes, tweaks and updates to the already praiseworthy returns.
The most notable addition is a new analogue control scheme, which provides perhaps the best pitching interface in a game to date, as well as new controls for hitting and fielding. While the new system may seem more difficult at first, it's much more intuitive and satisfying than the previous method when used successfully. In case it's too strong of a curveball for you, though, last year's controls are still available. The first screen you'll see presents the option to choose between a Beginner, Experienced, or Expert control configuration; while you can deviate as little or as much as you desire from these, they are an easy starting point that helps make the game more readily accessible to returning players and newcomers alike.
The new Online Co-op Mode allows you and a friend to challenge either the computer or other players by dividing up fielding, pitching, and hitting duties, and it really turns a solid solo game into a great multiplayer experience. Another addition, Challenge of the Week, is much more unique: you face a scenario based on actual events of the season each week, and the winner receives real life prizes. For example, one reward is an authentic autographed jersey from the game's cover athlete and all-star Twins catcher, Joe Mauer. You get one free play a week and additional plays set you back 25 cents each. It's an exciting mode that will quickly eat through more competitive players' wallets as they strive for high scores, competing both worldwide and against friends in separate leaderboards.
This year sees the series' first inclusion of Move support, and while it's relegated strictly to Home Run Derby mode, it is nothing to sneeze at. It's satisfying to hit a home run in The Show no matter what method you use, Move or otherwise, but smacking one while you're actually swinging the bat is immensely more so. While you can't meander through the zone, there doesn't seem to be a noticeable difference between swinging 100MPH or 50MPH, with the emphasis instead placed on the timing and direction of your swing. On easy, it's almost difficult to miss the ball as long as you swing at the right time, but on the most difficult mode, Legend, you'd better have your act together as well as impeccable timing and aim. The controls are very responsive and there's no disconnect – it practically feels like you're really hitting the ball, and it's absolutely fantastic. While by no means a game-seller it's a great addition, and with how well Move was implemented here, it stands to reason that it could play a more prominent role in future versions.
Even with the new additions, arguably the biggest improvement to last year's release is in the minor tweaks. MLB 11 has done a tremendous job of taking the already stellar gameplay from before and perfecting it. This is most noticeable on defence; this entry finally sees the inclusion of fielder ratings influencing more than just the amount of errors. Now a fat, slow outfielder will no longer be able track down that sure-fire double in the gap. It adds an entirely new element of strategy as those late inning defensive replacements and utility infielders bring an added realism to the experience.
In the past you might find yourself cursing your player as he slowly and deliberately geared up with a preloaded animation, then awkwardly transitioned to another preloaded animation to throw the ball. Thankfully what remains of this issue is greatly decreased or completely eliminated thanks to much more fluent transitions between motions. This, along with the updated graphics, contributes greatly to making The Show look deceptively lifelike. Combine all this with the revamped fielding controls and you've got a much smoother gameplay experience than before.
The Franchise, Online, and RTTS modes also see slight yet very welcome tweaks to take care of the small nagging problems that plagued them in the past. Franchise Mode sees the inclusion of smarter AI roster control, meaning you can no longer rip off opposing teams by trading overpriced or under-skilled players for superstars. AI now also makes smarter free agent signings, though including some sort of team loyalty would be nice idea; would the Yankees really get rid of Derek Jeter so swiftly? The much maligned online mode was previously riddled with poor connectivity; this year finally sees the ability to go head to head online without frustration, opening a never-ending source of fun in adjusting to new opponents' strategies and exploiting their weaknesses. You can also enjoy full online leagues with up to 29 of your buddies conducting trades, signing free agents and more.
Road to the Show (RTTS) is an RPG-like portion where you create a player and have him progress through the minor leagues and hoping for a call up to the bigs. You accumulate training points to increase his skills in a number of categories, e.g. hitting, pitching, fielding, etc. This year the old, frustrating goal/reward system has been discarded; now every action you perform is tracked and graded. Thankfully, the rest here remains unchanged.
The graphics have also seen a noticeable upgrade with the developers improving upon their groundbreaking texture lighting, as well as all 30 major league stadiums receiving large detail updates including working true-to-life scoreboards and JumboTrons for each. The attention to detail is to the tune of "if it's in the stadium, it's in the game." Players' movements and builds are more realistic, the most noticeable difference being the much more fluent look of pitchers' deliveries. The Show also fully supports 3D and includes weather effects here for the first time – not too shabby.
One of the key features is customisation, the game boasting an incredible amount of user-friendly options that allow you to create your favourite players. Gameplay can be adjusted to your heart's desire to accommodate everything from Sixaxis to variable ball-throwing speed. Periodic updates will let you download the most recent team rosters throughout the season, and $1 DLC Boosters let you magically "repair" injuries to your RTTS player, increase your funds in franchise mode and more.
Despite having a presentation overhaul with clearer and easier to navigate menus, MLB 11 still remains mediocre in regards to presentation. This is mainly due in part to the announcers – despite former Dodger Eric Karros joining the booth, there are multiple instances where the commentary still becomes choppy and doesn't flow well. It's improved from last year, but only from poor to serviceable. The soundtrack is above average, and you can create custom playlists from your own music collection as well, even using it for specific players' walk-up or home run celebration music.
Finally, MLB 11 just oozes authenticity. From the actions of the players in between plays, to the fans yelling cheers and jeers, to the authentic stadium noises and interactions, you can't help but feel like you're actually at the game.
From minor tweaks to new modes and Move support as well as an intuitive makeover to the controls, MLB 11: The Show fixes about everything that was wrong with last year's entry and makes a great game into an excellent one. The graphics are some of the PS3's best yet, letting you feel like you're right there on the field. If you've ever even been curious about the sport of baseball, you owe it to yourself to check out MLB 11.