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Published: Thursday, 4/14/2011

MLB 11: The Show makes pitch to hard-core fans

BY SETH SCHIESEL
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Pro football might be the nation's top spectator sport, but serious baseball nerds are the most frightening fans in the country.

I'm not talking about the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium. When it comes to inebriated rowdiness, football fans are unsurpassed. (I went to several Eagles games at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, including the final one played there, so I know from rowdy.)

But drunken crowds don't scare me. The guy I find terrifying is that geeky-looking dude in the stands -- or, even scarier, on his couch at home -- who keeps a scorecard to tally every play. Home runs, strikes, and runs batted in aren't enough for him. Oh no. This guy wants to talk about WHIP, OPS, WARP, DIPS, LIPS, and VORP. I'm not joking; those are all actual baseball statistics for the committed (if you know what I mean).

Game: MLB 11: The Show

Score: 4 stars (out of 5)

System: PS3, PSP, and PS2

Genre: Sports

Publisher: Sony

ESRB Rating: Everyone

He probably doesn't think of himself as, say, a Kansas City Royals fan, but he can tell you what's going on with the Royals' farm system. You know your wife's birthday; he knows who led the National League in batting average in the late 1970s.

God bless him. He might be a little scary, but at least he's passionate about something. So the opening of the 2011 Major League Baseball season was equivalent to a national holiday for this guy. And thankfully a new baseball video game is available to satisfy even this most obsessed fanatic: MLB 11: The Show, made by Sony for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable. (I used the PS3 version.)

To be honest, this incarnation of The Show intimidated me a little. There are so many options and so much detail in every aspect of the game that I quickly began to suffer paralysis by analysis.

"So wait," I found myself thinking, "if I don't study every opposing batter and adjust my fielder's positioning every pitch according to both the opponents' tendencies and the particular game situation, am I going to suffer?"

The answer is: Of course. A player who makes that kind of effort is going to get better results than someone who leaves the fielders positioned straightaway all the time. The player who examines front-office personnel maneuvers such as waivers, arbitration, and the Rule 5 draft (I still can't figure out exactly what that is) is going to build a more successful franchise than someone who just wants to hit the ball.

Oh, you want to hit the ball? Well then, how are your reflexes? Can you determine less than a second after the ball leaves the pitcher's hand if you should swing or not? Can you decide with any reliability which quadrant of the strike zone the ball will pass through? And are you familiar enough with that pitcher's repertory to make an educated guess if he's going to throw a two-seam or a four-seam fastball?

At the higher difficulty levels, you'd better. I played through three entire games as the Yankees (who led baseball in runs scored in 2010) on the highest realism setting, and I hit the ball out of the infield twice. Both were lazy flies that were easily caught. I lost by double digits each time.

On the easiest mode I actually could be competitive against the machine. But that was kind of boring, because once the artificial intelligence took care of the hard stuff for me, all that was left to do was press one button to swing.

That isn't really a bad thing. Sports video games are meant to mimic the real-life athletic rewards of dedication and long hours of practice. Those who can operate these games at a high level have been playing them for years.

I will say that the addition of 3-D to The Show -- it requires a special television and glasses -- is a big step forward. As in Sony's Gran Turismo 5 racing game, The Show in 3-D not only provides a more visually realistic experience, but it also makes playing easier and more natural.

This latest iteration also supports the PS3's Move motion-sensitive wand controller, so you can swing the device as if it were a bat. But it remains a novelty: It works only in the exhibition Home Run Derby mode, not in "real" games.

To many people, though, baseball is not a novelty. It is part of the fabric of life. If that's you, pick up MLB 11: The Show and play ball.



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