Review: MLB 13 The Show

Rising star Bryce Harper is faithfully recreated in "MLB 13 The Show." Sony

"MLB The Show" has added layer after layer of realism each year, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. But as the franchise has faithfully captured the action on the diamond, it also has authentically replicated the sport's most difficult task -- hitting. The frustration of simply putting the bat on the ball has led to a high learning curve for newcomers, so developer Sony San Diego has addressed this in "MLB 13 The Show" -- the latest iteration to the critically acclaimed sports series. But has the "The Show" taken a step back in order to reach a broader audience.

For those new to the series, Beginner Mode is a perfect setting to get your feet wet. This new setting helps novice players learn the fundamentals -- most notably timing at the plate. It's an adaptive-AI system that starts you out with fastballs over the plate and slowly mixes in pitches outside of the strike zone and then breaking balls and off-speed pitches. The mode dynamically updates your skill level so you can see how quickly you're progressing. It's a thoughtful addition to a game that prides itself on realism but is also acknowledging that it needs to be more accessible without alienating the hardcore fans of the series.

Another new mode to the series is Post Season mode. With an MLB regular season lasting 162 games, many players might not have the time or the patience to play through a schedule to get to the playoffs. This mode allows you to bypass the regular season and jump straight into the pressure-packed playoff setting. You can play with one team or control all 10 teams and can also select which teams are in the playoffs and select the matchups. The atmosphere is the big difference once you reach the playoffs. The stadium is packed with fans waving towels. The field has series-specific logos and is decked out with red-white-and-blue flags that hang near the stands. The developers continue to add the little touches that avid baseball fans notice.

Veterans of the series will notice a wider range of hit animations and a more-forgiving timing window when at the plate. In past iterations, the ball physics seemed more predetermined, allowing for a lesser variety of batted balls. In this year's version, the hits have a wider range of trajectory, providing more realism and less predictability. The developers also tweaked the success window for hitting, but the change is subtle. The challenge of hitting a round ball with a round bat is still there, but now there's a little more forgiveness, alleviating some of the frustration from years past. The difficulty can also be tailored to your liking by adjusting the difficulty level and the sliders.

Road to the Show also has received some adjustments -- most notably to the camera. The mode, which focuses solely on your created player, has a new camera angle that replicates how you would see things if you were on the field. Hitting a fly ball shifts the camera up to follow the flight of the ball as your player races toward first base. This angle does a great job replicating how your eyes naturally gravitate toward the ball after you make contact.

The camera also has been overhauled for outfielders. In past games, you would move the outfielder to a shadow of the ball, where you would settle under it and make the play. This year, the camera zooms in on the flight of the ball and you are given visual cues whether to move left, right in or out. It's jarring at first because the angle is unlike anything in the previous iterations of the mode. But once you get the hang of it, it adds a layer of difficulty that was absent from outfield play.

Another addition to fielding is the throwing meter. Once you've fielded a ball, a meter will appear above the player that has three color regions (red, yellow and green). Green gives you the best chance for success while yellow and red lessens your percentage. Each player's meter will also differ depending on ratings. So players known for strong, accurate arms will have a wider area for success than those who struggle. It adds another mechanic that makes fielding more engaging than in years past.

The plethora of options in Road to the Show returns. You can tailor your player from the ground up. I opted to recreate former baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. The tools they provide allowed me to replicate many of Griffey's attributes and his appearance. One thing that I would love to see the developers add for next year is the ability to change the style of fielding glove that you can choose -- most notably the webbing of the glove. With all the minutia that can be altered, this would be a nice addition for those trying to further individualize your created player. Presentation elements have also been added to increase the immersion. There are now trophy presentations if you take home any of the awards in the big leagues. The commentators also will discuss your on-field exploits. These additions make this iteration the most immersive in the series.

If controlling every aspect of a team's progress is more your speed, then franchise and season modes will be more to your liking. You're put in charge of a multitude of on-field and off-field tasks (minor league call ups, drafting and scouting). But the new addition this year is a team budget system, which rewards you for your on-field performance. This system will allow for low-budget teams to have a competitive chance if they're successful on the field. So if you have multiple successful seasons, your budget will increase to give you more of a chance to sign big-name free agents.

If playing multiple 162-game seasons sounds daunting, cross-play functionality with the PS Vita allows you to take your baseball action on the go. It is really impressive to see that few concessions have been made bringing the PS3 version of this game to the Vita. The most noticeable one is the presentation, which has been pared down a little between pitches. But overall, you're given the ability to take your Franchise or Road to the Show mode on the go, giving you the chance to go deeper into seasons. You can easily upload your save files to the cloud and then transfer those files between the PS3 and PS Vita.

The online suite is a solid offering. You can play quick games against others or join forces in co-op mode against the CPU, the latter of which is something I really enjoy because it breeds more teamwork. You can also play any game during the regular season using that day's roster, giving you a chance to change the outcome of a game -- at least in the virtual space. The developers also added Online Road to the Show leader boards, giving you a chance to compare your virtual player against all others.

Diamond Dynasty, which blends team management, player progression and online competition, has received some improvements. The vast customization options -- team logos, colors, location -- have returned, but tweaks have been made to the card-collecting aspect of the mode. Dynasty Cards, which are created players who can upgraded using experience points, now have an XP limit. Not every one of these players will be able to reach the maximum level, providing more realistic gameplay. Also, opponents who quit the game early will no longer penalize your team's XP haul. These changes are subtle but help gamers want to invest the time that is needed to make this mode successful.

Though the tweaks aren't dramatic, Sony San Diego has crafted the most polished MLB game to date. The studio has continued the series' attention to detail, capturing those moments that breathe life into a baseball simulation. The additions to Road to the Show and franchise take each popular mode to the next level. "MLB 13 The Show" is a further refinement to a franchise lauded for its authenticity and will vie for multiple sports game of the year crowns. "The Show" is available now for the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita. It's rated E for everyone by the ESRB.

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