It happens every year, just like clockwork. Spring arrives, baseball returns and Sony delivers another outstanding edition of "MLB: The Show." This year is no different, as "MLB 12" continues to build on the already rock-solid foundation Sony's San Diego Studio has established during this console generation.
Instead of trying to recreate the wheel, "MLB 12" excels by adding another layer of polish to one of the finest sports video games on the market, while making subtle tweaks that could very well go unnoticed by casual gamers.
Long-time fans of "The Show" will appreciate the vastly improved ball physics that allows for a greater hit variety and a more realistic reaction when the ball comes in contact with any surface. At first glance, this new under-the-hood enhancement is likely to go unrecognized, but play multiple games and you'll see all sorts of choppers, tailing line drives and bad hops caused by the spin of the ball and not predetermined routines.
It sounds silly to cite the way the ball moves as the single biggest improvement during an entire development cycle, but it is a testament to how solid the core gameplay is, that such a small adjustment could make such a big difference. Of course, new ball physics isn't all that "MLB 12" has to offer.
The new pulse pitching and analog batting systems add another layer of difficulty to the hitter-pitcher dynamic, but remain optional - series veterans can still select from the franchise's classic control methods. While I quickly became a fan of pulse pitching, which forces you to stop a pulsating circle at its smallest point to ensure pitch accuracy, I'll stick with classic zone hitting over the new analog scheme. I loved analog batting in the long-defunct "MVP Baseball" franchise, but struggled with it here. Regardless, it's another feather in the cap of Sony San Diego that they continue to add these new features without taking anything away from the user.
Franchise, season and Road to the Show modes return with only minor tweaks, along with a new Diamond Dynasty online game that lets players create and develop their own teams in a fashion similar to the Ultimate Team mode in "Madden NFL." As someone who prefers to spend hours toiling away in offline franchise mode, I didn't dig too deep into Diamond Dynasty, but it sounds like an interesting concept that should appeal to casual fans who aren't concerned with managing their AA pitching staff or scouting prospects for the Rule 5 draft.
Franchise mode fans who also own a copy of "MLB 12" on the PlayStation Vita can transfer their saved game files and rosters from the PS3 to the Vita and continue their franchise on the handheld. The Vita version of "MLB 12" is practically identical to its console counterpart from a gameplay standpoint, right down to the new ball physics and control schemes. Some cutscenes and presentation aspects have been cut out to reduce the time it takes to play a game, but the core experience is precisely what you'd expect from the PS3 edition.
Visually, new animations keep "The Show" near the top of the sports gaming genre when it comes to realistic presentation. Player models look good and the ballparks are amazing recreations of the baseball cathedrals they replicate. The three-man commentary team of Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell and Eric Karros is solid if unspectacular, but the ambient sounds of the stadium made me feel like I was sitting in the stands.