CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Since making the leap to the PlayStation 3, each annual release of Sony's "MLB: The Show" franchise has been marked by minor adjustments and tweaks. These subtle improvements, while not directly affecting the core gameplay experience, have combined to consistently make "The Show" the most realistic sports sim on the market.
For "MLB 13," this trend has continued. Things like new onscreen displays and overlays, improved ball physics, additional minor league and spring training stadiums, and a decidedly more hitter-friendly approach to the batter-pitcher duel will likely only be noticed, and truly appreciated, by longtime fans of the series.
But unlike in years past, the development team at Sony's San Diego Studio didn't stop with small changes. For "MLB 13," the developers swung for the fences with major changes to Franchise mode and Road to the Show, as well as the introduction of new game modes. The end result is the most robust version of "The Show" to date, a game that captures the spirit and fun of baseball unlike any other.
Road to the Show, the series' popular career mode, received a major overhaul in an effort to bring the player closer to the game. New camera angles for both hitting and fielding give the mode a fresh perspective, drawing the user into the action like never before. The ability to track the flight of the ball or pick up your third-base coach with the press of a button adds to the immersion. I also loved how the game acknowledged my milestone moments as I progressed through the minor leagues, and that career advancement goals have been adjusted to allow for a more realistic path to the major leagues. I'm not a fan of the new base-running engine, but thankfully the classic controls return.
Likewise, Franchise mode has been reworked with realism in mind. Team budgets now reflect your performance on the field, which means with some hard work you can actually turn small-market clubs like the Royals and Pirates into legitimate contenders capable of competing for top-tier free agents. An emphasis has also been placed on scouting your team's next great superstar, with hidden gems and busts now factored in. New menus make it easier to view the wealth of information provided about your franchise, from financials to depth charts. And while career stats still go untracked, the game does maintain a record of award winners and Hall of Famers. Hopefully with the added processing power of the PS4, this can be addressed in future editions.
Franchise and Road to the Show offer more than enough gameplay to keep even the most diehard baseball fan satisfied through the dog days of summer, but "MLB 13" also introduces two new options - Postseason Mode and The Show Live. Postseason Mode allows players to set up their own playoff bracket using any major league team in the new expanded 10-team format. Playoff-specific presentation and commentary help add to the drama of the postseason, giving each matchup the big-game feel it deserves. The Show Live blurs the line between "MLB 13" and the actual major leagues by using data from MLB.com to present real-world lineups, stats and pitching matchups for exhibition games. Games can be played as they happen, or players can go back in time and recreate moments from earlier in the season.
It should come as no surprise that "MLB 13" continues to set the bar for graphics in the sports genre. Player models are strikingly realistic, with specific batting and pitching routines for practically every major leaguer. New animations can be found everywhere, from fielding and running to batting and pitching. Stadiums are intricately detailed, lighting is superb and every facet of the game has a sharpness to it that makes the visuals pop off the screen. Unfortunately the commentary isn't quite up to the same high standard. The addition of Steve Lyons to the booth is refreshing, and the three-man broadcast team does a good job of talking about key moments in my franchise, but the overall commentary is lacking any real sense of emotion.
On the field, "MLB 13" features a new throwing meter on defense and a wider timing window when hitting. This new hitting system, combined with the improved ball physics, opens up the scoring somewhat, but this doesn't mean "The Show" has turned into a slow-pitch softball game. I've seen a handful of seven- and eight-run outbursts, but I've seen just as many 3-2 pitcher's duels. I've also seen a greater variety of hits, including more ground-rule doubles and sharply hit balls ripped down the line. This is at least partially attributed to the new push-pull hitting trajectories.
For the second straight year, "The Show" makes an appearance on the PlayStation Vita and it's clear the added year of development time has been used wisely. The Vita version of "MLB 13" runs much more smoothly than its predecessor and features improved presentation, though full replays are still missing. All of the game modes found in the console version are here, and cloud saves return letting users transfer their progress between devices. Vita users can compete against those on PS3 in a Home Run Derby, but true cross-platform play continues to be absent. Still, baseball fans who own both a Vita and a PS3 would be remiss for not purchasing the game on both systems.