I've always been a fan of portable baseball games, I can't even count how many hours I put in front of The Majors Pro Baseball on the Sega GameGear while on the road. It had no licensed teams, but the gameplay was where it really shined, especially for that era of gaming. It's been a long time since I've found a really enjoyable baseball game on any handheld, and although MLB '06: The Show doesn't completely fill that void, it comes pretty close.
The game offers a variety of different modes of play. In exhibition mode, you pick a pair of teams and hit the field. New to MLB '06: The Show, season mode takes you through an entire baseball season (or more) vying for that elusive championship ring. As well, in career mode you can create a player, assign them to your favourite team, and progress with them through a lengthy career. Multiplayer wise, you can connect wirelessly via ad-hoc or infrastructure modes and challenge your friends. Finally, the game features a pair of other single player modes, the always enjoyable Home Run Derby, and King of the Diamond.
Stepping onto the mound for the first time, I quickly discovered the new 'pitching meter'. Essentially, you select the type of pitch using the face keys, and then tap the X button to start the pitching motion. As the meter moves back, you tap the X button again to position the throw, and then again to select the release point. And after all that, I found I was throwing wild pitches more often then not. A few menu screens and a couple of configuration dialogs later, and I was back to the classic pitching mode, and content as ever.
Stepping up to the plate is about as you'd expect, you can take a swing, bunt, check swing, or just stand there and watch the wild pitches fly. You can also 'predict' the type of pitch that the pitcher will throw; guessing right enhances your chance of not only making contact, but getting a solid hit out of the swing. Guess wrong and you're likely to either ground out or miss the ball altogether. On the advanced mode, you can also choose to do a 'power' swing. Get good contact and it's out of the park, but it's also a lot easier to just get a piece of the ball and once again leave you in a ground out situation.
The other two elements of baseball, fielding and base running are where MLB 06: The Show struggles. The control scheme for both leaves a bit to be desired. When a popup occurs, you can move a player under the circle and catch the pop fly, unfortunately the game initially select the player that you field the ball with, and it isn't necessarily the best player. On more then one occasion, I expected the second baseman to field the pop fly, and directed him to run backwards to catch the ball, only to realize I was actually controlling the center fielder and he was now way back towards the wall and nowhere near the ball. A similar situation if you happen to miss the ball when a line drive is hit, instead of players backing each other up, I've had the center fielder miss the ball where it goes back to the wall, and instead of it being easy to switch to the right fielder who should be covering the hit, I have to have the center fielder chase after the ball in the middle of nowhere, only for my opponent to get an in infield home run. Aggravating to say the least.
Base running can be frustrating at times as well, primarily due to the control scheme. To direct all runners to advance, you use the top L and R buttons, simple enough when they decide to listen. To advance a single runner, you have to select that runner using the D-pad and then press the L or R button to advance or return that runner. Caught in a run down, we'll you're toast as the base running controls aren't responsive enough to manage this sort of situation. Why the developers didn't opt to simply use the D-pad and forget the L and R for individual runners is beyond me, but it can make for a frustrating situation. I've often found it's just best to let the computer manage my runners as a way to avoid these unnecessary control complexities.
Aside from the control issues, MLB' 06 is a very solid game on the PSP, graphically the stadiums are incredibly detailed and resemble their counterparts well in both dimensions and aesthetics. Player animations, at bat, on the mound, or in the field are all well captured, and the user interface really brings players into the baseball experience. Every menu is themed to a television style appearance, and the mini replays between plays really add to the overall presentation. It's definitely one of the most polished titles that I've seen on the handheld to date.
Where MLB really shines is in the audio, notably the color commentary included during play. Performed by a trio of Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell (San Diego Padres play-by-play announcers), as well as The "Wonder Dog" Rex Hudler, the commentary is diverse, well scripted, and very well performed - it helps bring you into the game and really adds to the 'television' presentation. In addition to the commentary, the background noise in each stadium is more then adequate and helps build the ambience for the game. Finally, the soundtrack presented is quite good - it's a little 'edgier' then I expected for a baseball game but still fits well within the overall presentation.
Aside from the control issues, my gripes with MLB 06' The Show stem from the sheer difficulty of the game, and the lengthy load times between matches. As with many games on the PSP, this one suffers from painfully long load times between matches. Fortunately, you only really have to load at the beginning of the game, but it can easily take up to a minute to get into the action after you select you team (it doesn't sound long, but when you're waiting it feels like an eternity). I often find myself choosing longer games and pausing the action instead of shorter 'trip-length' games to avoid these overly long load times. Perhaps further optimization or pre-loading would have been useful in this case, as waiting a minute or two to get into the action seems like an eternity when you're on the go.
MLB 06: The Show is a very decent handheld baseball game. Aside from a few issues (most of which can either be tweaked or avoided altogether), it's definitely one of the best baseball games I've come across since my glory days of The Majors Pro Baseball on the GameGear.