Game Preview: MLB 12: The Show

Platform: PlayStation 3, Vita

Style: 1 or 2-Player Sports (8-Player Online)

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Sony Computer Entertainment San Diego

Release: March 6

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The 2012 baseball season has already delivered more drama than a daytime soap, and players haven't even reported to Spring Training yet. Ryan Braun, the National League MVP, failed a drug test and may be suspended 50 games. Albert Pujols, the star of the reigning World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals, opted to follow the scent of money to Anaheim rather than defend his title. The Chicago Cubs, a team desperately seeking a solution to a 100-year championship drought, hope former Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein can work his voodoo to remove The Curse of the Billy Goat from Wrigley Field.

While video game baseball is free of the doping, betrayal and the hundred years of sucktitude found in its real-life counterpart, developer Sony Computer Entertainment San Diego is making its own headlines with "MLB 12: The Show." I spoke with senior producer Jason Villa about the additions and changes made since last season. Along with shedding light on broad changes like new control mechanics and small nuances like tweaked CPU trade logic, Jason talked at length about a new feature that should excite gamers of all walks. As ludicrous as this may seem, it starts with purchasing the game twice.

"If people own both the PlayStation 3 and Vita versions of the game, we didn't want them to start over if they are playing Road to the Show or Franchise," Villa says. "Our big feature this year, between PS3 and Vita, is cross-platform cloud saves." When playing in the Season, Franchise, or Road to the Show modes, players can start their franchise on the PS3 version, save their file to a cloud, and take it with them on their Vitas.

As history has shown with the PSP versions of The Show, Sony doesn't treat the handheld versions of its baseball sim like redheaded stepchildren. Most of the content found in the PlayStation 3 version is also in the Vita version, but it's tailored to meet the playing tendencies of handheld gamers. "We know people play handhelds for 15 to 30 minutes at a time," Villa says. "They usually don't sit down and play a handheld for three hours. We knew we had to make the games quicker." By trimming down the visual presentation, games can be completed in 20 to 25 minutes tops.

Conversely on the PlayStation 3, presentation has received a major overhaul. The game already offered broadcast-quality presentations, but the dev team felt it could be dramatically improved upon. "What we're really trying to do is blur the lines between our baseball game and what you see on television," Villa adds. "This includes new camera cuts, AI routines, street-mapped cameras, taking some old cameras out, and really showing you the same thing you'll see on a FOX broadcast or on a MLB.com broadcast."

This doesn't mean you have to sit through commercials between innings or watch a fan unknowingly on camera stuff an entire hotdog down his throat as a batter adjusts his batting gloves. Sony is using camera transitions to make the experience feel more lifelike. For instance, after a ball or strike is thrown, you won't always watch the catcher throw it back to the pitcher. Instead, the camera may cut to show the pitcher's reaction or show other player or dugout activity.

A large part of achieving a true broadcast simulation rests on the lips of the commentary team. This year, Matt Vasgersian, Dave Campbell and Eric Karros speak more to events tied to your season and less about team history or what happened in real-life last year. Like the highly lauded contextual commentary in the "NBA 2K" series, these announcers live more in the moment, talking about the Cy Young race during your franchise season or commenting on players having breakout years.

On the baseball diamond, Sony has reworked a large portion of the control mechanics. If players want a more challenging or realistic experience while batting, they can now control the location of their swing on the game controller. The right analog stick controls stride and swing, and the left stick handles the aiming.

Sony is also making subtle tweaks to the analog pitching mechanics, but the biggest change on the mound is the implementation of "Pulse" pitching. This new system tests your timing using the X button. Players must time their button presses to an on-screen display to determine pitch accuracy.

No matter how you play the game, it has a different feel than last year thanks to completely reworked ball physics. For the first time in series history, balls will slow and die in alleys, and actual math is factored in when a spinning ball hits a surface. Depending on how the ball bounces or how the wind carries it, users may find themselves in a world of hurt thanks to the new player collisions that play out in the outfield and on the base paths.

With so much attention being paid to introducing new game controls and improving the presentation, Sony hasn't added much new content to Franchise mode this year, opting instead to focus on improving the trade, line-up, and player generation logic. Changes to Road to Show mode are minimal, as well. Rather than starting out as a player who designated hits in a game or comes in for an inning of mop-up relief, your rookie is immediately a starter a?" "that hot shot rookie who doesn't sit on the bench," Villa adds.

My talk with Villa ended with a tease. "We also have a brand new mode. It's unlike anything you've ever seen in a sports game. It's a unique look at baseball and we really think people are going to latch onto this mode and enjoy it." I have no idea what this mode could be, but the good news is we don't have long to wait to find out. "MLB 12: The Show" hits store shelves on March 6.

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