Unlike football or basketball, there is a healthy competition between baseball game franchises on the market this year. Take Two Interactive’s 2K Sports has done a fairly good job with the MLB 2K series across all platforms since EA Sports lost the license in 2005, but Sony’s relative newcomer The Show has been creeping up the standings. This year, MLB 2K11 and MLB 11 The Show go head-to-head in a one-game playoff to win over baseball fans as their favorite way to belt a 3-run shot, or strike out the side.

Since Sony’s San Diego studio makes The Show exclusive to the company’s consoles (PS3, PS2, PSP) while 2K 11 is console agnostic, much of your decision on which to purchase will be based on which platforms you own. If you have access to both Sony and other consoles though, figuring out whether The Show or 2K11 is better for you will likely come down to personal preference. Instead of giving each game an independent review with its own score, I thought it would make much more sense to tell you how each game handles each discipline and aspect of baseball. Here’s how they matched up in pitching, hitting, fielding, game modes, and overall presentation. With baseball season in full swing (heh) starting yesterday, let’s start comparing MLB 2K11 and MLB 11 The Show in case you want to bring that action to your gaming console.

Pitching

The ad campaign for 2K11 is all about how hard it is to pitch a perfect game both in the videogame and in Major League Baseball (even though there were 3 last season, er, sorry Detroit, 2). While having 27 up and 27 down in 2K11 is definitely hard, I thought the mechanic for pitching made it really easy to hit your targets. Maybe that’s because pitching is a complete abstraction: To throw a pitch, you choose what type like fastball or slider and the desired location. Two concentric circles appear and you must time a gesture made with the right analog stick when the spokes of the two circles match. The gestures are different for each type of pitch, and some like that pesky 12-6 curveball are harder to achieve than others, but with practice you can easily paint the inside corner of the strike zone or tempt a hitter to swing at breaking ball just outside the zone. I did like when I had runners on base, the pitcher’s composure makes the “cursor” for choosing location bounce around and the gestures must be completed faster pitching for the stretch. More than once, I threw a wild pitch if my gesture wasn’t completed correctly or in time.

I thought that pitching felt way more authentic in The Show. After picking a pitch, you pull down on a vertical meter until you hit the shaded sweet spot and then push up to meet your release point. It’s pretty easy to throw a fastball down the middle, but gets increasingly difficult to paint the corners of the strike zone by pushing up to the left or right to hit the inside or outside. If there’s a runner on base, pitching from the stretch gives you even less time to place that pitch exactly where you want it. Matching the release point to where the pitch ends up makes pitching more of a learned skill analogous to real baseball than meaningless gestures in 2K11.

Hitting

Stepping up to the plate in MLB 2K11 is as daunting as it was in Little League, at least if you suffer from shitty timing like I do. Experts say you have a split second to decide whether you are going to swing at a pitch, and while that is slowed somewhat in videogames, I thought the swing decisions in MLB 2K11 felt the most natural. To swing, you push up on the stick for a contact base hit kind of swing, but you only pull back and then push forward if you want to hit the ball out of the yard. If you just want to put bat on ball, move the stick to either side for a defensive swing which you’ll hopefully foul off harmlessly but could result in weak ground balls and pop outs. To aid you in making the split-second decision of whether to hit, batters with a high eye stat can get a quick hint of the type and location of each pitch.

The Show forces you to pull back and push forward with every swing, which was way harder for me to time. Switching between contact or power swings is a button press, which is a pain in the butt if, like me, you forgot to do choose before each swing. You can also guess what each pitch will be by pausing play and pressing a button that corresponds to the pitches in a hurler’s repertoire. By picking the right one, you supposedly get a bonus to hit on the swing, but I found stopping and starting before the pitch very distracting. The other thing I didn’t like is that umpires are not perfect in The Show and pitches that are out of the strike zone will not always be called balls. I enjoy a bit of realism in my videogames, but it’s damnably frustrating to get rung up with a curveball that’s clearly off the plate by a computer that’s programmed to be wrong.

Fielding

If a batter somehow hits your perfect pitch, control immediately switches to the fielder in the best position to field the ball. Generally. It’s still a little difficult to cycle through different defenders, but simply getting to a ball isn’t usually a problem. If a ball is hit in the air in MLB 2K11, a large white circle appears and catching the pop up is a matter of moving your player into the circle and under the ball. You don’t have to press anything to make the catch, just be in the right place. Throwing to each base is accomplished through pushing the right stick in the desired direction, and holding it to fill up a meter until it’s green will result in a hard accurate throw. If you go too far into the red, the throw will either pull the recipient off the base or sail over his head for an error, and I liked that fielders with better arms have a much easier time throwing across the diamond or gunning down runners at home.

Popups are handled similarly in The Show but how good the fielder is will determine the kind of jump he gets to react. Manny Ramirez is often frozen for a few seconds as he judges the ball while the speedy Ichiro Suzuki will jump right on it. Diving catches or trying to rob a home run by jumping over the fence is tough to time just right, and it feels safer to let the ball fall in front of you for a single than giving up a triple by letting it go behind you. To throw, holding the stick toward the base you want to throw it will make it stronger, but the UI animation beneath the fielder makes it hard to determine how much oomph is just enough. And sometimes, even if you’re perfectly positioned and ready for that ground ball, you’ll just boot it. Again, such realism is laudable in a sports simulation, but it’s still frustrating as hell.

Game Modes

Like most sports games these days, MLB 2K11 offers the full range of game modes such as quick play, season, franchise and My Player. The quick play gets information from the interwebs on what games are being played that day in real life, allowing you to jump to say, Arlington, TX, to play the Ranger’s Opening Day game. (Go Sox!) The season and franchise modes predictably allow you to manage your favorite teams through the rigors of injuries, minor league call ups and playoff chases but to 2K’s credit you can get involved as much as you want by automating “unfun” actions. The My Player mode lets you create a minor leaguer with a robust customization process and play through mini challenges each like Get on Base or in my case, Don’t Strike Out, and rewards you with skill points that you can use to increase a huge variance of skills.

In The Show, you have a lot of the same options in season and franchise modes, but a lot of the functions are hidden in a tiny interface in the bottom of the screen. One of the new features this year is the ability to play cooperatively with up to four people and split up responsibilities such as covering infield or outfield, or picking which players to control at the plate. Sony revamped the Road to The Show mode this year but instead of the challenges of MLB 2K11, you are judged based on each at bat or fielding opportunity and receive points that way. The customization options at first seem more robust but it’s a little hard to fine tune how your player looks. I mean, I just want to make a ball player with a big bushy afro. Is that so hard, Sony?

Overall Presentation

The menus and presentation of MLB 2K11 are signature 2K Sports, but its style could use a redesign. Each individual player looks pretty much like his real-life counterpart but there are a few question marks. Even the amazing beard of San Francisco’s closer Brian Wilson could use a little more “magic.” The representations of major league ballparks look good but the overall graphics don’t do anything to impress. The announcing team of Steve Phillips, Gary Thorne, and John Kruk gets a little old, repeating phrases often without a clear prompting.

In contrast, The Show looks wonderful. The impressive effect of the shiny helmets reflecting what it looks like on the field is amazing and each player looks distinct. It may be a small thing, but I just loved the ability to switch what my menus and launch screen looked like by picking a favorite team. The announcers may be a three guys you couldn’t pick out of a lineup (Eric Karros, Matt Vasgersian and Dave Campbell) but the programming for what they say and when is infinitely smoother than MLB 2K11. I could – and I have a few times while waiting for the season to begin – listen to the simulation of a game with these three guys talking about the game.

Both MLB 2K11 and MLB 11 The Show are great seventh generation simulations of the game of baseball but each have their strengths and weaknesses. If I had to count which one felt better to me, I’d have to give the Golden Glove, Silver Slugger, Cy Young and MVP award to MLB The Show.

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