It won't be long until American League MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander steps onto the field at Comerica Park, aiming to continue his dominance on the mound. We're fortunate enough to be able to watch Prince Fielder return to his childhood hometown and take his first regular season at-bat as a Tiger. And with a March heat wave that tricked us into thinking we're in the Tigers' spring training home of Lakeland, Florida, and not Detroit, it's hard not to feel a little giddy about baseball's return to the Motor City. But as fans eagerly await the arrival of their boys of summer, at least they can partially appease their insatiable appetites for triple-digit fastballs and towering home runs in the virtual realm by playing one (or both) of the two annually-released Major League Baseball video games.
If these two games could be symbolized by Tigers players, Sony's MLB 12 The Show would be the video-game equivalent of the unstoppable one-two punch of super sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. These guys are consistently two of the best hitters in the game, both in their prime, potential first-ballot Hall of Famers and here they are, batting third and fourth for the Tigers. Every year, you can go ahead and pencil each of them in for an on-base percentage of above .400, over 100 RBI and at least 30 bombs apiece — oh, and that was before they were on the same team. Similarly, Playstation-exclusive The Show comes through year after year — and 2012 is no exception — setting the standard for console baseball simulations with tight, responsive gameplay and a wide variety of deep, highly immersive gaming modes. The Show also features incredible visual realism in terms of the scale and overall feel of its ballparks, broadcast-style camera angles, plus exceptionally lifelike textures, animations and lighting effects. This all adds up to a passing grade on the "squint test," meaning that if you squint your eyes while watching someone play The Show, you might not be able to tell whether it's a video game or an actual broadcast. Unfortunately, the game's audio commentary takes a step back this year, recycling far too much of the exact same tired dialogue from the past several installments.
Similar to what Madden does for football, The Show delivers a high-quality gaming experience each year, along with some incremental improvements. This year's changes include a new "pulse pitching" system, which is still timing-based, but quicker than the old meter system, and feels like more of a lateral move than a revelation. New, more realistic ball physics adds even more variety to the game, as ground balls can take unpredictable hops off the infield and fly balls can rise or sink in the air, just like they do in real life. The "Road to the Show" career mode receives some minor improvements, as Sony knows better than to mess too much with a good thing. This year also marks the debut of Diamond Dynasty, The Show's answer to Madden's Ultimate Team mode — a robust online mode that lets players create and manage a fantasy team made up of custom players and real-life MLB stars. Full Playstation Move support and cross-platform play on the handheld Playstation Vita are a few other perks.
If MLB 12 The Show is comparable to power hitters Cabrera and Fielder, it's a natural choice to compare Major League Baseball 2K12 to its cover star, Justin Verlander. The analogy is appropriate in the sense that 2K12's gesture-based, analog pitching control scheme continues to provide a more fun, unique and exhilarating pitching experience than The Show, even with its new "pulse pitching" system. It's also appropriate because 2K12's more arcade-tuned gameplay and constant connection to the real-life MLB schedule through its living rosters and MLB Today features make it as instantly gratifying as watching JV overpower helpless batters with his well-stocked arsenal of nasty pitches. 2K12 also features audio commentary far superior to that of this year's version of The Show.
But for all the ways in which 2K12 resembles the Tigers' ace, in others it's as mediocre as the ever-polarizing Brandon Inge. Like the declining Inge, who is now fighting for a starting roster spot, 2K12 has been broadly dismissed as the second-best baseball game available for years, conceding to The Show seemingly by default. The game simply does nothing spectacular enough to surpass The Show, leaving it once again with the title of "Best Baseball Game If You Don't Own a Playstation 3." Like Inge's defensive ability, 2K12 has clear strengths: the analog pitching system, solid online play, great audio commentary, realistic character models, more authentic stadium models and city skylines than The Show. But like Inge's subpar offense, 2K12's weaknesses also stand out: bright, oversaturated colors take away from the realism; the size and scale of the ballparks feels too small and arcade-y; game modes don't have the same kind of depth as similar modes in The Show; and weird, frustrating gameplay glitches still come up occasionally, as in previous years.
As in previous years, hardcore baseball fans who have PS3s will probably find themselves most satisfied sticking with The Show, while casual gamers will find 2K12 a better pick-up-and-play option. Xbox 360 owners looking for a deeper baseball sim will still find a lot to like in 2K12, but the game has too many flaws to realistically contend against The Show. | RDW