MLB 11: The Show Online Impressions

Posted March 10th, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Online play has always been the achilles’ heel of SCEA’s MLB series. Whether due to lack of resources or foresight the performance has remained troubled to go along with head-scratching design decisions. MLB 11: The Show is really no different than any other year then. The online game experience is possibly improved, though still very inconsistent, and advancements in the way of options are largely off-set by other frustrating elements. 

Lag has plagued online over the years and not just in the sense of a slight (or significant) delay in responsiveness. The actual gameplay has suffered due to a jumpy and rigid type of lag, the swinging of bats not being seen made it practically impossible to adjust to any delay, and even the ball on the way to the plate had the tendency to vanish only to reappear at the last split second. With MLB 11 it appears to be more hit and miss than before based on connections.

There have been some games with exceedingly smooth and responsive performance and others that had to be quit out of because the lag was so bad. Interestingly this year SCEA removed the ‘connection bar’ from the match-up screen and lobbies. Maybe this was done because it wasn’t reliable? Either way now the only opportunity to judge a connection beforehand is by getting a feel for it on the team select screen. If switching through the teams is laggy then it is probably best not to go forward. The ‘connection bar’ shows up once in-game which is really pointless to have on the screen past the first inning.

Surprisingly the analog controls don’t seem to accentuate any problems due to lag. One would imagine a longer process to swing the bat would make it more difficult to hit when the pitches are harder to read online. Though that is the case with the hitting process, online requires swinging much later than accustomed to offline. That takes some real adjustment to get a grasp of but in the end means hitters have a little more time to read pitches and react to them.

The strikeout numbers are still going to be abnormally high no matter how patient the users are at the plate. In my first game there was a combined 35 followed up by 34 in the next. That was with both of us being patient at the plate and working the counts. It is just really difficult to adapt to and feels more like luck when contact is made. On a related note it is still problematic how rare it is to actually string hits together. Instead most runs end up being scored on homers.

These struggles are backed up by the stats on the leaderboard. The top player currently has a 33-4 record with a team batting average of .192 (3.3 hits per nine innings) while notching 18 strikeouts a game. Across the board hitting averages are very low, ERAs are very low, and strikeout numbers are very high.

A method of “quick play” is used for online games which strips out the presentation elements. This has the benefit of speeding games along, but can also make it more difficult to follow things given that nothing is announced and cuts just go straight from one batter to the next. This also means no warm-up pitches which is something found to be valuable offline particularly when bringing in relievers. Even just two or three warm-ups would be worthwhile online where any lag could be factored into the timing.

Options have been expanded, most importantly allowing for the user to determine their own control schemes and camera angles. This makes a big difference in the overall experience. Unfortunately SCEA has it so the settings online have to be arranged separately from the offline profile. My first online game started up and I was stuck with behind-the-catcher view and button controls and those options are not changeable from within games just the online dashboard area. Uniforms can also be mixed and matched online which is a nice touch.

One issue I came across has to do with the different broadcast camera angles and how they could affect handling of certain situations. Playing in Boston, with no window for runners on second base, my opponent was able to steal third base before I even knew he had taken off. I was left just standing there on the mound and though he took off the only indication would have been by watching the yellow dot. Even the runner when leading off second is not on-screen with that camera angle and the announcers noted he was stealing but it was too late as he was already half way to third base by the time they acknowledged it.

Another huge gripe has finally been taken care of as the pitching meter of the opposition is no longer seen on screen. With the analog pitching this was completely necessary as otherwise hitters would have been able to read location (a problem for offline head-to-head games). Even without that having the meter on screen has made for a distraction and even led to tipping off the batter to missed pitches or the effort being put into each pitch.

SCEA continues to be stubborn in regards to “Guess Pitch” being defaulted on for ranked games despite cries by gamers for that feature to be turned off. It is incredibly off-putting to start a pitch only to have it taken out of your hands because it was “guessed”. It is even worse now because that prevents the pitcher for putting location on the meter in addition to determining the velocity! If “Guess Pitch” just provided a ratings boost for doing so correctly that would be one thing, but the way it takes control away from the pitcher remains completely frustrating. At least this year there actually is a “Guess Pitch OFF” lobby room.

Possible exploits that will need to be examined include stolen bases being too easy (yet again?) and the AI’s handling of bunts. Opponents have frequently been bunting for base hits with the infielders struggling to reach the ball in time, being switched to control the wrong guy which typically results in confusion, or lackadaisical throw animations taking over. These bunts for base hits have been alarmingly successful.

Online leagues remain as an advertised featured but one that consumers are prevented from taking part in for two weeks after they purchase the game. It also seems as though users are still able to quit games in the first inning without penalty. The idea behind that has always been more as an out for those placed with a bad connection, but unfortunately it also means the best strategy may be to avoid taking a lead in the first inning.

Online co-op has been added, with the ability for the games to be tracked when it is two users on one system vs two on another system, or they are unranked by joining with another online to play the CPU. It’s unfortunate that there is no true 2v2 online co-op but this is at least a step in the right direction. I guess it would be asking a bit much to have four users connected into a single game already when the series has struggled mightily with the standard head-to-head matchups.

MLB 11: The Show appears to have provided marginal improvement in the area of online play. Performance wise when a strong connection is established those games play better than in the past. Without that locked in great connection however there is the potential for debilitating lag. Even with better performance the timing is practically impossible to get down while batting giving pitchers the clear advantage. An expanded feature set is welcome though not fully realized.