Games 3/7/07: MLB 07, Motorstorm, Formula One Championship Edition

MLB 07: The Show
For: Playstation 2 and PSP (coming April for PS3)
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It was always a little disappointing that the coolest part of Sony’s so-so basketball game — the rags-to-riches career mode — wasn’t instead instilled into its endlessly-better-than-so-so baseball franchise. The career mode in “MLB 06” was terrific, but it lacked the lone-wolf mentality that could really set it apart.

“MLB 07” returns last year’s career mode intact, but it dishes a second, completely separate mode that adequately fills this void. In Road to the Show mode, you play solely as your created character while your teammates handle their business. Batting and pitching — if you’re a pitcher — play out like normal, while defense and baserunning take place from your player’s perspective. The action skips past all plays not involving you, and games typically fly by in a few minutes or so, making this a dream mode for anyone too impatient to invest in 162 or more half-hour play sessions.

Road to the Show essentially plays out like scenario ball, and it’s certainly no replacement for playing the full nine with the whole team and endless managerial controls at your disposal. But its larger endgame — a multiyear career that could find you toiling in AAA or in Cooperstown — is engaging and strangely personal in its own entirely special way. It’s nothing but good news, especially since Sony wisely kept the other career mode — along with franchise and single-season options — around for those who prefer it.

Gameplay-wise, “MLB” remains the best in the business, and the improvements introduced in “07” — umpires with different personalities, pitcher (and pitch) momentum, on-the-fly swing analysis, smart catchers who scout hitters, “MVP Baseball”-like throwing controls, a new baserunning system that’s absolute genius once you get used to it — are inspired and surprisingly low on fluff for a series that’s been around the block this many times. The online component also receives a boost, with 30-team league support, a live scoreboard ticker, and the ability to tinker with a multitude of settings, upload your findings and download someone else’s if you can’t
perfect the formula. How clever is that, and how soon before other sports games swipe this idea?

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Motorstorm
For: Playstation 3
From: Evolution Studios/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (language, violence)

Last year’s “Motorstorm” demo was a cautionary tale on how not to send a game’s hype to screeching halt. After months a buildup, gamers were treated to a preview that was slow, stiff and hardly reflective of what videos had promised.

That, happily, was an aberration. In finished form, “Motorstorm” is fast, fluid and most definitely reckless enough to get the hype train rolling again. Evolution Studios’ anything-goes dirt racer is the PS3’s most technically impressive game yet — a cornucopia of mud, fiery wrecks and debris flying every which way.

“Motorstorm’s” selling point is its bending of convention. A typical race might feature ATVs, rally cars, motorbikes, buggies and big rigs all on the same track, and the gulf between strengths and weaknesses is far more dramatic than most racers can convey. Motorbikes are fast and prone to flight, but they’re crash magnets. Trucks are slower and clunky but can plow through debris — and opposing vehicles — that would stop an ATV cold. And so on. The differences are stark, and anyone with any common sense will immediately recognize them.

The real genius is in the track designs, which branch out both horizontally and vertically and present a maze of pathways toward the finish. Danger lies everywhere and roads are mostly non-existent, but the tracks are designed in such a way that you always know which way is forward. That seems elementary, but only until you realize how many free-form racing games can’t make the same claim — especially when the tracks deform with each lap run like these do.

But “Motorstorm” has an Achilles heel, and not a small one. The online component is option-laden and fantastically fun, but offline players have only one mode — career — from which to choose. Want to set up a custom race? You’ll need to locate the career event that most closely resembles your ideal because Evolution somehow forgot to include a customizable quick race mode. Want to play a friend who is sitting right next to you? Sorry, you can’t. “Motorstorm’s” treatment of SDTV owners is a bit cold — the menu text is painful to read — but it’s nothing compared to what players without Wi-Fi access will experience. If that’s you, then perhaps a rental instead of a purchase is in your future.

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Formula One Championship Edition
For: Playstation 3
From: Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild lyrics)

If Sony’s Liverpool studio is taking suggestions for next year’s edition of its “Formula One” series, here’s one: Add a tutorial mode.

“Formula One Championship Edition’s” attempts at accessibility are all-encompassing enough to be in a game design textbook. On one end, the game allows you to adjust the intelligence of opposing drivers and whether such real-world factors as penalties, fuel, crash damage, tire wear and inclement weather play into the equation. One the other end, you can activate all manner of driving aids ranging from brake markers and other visual indicators to assisted control schemes in which the PS3 helps you steer and brake.

But even with every assistant enabled and every real-world factor dumbed down, “F1” requires the kind of dexterity few racing games ever demand. Take away the safeties to get the full F1 experience, and you have some serious learning to do. That’s not a knock against the game: Commanding an open-wheel racer isn’t like driving a Jetta, and “F1” quite effectively illustrates that.

Gamers with a thirst for learning certainly can get the hang of it the hard way. But “F1” undercuts itself by omitting some kind of hands-on means of guiding new players through not only the rules of the race and the art of the pit stop, but also the intricacies of the vehicle they’re driving. A tips section is a nice touch, but it’s basically a series of Wikipedia articles. We live in an era in which every idiotic shooting game sports a tutorial level, so there’s no reason for a game that actually needs one to not have one.

Gamers who climb the curve will find a hefty reward at the top. “F1” simulates the 2006 F1 season down to the last detail, packing in a full-featured career mode and every driver, vehicle and track. The much-aforementioned controls (gimmicky motion-sensing stuff aside) are spot on, and driving 200 m.p.h. in the howling rain is an exhilarating, beautiful thing. “F1’s” online component is a bit feature-starved, but the basic racing experience carries over with few compromises. Up to 11 human drivers can race at once, with A.I.-controlled drivers filling in the empty spaces to create a full 22-car field.