Games 3/8/11: MLB 11 The Show, Fight Night Champion, Pixeljunk Shooter 2

MLB 11: The Show
For: Playstation 3
From: San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone

It took “MLB 11: The Show” three years longer than it took “MLB 2K” to map pitching, hitting and fielding controls to the right analog stick.

At least with regard to pitching, though, it took the series only one attempt to do what 2K Sports can’t and get it right.

At bat and in the field, “MLB The Show 11’s” controls are pretty standard issue — pull back and push the stick to swing, flick or hold the stick in the direction of a base to make a soft or hard (respectively) throw. Both work fine, neither breaks major ground, and even though the new fielding metrics leave committing errors up to you instead of up to chance, the game’s endless array of options allow you to revert to the button-based controls if you prefer them.

Pitching, however, is another story. In contrast to 2K’s convoluted gestures system, “MLB11” opts for a deceptively simple, golf game-style system that has you pulling back on the stick to determine power and pushing forward for location.

What makes it special is how magnificently this little pitching meter can split the difference between good strikes and bad ones. Pulling and pushing a straight line to throw a pitch straight down the middle is easy. But if you want to throw Major League strikes (hitting the corners, locating breaking pitches so they just scrape the zone), you need to curve the stick ever so gracefully — enough to move the pitch, but not so much to miss the strike zone entirely. The pitch meter lets you know exactly how you need to curve it, so there’s no confusion when a pitch misses the mark. But consistently putting the soft touch on a paralyzing strike takes legitimate skill that rewards you far beyond merely throwing hittable strikes, and this is the first analog control scheme that understands and embraces that difference.

The successful analog control implementation easily is “MLB11’s” finest addition to what already was the industry’s best baseball game, and it’s arguably the only change that alters the gameplay on a fundamental level.

But that, naturally, depends on how deep your fandom goes. Because while casual fans may not realize “MLB11” includes 30 camera presets to match all 30 teams’ local broadcast perspectives, fans who religiously watch their team’s broadcasts certainly will. “MLB11” allows players to customize the cameras in whatever weird way they please, but the presets are as apt a reflection on the game’s attention to detail as anything else. As usual, the game looks marvelous in action, and as usual, there’s a new crop of animations and other visual touches — some obvious, like dynamic weather, but most not — for attentive baseball fans to discover.

A number of preexisting features make nice strides as well. Two players can team up for local/online co-op, and “MLB11” lets you divvy up positions so each player controls half the lineup. The Road to the Show career mode returns with a significantly deeper player creator and position-specific minor league depth charts that affect your advancement through the farm. Online league tweaks include support for A.I.-controlled teams in the event you can’t round up 29 friends. The Home Run Derby mode, meanwhile, supports Playstation Move, a smart decision that leaves “MLB11’s” core control where it belongs but lets players do the one baseball-related thing — swing a bat really hard — that definitely benefits from Move support.

“MLB11’s” wild card is the Challenge of the Week, an online skills competition that hadn’t yet premiered as of press time. Entering once weekly is free, while subsequent entries will cost you 25 real cents. But Sony is justifying that fee by awarding real prizes to competition winners, so if you’re good enough, that price might be a bargain.

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Fight Night Champion
For: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
From: EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, suggestive themes, strong language, violence)

Sports games have gone down the storyline route before, but typically it’s in the form of a branching career mode that tells its story through boilerplate text. “Fight Night” has done that for years, and with the Legacy mode, “Fight Night Champion” does it again.

This time, though, the Legacy mode plays second fiddle to a new Champion mode that, while short and linear, goes all-in in terms of storytelling. Instead of text, “Champion” offers up full-blown cutscenes, complete with plot twists, crooked refs, villainous promoters and, waiting at the end, the scariest bad-guy boxer since Ivan Drago.

For the most part, Champion mode delivers, even if what it delivers is a torrent of boxing movie tropes on caffeine. The story’s predictable, but it’s absorbing, and its best moments apply story-mandated conditions to bouts that you must overcome — often at the expense of your traditional instincts.

Unfortunately, the only time the idea backfires is during the final bout, when contrivance — during the first two rounds, your opponent is invincible and can end you with a single punch — badly undercuts the moment. This isn’t “Punch-Out,” and while the title fight certainly tests your ability to defend yourself, it still undermines what should have been a terrific demonstration of a polished boxing system during what arguably is the game’s most important bout.

Fortunately, while Champion Mode ends on a down note, it’s only part of “Champion’s” package, which otherwise brings back traditional “Fight Night” features — the Legacy mode, a 50-plus-strong roster of licensed fighters, local/online multiplayer, an absolutely limitless tool for designing and sharing customized boxers — in their best light yet.

Most impressive is the boxing itself, which feels like a culmination of all the reinventing that took place during the previous two “Fight Night” games.

Like “Fight Night Round 4,” the action is fast, but not dumb. “Champion” heavily rewards players who learn to dodge, block and land counterpunches, which look terrifically painful thanks to the camera angles and swift camera pans the game uses.

Also per “Round 4,” punching is handled through different movements on the right joystick. But “Champion” makes some nice concessions by replacing the needlessly complicated gestures with simpler motions that better accommodate the fast pace. “Champion” also brings back “Round 3’s” button controls, and players can freely switch between the two schemes and even use them simultaneously without visiting the options menu.

The only in-ring stumble comes from the addition of referees to the action. They look good, but they regularly get in between you and your boxer, which can be aggravating when you’re going for a knockdown and your opponent clenches you while the ref’s shirt blocks your view.

In terms of core features, the Legacy mode returns mostly as it was in “Round 4,” albeit with some new training/business opportunities and minor tweaks in terms of overall level progression. Ditto for the custom boxer editor, which was massively versatile already and only benefits from the extra coat of graphical polish applied across the whole game.

Online, though, “Champion” makes some nice new strides. Players can form up by creating and joining each other’s gyms — basically the boxing game equivalent to clan support found in online shooters. Your online boxer’s abilities improve as you fight and accrue experience, and you can enter tournaments and even compete for community-wide titl
e belts. It’s basically the Legacy mode, but with more freedom, human competition, and the potential for glory on a much larger scale for your created boxer. If you’re good enough to hang in this company, it’s far more rewarding than its single-player counterpart.

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Pixeljunk Shooter 2
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Q-Games/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10

“Pixeljunk Shooter 2” doesn’t mess too heavily with the mechanics that powered its terrific 2009 predecessor, which took the twin-stick arcade shooter down a more heroic road by tasking players with shooting away cave walls and using chemistry and physics to rescue miners trapped inside. Instead, it builds on it. As inferred by the first game’s great endgame twist, “PJS2” begins not inside a cave, but in the belly of a giant beast. And in addition to contending with (and utilizing) lava, water and other elements to alter the environment for safe passage, you must now do the same with biological compounds whose chemic properties are a little less obvious. Similarly, while enemies were present in “PJS1,” they’re a much more formidable force this time, and “PJS2” divides its time between thoughtful exploration and intense arcade combat. Some won’t appreciate the more frantic direction, but Q-Games plays fair by making “PJS2” a longer game with levels large enough to accommodate both speeds without putting them in each other’s way. The higher overall difficulty makes “PJS2’s” offline co-op support even more valuable than it was last time, though the omission of an online counterpart is that much more unfortunate as well. Perhaps as compensation, “PJS2” at least introduces competitive online support via a fun one-on-one duel in which players scramble to rescue and return more miners to their respective bases. Q-Games even gives the mode legs with a surprising array of rewards that unlock as players accrue experience points in ranked competition.