Why is Aaron Rowand crawling under the Giants' bench? I'm in the middle of playing "MLB 10: The Show" when I need to put the controller down for a few minutes in between pitches. That's when I notice something crazy happening in the San Francisco dugout. Rowand actually worms his way under the legs of a few players, then appears to be messing with the feet of rookie Buster Posey. I can't quite figure out what is happening at first until Posey bursts out of his seat and starts hopping up and down like a madman. That's when it hits me -- Rowand gave Posey a hot foot. Everyone on the bench is falling over in laughter and Posey has to be separated from Rowand, who just successfully pulled off one of baseball's classic pranks.
Yes, I know this has nothing to do with gameplay, but the scene is just an example of the depth Sony has gone to in order to create what I think is the most complete, most compelling baseball video game I've ever experienced. In three days, I've already played 25 games of my Giants franchise and in every new game I'm still seeing new animations play out, hearing the announcers provide details I haven't yet heard and experiencing some of the most epic games I can remember on the virtual diamond.
And since I've played the advanced copy probably more than anyone outside of Sony, I wanted to provide some quick details of what I think Sony got right, and what they did wrong in this year's game.
You couldn't make the right call if you had a phone book
Plate umpire Earl Hendrix wouldn't know a strike if he was in a bowling alley. That's how I felt in a game against the Astros where the virtual ump was squeezing the strike zone against Tim Lincecum while I was pitching, but giving the computer-controlled Roy Oswalt every pitch that was anywhere close to the plate. It was getting so out of hand that Freddy Sanchez got tossed from the game for arguing a called third strike, and the next inning, after walking a man with a fastball that looked to have clipped the corner, Lincecum threw his hat into the dirt in disgust. The crowd was going crazy, I was feeling the anxiety of having to throw perfect pitches and I ended up losing my composure (and the game) when Carlos Lee took me deep on a pitch I didn't want to throw, but needed a strike. Next game, different umpire, completely different strike zone. Some people might find this frustrating, but I find that it really draws out your emotions as a gamer. When Lincecum threw his hat, that's the same type of anger I was feeling, and it takes a special game to draw that out of you intentionally. By the way, I find that Matt Cain gets way more calls than Lincecum for some reason.
Best ending ever
I'm playing against the Phillies and Roy Halladay is making me look like a fool for eight innings. He has even been throwing the high heat to any Giant who dares crowd the plate (I'm looking at you, Molina). Anyway, heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies are up 3-1 and leave Halladay in to score the complete game. First batter strikes out, second batter breaks his bat while grounding to second, and it's up to Rowand to get on base and keep hope alive. The count stretches to 3-2 when Rowand bounces a ball up the middle past a diving Jimmy Rollins for a base hit. Next man up is Aubrey Huff. First pitch is an inside fastball that I turn on and seconds later, it splashes into McCovey Cove for a home run. The working splash counter flips a digit and the Giants are in business 3-3. The Phillies have a meeting on the mound, but leave Halladay in for one last batter. Mark DeRosa strides to the plate, and on a 2-2 pitch, drills the ball over the left-field wall for the walk-off homer. The scene at the plate is crazy as Giants are jumping all over the place, and as the game shows DeRosa heading home, he stops about 5 feet away from the plate then goes into a Ric Flair-like strut as he heads home. Giants win. Wooooo!
That's going to leave a mark
Foul ball hits the umpire and he staggers back like he just took a punch from Mike Tyson. The announcer says, "That will hurt for a while," as the ump tries to regroup and all I can think is, "Man, I wish I did that to Earl Hendrix."
One new feature that may sound insignificant is the ability for relievers to warm up on the mound once you call them into the game. This is actually my favorite new feature in the game for the simple fact you can get the feel of your new pitcher's release point and the way his pitches break in eight quick throws. Not only that, but if your pitcher is still cold in the bullpen, sometimes when you warm him up on the mound (without simply buttoning through the warm-up process), he suddenly finds his groove and becomes ready for the game, so it's worth spending the extra minute. Like I said, though, the feature is a great way to learn your relievers before making some of the most critical throws in the game.
Another great new feature is the ability to view your opponent's bullpen while they're warming up. This gives you a better sense of who they might have coming into the game as you try and map out potential pinch hitters.
Manny Ramirez drilled a home run off of Barry Zito that might still be in orbit somewhere, and I really took it personally (the whole Dodgers/Giants rivalry was taught to me at an early age). Next batter was James Loney, so I decided I'd throw a fastball up and in to get his attention. My finger may have slipped a little out of frustration and Loney ended up going down hard with a fastball to the dome. The game flashes to a shot of the Dodgers' dugout where everyone jumped to their feet with anger. Manny even tossed a cooler to the ground to get my attention. Next inning, down goes poor Fred Lewis in retaliation. I love it (sorry, Fred).
Michael Bourn of the Astros is one of the most dominant polygonal players to ever take the diamond. In a three-game series to open the season, I got him out only one time, and even that play was close. It's a combination of his speed and the line drives he seems to send into the gap and up that hill in Houston that leaves me speechless. But maybe the best play he made all series was on defense. Fred Lewis hit a ball into right field that Hunter Pence was chasing toward the wall. Pence jumped and hurt himself by flying into the fence, so I was thinking triple all the way. But here comes Bourn. He hustled over, grabbed the ball and threw Lewis out at third. Amazing.
Kaz Matsui airmailed a throw to first that was so high it went sailing into the dugout. A funny scene showing all the players ducking for cover followed. Again, just a small thing that adds to the overall experience and enjoyment of playing 162 games a season.
The biggest downfall of the game so far is the lack of collision detection. Too many times, there is a play at the plate and even though the catcher is in good position, the baserunner simply slides right through the catcher's body and is safe. The worst play I've seen so far was at third base where I was trying to go from first to third on a single and had the play beat easy. But as I slide head first toward the bag, the throw comes in high, and before I'm even tagged, I'm called out. I guess because I was sliding through the third baseman's legs when he caught the ball, it somehow registered as a tag. Man was I mad. Next year, Sony needs to do something about the lack of collision during these plays as it really draws you out of the experience. The game is just so realistic in almost every aspect that when you see Kung Fu Panda slide through a catcher, it stands out even more than it would in other games.
Mic mix up
The other small oddity I've encountered is that the announce team, about once a game, says something completely wrong. With one out I'll give up a single, and the announcer will say something like, "You never want to give up those two-out hits," or I'll warm up a righty and they'll talk about how a lefty just got up in the bullpen. Most of the time, the game is right on, and in some cases really impressive (like how they say Jimmy Rollins grew up in the Bay Area when the Phillies play the Giants), but again, there are these little flubs along the way that are a bit distracting.
I played 25 games in three days. It doesn't take a genius (or even a blind umpire) to realize how much I love this game. The complaints I mentioned are really minor in comparison to just how much value is delivered with every pitch, every bean ball and every splash into McCovey Cove.
Now it's time to jump back into my franchise and see if the Giants can finally win it all.
At least I can control the way they hit in the game.