- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

Here’s an abbreviated look at some video games for the entire family.

MLB 09: The Show (from Sony Computer Entertainment America for PlayStation 3, $59.99) — What is quickly becoming the Madden franchise of baseball video games returns for another season to deliver the ultimate experience for fans of America’s pastime. Sports game developers amaze me. Each year they must deliver something new, no matter how great their last effort. Once again, I must report that the Sony team does offer just enough to make the title worth a look for the diehards.

The careful balance between blending believable and lifelike player animations with a complex artificial intelligence is no small feat and this year might be the finest example ever.

I relish the detail, down to how players tiptoe over the foul line as they leave the field and clown around in the dugout to the fine controls. And those facial expressions — the subtleties were impossible to create just a few years ago.

Yes, you get all of the teams and stars, immaculate and lively stadiums, and even the mascots join the fun along with customized music, taunts and chants (record your own with the PS3 headset). The uncanny — but still too repetitive — commentary by announcers Rex Huddler, Matt Vasgerian and Dave Campbell also is back.

Features include a franchise mode with a 40-man roster refined to offer salary arbitration and September call-ups, online full-season leagues, a manager mode and of course, the chance to create a player from his socks to receding hairline.

I spent 40 minutes or so carefully creating my chunky pitcher avatar with the pitching motion of Dennis Eckersly and swing of Joe Morgan. I passed on planting my face on him (EyeToy 2 camera required), but took full advantage of sculpting the cleft in the chin, some Wolverine-style muttonchops and letting him arrive on-field to the fanfare of the Knack’s “My Sharona.”

I took him to my favorite mode, Road to the Show, which follows a player on the long journey from rookie to Hall of Famer. Now with another level of point attribute distribution, minigame training, and better lead-off control, feeling the daily grind in the MLB is even more stressful and rewarding.

Just as a reminder, the game is a serious simulation. Heck, the depth of stats alone could induce an accountant to explode, so parents beware. Although controls are basic, those under the age of tween will get frustrated even on the rookie setting.

My caveat to parents is don’t forget to take junior outside and play the real thing. For the days when that is not possible, pull up a couch-potato quality pair of recliners and really feel part of the game in MLB 09.

Suikoden Tierkreis (from Konami for DS, $34.99) — A role-playing franchise breaks away from its past for less complicated action as it arrives on Nintendo’s hand-held console.

Within the Kingdom of Salsabil, a player controls the super-fast-talking impetuous punk of the Citro Village who is out to stop the One King and recruit 107 others of his kind into battle. Yes, the vaulted role-paying game’s core mechanics remain as players explore three-dimensional environments, take part in quests, interact with characters, gain experience points in battle, equip items and level-up the heroes.

And, yes, a player eventually can find and select from all 108 characters (a Pokemon collector’s ideal, to be sure) to bring a quartet of finely honed warriors into any battle.

The cut scenes are a grainy, anime cartoon of the Naruto variety and tons of dialogue peppers the static narrative moments. Although character models mush together a bit in their pint-sized form, the terrain is nearly eye-popping. Combat is painless as the hero walks over a variety of areas and finds hidden enemies. A turn-based battle then ensues with all team members ready to attack or defend.

RPG newcomers will easily embrace the control schemes, appreciate the trading system to buy items and love turning the battles on auto to just watch the attacks. Parents will appreciate the themes of trying your best and taking control of one’s life.

Pushing the RPG to the next tech step, the game also allows, through a Wi-Fi connection, the ability to move characters to a friend’s hand-held and return with their bounty to help the original player’s characters.

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