Sony is getting closer to pitching a perfect game with this series.
It is no surprise that MLB The Show has been a series redefining how a baseball game should be year-in-year-out. This year’s game, MLB 14 The Show looks to improve upon a gaming structure that really seemed close to perfection last year, without feeling the need of changing the formula of the entire series. Ask the folks at EA Sports about changing a good formula when it comes to games like Madden. Sometimes it can bite you in the butt.
So what can you expect from this year’s game? Well, I think that MLB 14 The Show trims the fat from previous releases and focuses on two things: User online experiences and a solid offline baseball experience.
What I mean by ‘user experience’ is that they’ve put together options for the baseball gaming community to create challenges and experiences for each other, while still maintaining that online component (such as the Home Run Derby) that we’ve come to expect. One neat feature added to this year’s game is a mode called Community Challenges. Players put other players in baseball situations where players can bet and win (sometimes lose) currency called Stubs. Stubs are basically MLB The Show’s version of coins in a game. You can use them to improve players and to purchase additional in-game content.
Anyway, the Community Challenges consist of things like hitting a grand slam in the ninth at Yankee Stadium when you’re down 5-2 against the Yanks. If you can pull it off then you win a certain number of stubs designated by the creator of the challenge. It’s a neat system and it plays off the Little Big Planet proof that community-based gaming can thrive when the users can pretty much do what they want. Having the ability to create your own situation and share it with the baseball world is a neat feeling. Although, I’m sure there are going to be some a-holes out there that make challenges impossibly hard. Should you run into a challenge that seems impossible, you get the chance to vote whether you liked the challenge or not, which helps others when they’re trying to select a challenge to participate in and bet stubs on. On a side note, when this game went live on Tuesday, the challenges started filling up quick, so expect a bunch right from the get-go.
More user-based experiences in MLB 14 The Show include an Online Franchise mode, which gives you the freedom to create a good experience with friends, while still maintaining that core experience you get from the offline Franchise version. Honestly, I don’t have enough friends who are interested in baseball to make this as fun as it should be, but I can see how people will absolutely adore this mode. Baseball fanatics should eat this up.
Both user experiences are great and reinforced with the typical online play and other challenges presented to the player. You will still find your head-to-head online stuff, as well as Home Run Derby competitions. You know, the stuff you really love.
Another great mode that I should mention before moving on to the offline stuff is the Challenge of the Week presented by SCEA. These are random challenges where players can score points for doing well. The more points you score, the more you move up in the ranks. If you should happen to be at the top of the rankings by the end of the week then you win an actual prize (not sure if it’s going to be that way forever, but it is this week). This week you’re asked to play as Miguel Cabrera and try to get consecutive hits off of Kansas City Royal’s pitcher James Shields. Should you do this consecutively, the points calculated keep going up and up. The top person this week has 140 million points from this challenge (that is insane). Should he/she win this challenge then they will win an actual signed Detroit Tiger’s hat from Cabrera. That’s pretty cool stuff and, again, it adds to the user experience.
The final online mode worth mentioning, and one that I’m still kind of in the middle of working with, is the Diamond Dynasty. It’s an offline/online mode that allows you to create an entire team from scratch and go head-to-head with other players. My team the Canadian Sorries from Bumville, Alabama still have some work to do before going head-to-head with anyone. I’m sure they’re going to do fine once they’re up and running. Until then, they’ll just have to apologize for losing every game and drink from their bags of milk.
It cannot be understated the value of a good online experience. User online experiences is where its at when it comes to changing a sports game up a bit and MLB 14 The Show does a good job of bringing some much needed variety to the table. Now, let’s talk offline stuff.
One mode that had me struggling to break away from, so that I could progress with this review, is the Road to the Show. I know it’s not a new user experience, but for some reason this year’s version seemed to be a lot more streamlined than in previous years. You still go through the same process of creating your player (Frank “Big Daddy Bronco” Bitchman was my guy), but it seemed a bit faster than I remember from last year’s game. You get go through Topps Amateur Showcase from the get-go and then get drafted to a team, which throws you into the minor leagues immediately (I was drafted in the 6th round by the Phillies because I’m that damn good). You progress through games only actually participating when it directly involves your character. It’s quick, it’s nice and more importantly it’s really quite fun. I had so much fun improving my stats through various offense/defense moves from game to game. The leveling system was fast and fair, and there was a lot to love about this mode. Again, it just seemed really smooth.
Now, something I noticed that was not smooth about the gameplay during The Road to the Show is the camera angles when fielding. This year’s game they’ve changed up the player’s viewpoint when a ball is hit up in the air. You will have the typical symbol on the field you move your player over and catch the ball; that’s still very much intact, but not always the case when fielding a ball. Sadly, San Diego Studio felt the need to crane the camera angle down, while tilting up when a ball is being fielded in the outfield. In other words, the camera points up from about the knee-level of the player as it gets closer and closer. This camera angle is tough to mentally situate your player with in the game, especially if you’re doing it on the run. It can get confusing quick and it can make fielding a huge pain in the ass. I eventually did get used to it, but it still isn’t a comfortable fielding camera view for Bitchman’s centerfield position.
Other offline items include Franchise, which you know already and the play now stuff, which is fun offline and online.
As for the presentation, while I’m frothing at the mouth to see the PlayStation 4 version of the game in motion, I have to give major kudos to San Diego Studio for making the PlayStation 3 version of MLB 14 The Show as pretty as technologically possible on their seven year old hardware. While the facial features of the players aren’t anything to write home about (sometimes it can be darn right creepy), the animation of the characters is something to behold. San Diego has captured the swagger, the laziness and the confidence of MLB players in motion. They’ve made sure that things like Joey Votto’s bat sway is smooth as silk. Or things like Jay Bruce’s golf swing-like batting style is perfectly captured. They’ve just done one helluva job simulating how the players should move and act while playing offense and defense. It’s visually stunning.
Rivaling the player animation is the environments and stadiums. While the PlayStation 3 does suffer from a large amount of jaggies when pulled back into a wide shot, the details of the stadiums are still very much visually intact. From the obnoxious video monitor in the back of Yankee stadium to the river side view of Great American Ballpark, the small details make the environments work on this aging platform. If you player this on a rather large monitor then you will be absolutely amazed at what these places look and feel like in motion.
Within the environments the crowds are enormously active, which is nice to see. Since the emergence of 2K’s series in the late 90s/early 2000s, the world of sports games has needed a bit more participation from the crowds, more than just the crowds sitting there and doing the same animation over and over again. This is the first game where I’ve witnessed crowds randomly get up and walk out of their seating area. They’ve always collectively, and quite accurately gone after foul balls and home runs, but this time around they actually look like they’re trying (it sounds weird, but you’ll see). It might mean nothing to most reviewers, but for this one it’s nice to see the crowds look a bit more lively and — dare I say it — like crowds should look like at sporting events. Now we just need hecklers in the crowd and we’re golden!
Shifting gears a bit, some other visual aspects of the game that are appealing, yet tiny in the scheme of things, are things like reflections from helmets, proper shading, shadows and movement of lighting from the sun during day games. You can see that the PS3 version of this game was spawned from the PS4 version. There’s a lot of hints with these smaller details that give that away. This is why I’m so incredibly stoked for the PS4 version of this game, as they are already shine on the PS3.
Presentation aside, is this game fun? Well, I think there’s enough here to really enjoy. I like the fact that San Diego Studio and SCEA have tried their best to make the users really involved with creating the fun online. User driven content is a great thing (again, see Little Big Planet for example) and it certainly leads the way with this year’s release of MLB The Show. Everything else seems to be business as usual with fun improvements here and there in the game.