RELEASE DATE: May 6, 2014PLATFORM: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PS VitaDEVELOPER: SCEAPUBLISHER: SCEACATEGORY: Sports
My TV is on and it’s dusk in Baltimore. Ubaldo Jimenez is on the mound at Camden Yards for the Orioles and I see the lights reflect off of Boston Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino’s helmet, and the shadows stretch out from his feet as Matt Wieters, the Orioles’ catcher, waits for a pitch. In the background, a wide array of fans do the same, sitting behind a brick wall and a protective net as the PA system blares an inconsequential tune. This is baseball, but it’s not. This is a video game, but I don’t have to squint to be tricked into thinking, if for only a second, that I am watching these pixelated creations’ real-life counterparts. MLB 14: The Show for the PlayStation 4 represents the highest level of graphic achievement of any baseball video game, but outward beauty isn’t everything.
Let me fire off a bit of a disclaimer before I get into detail about this game. If you’ve read some of my other articles on video game baseball that we have run over these last few weeks – the look back at the history of the genre, the review of RBI Baseball 2014 (MLB: The Show’s sole “competition”), and the wish list for the future of MLB: The Show – you know that I am a nitpicker who is quixotically searching for a game that drips realism and reverence for baseball’s past. MLB 14: The Show is not exactly that, but it is the best baseball video game that I have ever played, even though it often plays a bit like its predecessors.
At its heart, MLB: The Show is fun, slightly challenging, and your chances of success are dependent on strategy, execution, and luck (like the real game). Beyond the basic 9 inning game, the title is eminently replayable thanks to a host of other time-occupying elements. You can tinker with a roster across four levels (the majors, and three minor league teams) in Franchise mode (be it offline or online), play a one-off online game, have some fun in home run derby, take on a weekly situational challenge for prizes, and start a career as a rookie in Road to the Show mode.
Expanding off of Road to the Show’s winning formula, MLB 14: The Show has introduced Player Lock into this year’s game, allowing you to control a single major league player through a game or a season. Catch every fly ball hit to Yasiel Puig (though tracking and chasing down those fly balls will take some getting used to), steal every base, and hit every home run. It’s a pretty neat feature that allows you to step into the cleats of your favorite player while trying to be 1/25th of the successful formula that can lead to a championship. It’s also fun to skip the option to sim the game between your players appearances, choosing instead to join a game and watch all the action from the third-person, on-field perspective.
The on-field perspective seems to be a big part of this game with dynamic camera options on offense and defense that break from the typical slate of broadcast presentations to give you something a bit more between the lines, and with the previously mentioned aesthetic brilliance, the entire experience is all the more engrossing, especially if you are a casual baseball fan.
MLB 14: The Show is built for those fans, not me, and I understand why. This is a niche market within a niche market. Broad appeal is a mirage, so SCEA simply has no choice but to appeal to as many gamers as is humanly possible.
Everyone knows the complaint: baseball games take too long, both in reality and in video game form. Casual fans are the reason why something like Quick Counts (and Fast Play, and Fast Forward, and setting a game up to last less than 9 innings) exists as a remedy for that; a system meant to cut gameplay time in half (the buzz says about a half an hour for a game) by starting each batter off with a random (though it’s not entirely random) count of balls and strikes. But while the benefits of this are obvious, in practice, Quick Counts can take away from some of the drama, the strategy, and certainly the realism that one can get from a standard game, with sky high strikeout rates looming as a possibility. When I tried out the PS3 version of the game and Quick Counts, I struck out 16 batters with a member of the Chicago Cubs rotation that has no business striking out 16 batters in a game.
Speaking of the aspects of the game that lack realism, the AI, specifically as it pertains to computer roster management in Franchise Mode. By the end of one season in Franchise Mode (which I simmed through), major franchise keystone players like Joe Mauer, Matt Holliday, Mark Texeira, Ben Zobrist, Mat Adams, Albert Pujols, Miguel Montero, and Curtis Granderson had all switched teams, most in trades that made no practical sense. That simply doesn’t happen in baseball and it can take you out of the game in franchise mode when you have to compete with these newly stacked teams.
These irritations don’t even compare, however, to my number one complaint about MLB 14: The Show — the complete lack of retro stadiums.
In our article about improving the Show franchise, I made (I think) a strong case for the inclusion of more baseball history, retro stadiums, and classic rosters in these games, not merely the appearance of olde timey Kenny Powers in the game’s commercials.
Baseball’s history is one of its biggest selling points and it’s something that holds fans in the embrace of the game. Baseball is a consolation prize for all the other things in life that change constantly as we grow older. PEDs, million dollar contracts, swagger, and all of the other outside elements that threaten the game can only do so much damage, because the game is still about 9 innings and 3 strikes, and all the hallowed halls that housed a cornucopia of memories and ghosts that every current player is chasing and standing beside. But while the PS3 version of MLB 14: The Show had the typical small collection of old stadiums, just that tiny hat tip to baseball history enthusiasts, the PS4 version has none, and that is a shame considering the attention to detail and quality of the stadiums that the game does have.
Is that dearth a side effect of the transition to the PS4 and something that will be rectified in the future or at least in subsequent versions of the game? Perhaps, but for right now, its one less feature that appealed to fans who unashamedly reject the cliffsnotes version of baseball video gaming that, with some of The Show’s new features and RBI, seems to be the flavor of the moment.
With all of that said, though, this is a good game that abley brings the nation’s pastime to gamers who are both hardcore and not. Could it have been better? Absolutely, but there’s always next season, and until then, we could do a lot worse.