MLB 14: The Show Review
A continuation of the status quo
“Baseball is a beautiful thing.” The words of the immortal Bob Costas simplistically describe what makes America’s pastime so special. When it comes to sports like football, basketball, hockey, or soccer, the continual action and ferocity of the sport drives the action forward in demanding fashion. Baseball is slow game, a sacred game, one which takes its time, allowing for discussion and reflection. A game indebted to its ancient heroes and re-told legends. MLB 14: The Show carries on the tradition of video game baseball, being the lone baseball simulation game this year. It also ushers in a new era for video game baseball, being the first game of the series on the PlayStation 4. Finally getting a baseball game on a next generation console is exciting and for fans of the series, it might feel overdo. Yet, being one of those fans, enthusiastic about the future of video game baseball, I couldn’t help but feel let down as this year’s edition of the iconic baseball series is a continuation of the status quo.
Given the history of sports games making the leap to a new console generation, it is hard to fault MLB 14: The Show for failing to change up its formula. Bringing over an almost feature-complete version of the PlayStation 3 game is appreciated, and MLB 14: The Show boasts more game modes than you could want or need. You can play a single game, an online ranked game, a home run derby, the playoffs, a single season, a franchise, an online franchise, the series’ iconic Road to the Show mode, or Diamond Dynasty mode. It can almost be overwhelming, seeing the myriad of different ways to play the game. Granted they are all riffing on the same idea, but it begs the question: Who are all of these game modes for?
Considering the length of the baseball season and the length of time spent playing a single game in MLB 14: The Show, any of the season modes available are going to take significant time investments. It feels almost impossible to sample other modes, as playing a couple hours of Diamond Dynasty or Franchise mode gets you hardly beyond the skin of what the game has to offer. Having countless game modes is great in terms of providing a little content for everyone, but that is exactly the problem. MLB 14: The Show fails to do something truly exciting for any of these modes because its fingers are in so many pies.
The biggest upgrades have been given to Road to the Show mode. Players now participate in a series of games in the Topps Amateur Showcase, representing the US West, US Central, US East, or the International team. Annoying advancement goals have also been ditched, making the training experience more simplified. Unfortunately, the mode is still plagued by eternal loading screens which can kill the pace of the game. If you are coming in as a pinch hitter, or a relief pitcher, you might spend more time in a loading screen than actually playing the game.
Franchise mode has also seen some upgrades. Disappointed in your manager? Fire them mid-year. Looking for that certain player? Instead of cycling through rosters, you can locate them with a quick player search. You can also now carry your franchise or Road to the Show save from year-to-year, an impressive promise to players that in 2015 they won’t be starting their games from scratch.
These upgrades are nice additions, but they don’t cover some of the bigger problems with franchise mode. The crowds and their dynamic still doesn’t change based on your team. You’re not going to bring more people to the ballpark for Joe Mauer’s 2,000th hit, or because you are in a tight race for the American League West. Part of the sport’s excitement is watching a city rally around its players and teams, but MLB 14 still is cookie-cutter in these regards. The crowd was chanting “M-V-P” when Mauer would step to the plate in the 2017 season, even though Mauer was not even being considered for the title. Putting the hours into a franchise mode is frustrating because you are running your team in a bubble, nothing responds to the choices you make or success you have, the game just gives you the same boring cutscene with the same boring dialogue as it has for years now.
MLB 14: The Show continues a tradition of frustrating baseball mechanics. When it comes to baseball, frustrating isn’t always a bad thing as the sport is a natural grind. The hitting, pitching, and fielding mechanics are still similar to previous entries, and - much like the real game - executing the plays to perfection does not guarantee success. Guess the right pitch, right location, and nail your timing, the end result might still be a line out to shortstop. A beautiful, sweeping slider on the corner of the plate might still wind up being a souvenir for the fans in centerfield. Having mechanics like this doesn’t mean the game is flawed, as it is part of the sport - which is why the best players go 1-3 - but it does leave you with the impression the game randomizes success, based on the hundreds of little numbers crunches going on behind the scenes.
This particularly stuck out when I would reach the playoffs, as I had incredibly bizarre plays ruin games for me. A swinging third strike ricocheted off the catcher’s mask and ended up in the netting. An outfielder took so long to throw a ball in from center that a runner tagged-up and scored from second base. Players with great fielding would drop clutch flyballs or bobble grounders. It is understandable the game wants to amp up its difficulty in the big games, but so many weird plays left me feeling like the games were hardly worth playing. Why should I try to help my improved Mariners get past the pesky Devil Rays when the game has already skewed the outcome? There are also some latency issues due to the rigid animations. I had double-plays ruined due to button presses not being registered quickly enough, and throws from third to first took ages despite me loading the throw meter as quickly as possible. Players don’t seem to react sensibly to important situations.
Another new feature added to MLB 14: The Show is quick counts where the game thrusts you into the middle of an at-bat, after a number of balls and strikes have already been thrown. Quick counts is successful in speeding up the game, shaving the time of a single game from 45 minutes to about a half hour. Like so many of The Show’s features, you would have to assume these counts are based off of the crazy amount of attributes for each player, such as the batter’s plate discipline, their vision, the pitcher’s stamina, their confidence. These simulations are usually fair; if you have been dominating a pitcher you’ll start with a 3-1, if a pitcher has been dominating you it’ll be 0-2. The downside to quick counts is you don’t have the ability to size-up a pitcher. You haven’t timed their fastball, know don’t how often they’ll throw the curve. It is nice to speed up the game, but you lose your ability to get a sense of the pitcher.
The most notable thing about MLB 14: The Show, is its technical visuals. Debuting a month later than its counterpart on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita, many have anxiously awaited to see how great the prettiest sports game looks on the latest PlayStation console. The verdict? It looks great. The Show has always been noted for its attention to detail in a sport where player faces are front and center, and MLB 14 is no exception. The improvement doesn’t necessarily come in the form of fielder animations or cutscenes which play while the batter steps into the box, as these still look a bit rigid. It is annoying to see unimpressive animations still lingering from old iterations of the game. The players move with a lack of urgency, for instance outfielders will still default to a leisurely trot, even when making difficult over-the-shoulder catches which rival the likes of Willie Mays. The game does get the atmosphere right, though. The crowd has finally been customized to the point where you can’t pick out the duplicate models and the field is populated with bat/ball boys. The hosting cities are rendered in stunning authenticity, adding a nice sense of reality. There are still kinks to work out, but the game does look better than ever.
Technically, The Show is still flawed. The basic shortcomings were already mentioned, such as the eternal loading screens. But the game has deeper flaws. I had the game freeze on me a couple times, losing significant chunks of progression (including an entire fantasy draft). The Show could use a better autosave system, rather than only saving after you have finished a game. There are also times I would start a game and the screen would be coated in green or purple. I could either close the game and lose all my progress since the end of the last game, sim the game and hope for the best, or try and soldier through. None of the options were very appealing. The biggest issue is still the unbearable multiplayer. The Show has always been a game crucially based around timing, and the laggy frame rate of the online play can make it almost impossible as a hitter. For a game with multiple online-focused modes, you would expect improvement here.
The newest game mode offered in MLB 14, Online Franchise, suffers from the lack technical prowess. The evolution of the old Online League Mode, Online Franchise allows for you and your friends to participate in your own shared Franchise. It is a tall order looking for a series of friends who are ready to commit to the mammoth time investment of a franchise, but even once you’ve found them there are still problems. The technical issues follow online play into Online Franchises. Games played against players have the same issues as previously stated, but even games against the computer have framerate issues, even though they are seemingly taking place offline.
MLB 14: The Show is not an evolution in the baseball simulation genre, rather just a higher number next to the “MLB” and available on a new console. If you are looking to retire the ye ol’ PS3 and upgrade the game to your PS4, rest assured you are only missing a lack of MP3 support (so get ready to hear the game’s limited soundtrack ad nauseam). Being a prettier iteration of the PS3 game is a good thing, but it’s hardly enough. MLB 14: The Show seems stuck in a rut. Sure, tweaks have been made to varying game modes and saves carrying year-to-year is a nice touch, but the game itself is still filled with kinks. Online modes are flawed, franchise mode has grown stale, and the actual game itself can feel random in how it rewards and punishes the player. There’s nothing horrifically wrong with MLB 14: The Show, but there’s nothing to make it stand out from those which came before it.