MLB 14 The Show is this year’s entry in the long running and highly respected baseball series from Sony’s own San Diego studio. Being a sports game, it’s to be expected that it ends up feeling a little like an iterative experience as opposed to an innovative one – but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing good going on here.
For starters, the game feels incredibly authentic. You feel like you really are playing baseball when you step up to bat, and the only thing more exhilarating than hitting a two-run double to win the game in the bottom of the 9th is to actually do it in real life. Rarely are sports games quite so good at making you feel like you really are a part of the sport, but this has always been The Show’s strength, and it remains a selling point here.
The package offers quite a few options in terms of game modes, many of which are standard fare like Exhibition, Franchise, and more of the usual options. The most satisfying of the lot is ‘Road to the Show’, which – as you may assume – involves creating a player and guiding them all the way from the lower leagues to the upper echelons of the MLB elite. Not only does this feature offer great depth, but it’s also quite streamlined in the way that many games can be played rapidly. Furthermore, the introduction of the Topps Amateur Showcase serves as a new jumping off point for a prospective career, and is a great introduction to the mode.
All in all, everything feels a lot smoother, and being able to cover a lot of ground is great when you consider the 162 games that make up a regular baseball season. In the mode, you’ll be locked to the character that you’ve created, and only take control when you’re directly involved in the upcoming play. This skips over a lot of unnecessary standing around, and really speeds the game process up. A full match can be satisfyingly accomplished in fifteen minutes or so with this setup. However, despite the simplicity, there’s plenty of depth on display, too, including the ability to sink points into numerous stat categories. It’s just a shame that these points are a bit easy to come by, as you can upgrade your player to an overall rating of 70 after barely 50 games – and this is still while playing AA ball prior to reaching the majors.
One of the major new modes introduced is that of ‘Community Challenges’, which allow you to tinker with a variety of variables and set up a situation that you’d like to see others solve. For instance, one of the top examples in the early going was coming up to the plate as Paul Konerko with two on and two out in the bottom of the 9th. The challenge put forth was to win the game. It’s such a simple idea being able to set up scenarios like this, but it’s absolutely a satisfying one. Some of the more, er, challenging challenges can carry with them stub wagers as well.
Stubs are The Show’s take on microtransactions, and they are surprisingly unobtrusive. These stubs function as a universal currency to purchase in-game items like experience boosts and bigger budgets in the franchise mode. Luckily, these are obtainable as you play – a massive step forward for the series, which has locked these types of features behind pay walls in the past.
Elsewhere, the online modes have been fleshed out by the inclusion of an online franchise mode, allowing friends to compete with each other in the same league. Unfortunately, the online still needs some smoothing out. The series has long been plagued by lag and all manner of online issues, and this year’s entry is no different. Latency in a game like baseball can pose a massive problem, as even the slightest delay can take the pitch somewhere the batter wasn’t expecting, and result in a totally different outcome. Dropped matches are another issue, but we’re hopeful that future patches will smooth out the experience.
The last of the most noticeable new additions – and undeniably one of the neatest – is the inclusion of year-to-year saving, which will permit users to bring their franchise saves from this edition forward into future releases. This is a great idea, but will need to prove itself in upcoming instalments before it can be properly praised.
Still, much like the concept of the carry-over saves, it’s the overall attention to detail that really makes the experience. For example, you’ll occasionally play with pink bats in support of breast cancer awareness, while the dynamic stadium shadows will shift along with the sun, culminating in different visibility situations. The game’s licensed music is also consistently great, with a majority of the songs evoking the right kind of mood. The rest of the audio is equally believable, with the pop of a well-struck ball and the sound of cleats digging into the batter’s box really adding to the atmosphere.
Elsewhere, the commentary – which is provided by Eric Karros, Steve Lyons, and Matt Vasgersian – is constantly engaging, and will manage to hold your attention across a series of games. They adjust and acknowledge each player's current form, lending the whole affair a sense of believability. You will hear the same lines of commentary eventually, but this is largely a consequence of finite resources, and it’s impressive that the title is able to mix things up for as long as it does.
Meanwhile, the controls are mostly solid, but there are some issues present here and there. For instance, the thumb sticks are poorly suited to base running, as it’s remarkably easy to unintentionally overrun the bases just to be tagged out instantly. It culminates in a really frustrating experience, and makes being on the base path easily one of the least enjoyable aspects of the title. This issue is further complicated by the genuinely horrid on-base camera, which provides you with very limited control, and makes it almost impossible to gauge whether to tag up on deep fly balls.
Unfortunately, the issues don’t end there. One other area where the release is lacking is in the visuals department, as the title no longer really impresses in the slightest. The series hasn’t aged especially well, with horrendous skyboxes and unappealing backgrounds. Many of the static outer stadium locations actually look better than the dynamic ones, with one AA ballpark possessing a hilarious looking rollercoaster behind right field. Moreover, the animations can be quite stilted, with players often standing inside one another at times.
This year’s edition of MLB 14 The Show does boast some minor improvements over its predecessors – many of which streamline the experience – but it’s an incremental step forward that perhaps suggests that the developer has been focused on the franchise’s forthcoming PlayStation 4 release first and foremost. Alas, Sony’s signature baseball simulation has always prided itself on playing a great game of ball, and while this falls short in a few areas, it should still make a nice clean connection with fans of the sport.