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EGM Review: MLB 14: The Show

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Posted on May 30, 2014 AT 02:45pm

A solid PS4 debut, but not quite an All-Star just yet

More than any other sport—and I follow pretty much all of them around the world, so I feel pretty confident in saying this—baseball is shaped by the stadiums that house the game. I spent my formative years trekking to Candlestick Park to see my beloved San Francisco Giants, and after enduring all of its notorious “quirks” as a Will Clark–loving youth, it’s a wonder I ever embraced baseball at all. Besides the fact that it was located in San Francisco’s most dangerous and least convenient neighborhood, it was bitterly cold even during the summer, and its unpredictable, perpetually howling winds made even a simple popup an adventure for any player.

In 2000, the Giants moved into a jewel of a ballpark—and now armed with modern wind studies, the team selected a site that would minimize the city’s world-famous wind and fog. Despite the fact that it was just five miles north, AT&T Park provided a whole new ballgame for fans, and the Giants have built their team to match the pitcher-friendly park, particularly in recent years. But the version of the sport played at Candlestick (such as it was) is now lost forever.

This is why I want to see Wrigley Field soon, before the Cubs’ owner foolishly adds gigantic signs and JumboTrons and destroys the current intimate, drunk-in-the-bleachers vibe. It’s why I want to make a pilgrimage to Fenway Park someday. It’s why I regret I’ll never see the original Yankee Stadium or Tiger Stadium in person—a different game was played there, one now lost to the mists of time (and, more specifically, the wrecking ball). Do I care if I see the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Garden, probably the NBA’s most famous arena? Sure, I’d like to, but I won’t lose sleep if I never do. That’s what makes baseball different.

Since stadiums are so central to the hardball experience, it makes sense that they’re the first place developer SCE San Diego would look to rebuild from the ground up in the transition of MLB: The Show to the new console generation. Rather than a vague collection of brown blocks like on the PS3, the right-field wall at AT&T Park now looks like an intricately crafted collection of bricks, and the hand-operated out-of-town scoreboard now reads clearly instead of coming off like a blurred mess. Petco Park, meanwhile, displays a much more realistic downtown San Diego skyline, and the century-old Western Metal Supply Co. building that serves as the stadium’s left-field corner now closely resembles what you’ll find if you take a trip to that city’s now-revitalized Gaslamp Quarter.

Even the crowds have been improved, with the emotionless Vulcans that populated previous versions excised for attentive fans that actually have some knowledge about the sporting contest unfolding between the white lines. While it was nice to see Spock and Tuvok take an interest in Earthlings by taking a trip to the ol’ ballyard, it’s even better to see the stands populated by folks who seem to know the difference between a flyout and a forkball. And as the game unfolds, you’ll even see signs that a fan of a given team might authentically wave in front of the camera, like an Angels devotee saying  “Light up the Halo”  or a Giants fan affectionately referring to the team’s country-strong hurler, Madison Bumgarner, as “Madbum.”

Of course, all the iconic landmarks—Fenway’s Green Monster, the outfield ivy at Wrigley Field—stand out with these newly detailed stadiums, but what’s more impressive is the stuff you might not actually notice watching baseball on TV. I’ve never been to Atlanta’s Turner Field, but one thing that struck me when playing The Show is its gargantuan centerfield screen that hovers across the action, almost like a benevolent, baseball-themed Eye of Sauron. It’s a constant presence in any game played in Atlanta in MLB 14, a fact I noticed when my Giants went on a road trip to face the Braves.

Later that same day, when I watched a real-life broadcast from Atlanta, the announcers mentioned the Turner Field scoreboard and how it truly looms over all the action in the stadium, which illustrates how well The Show captures an authenticity I didn’t previously know existed. I’ve only been to six current MLB stadiums (all five in California, plus Minnesota’s Target Field), but all of those seemed more true to life in MLB 14. Given what I noticed about Turner Field, I’d wager that trend is likely consistent across all 30 ballparks.

Unfortunately, while SCE San Diego focused on making sure the stadiums were worthy of the new generation, they clearly didn’t have the same priority when it came to the players themselves—and that incongruity can be like watching a West End show at historic Drury Lane…performed by a collection of mannequins. The PS4 version uses the same base models as the PS3 incarnation (the only noticeable difference is an increase in polygon count), and that’s just not a recipe for success. In general, players on marquee teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers seem to be more faithfully simulated, but they also have their fair share of botched faces and body types.

Even superstars like Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Andrew McCutchen, and Buster Posey all look like off-model (though Derek Jeter does display the authentic countenance of the True Yankee we all know and begrudgingly respect). What’s more, newly minted stars like Chris Davis and Yasiel Puig don’t closely resemble their real-life counterparts.

I understand that it may take several iterations to get some players right, but there’s no excuse for how badly some veterans are bungled here. To wit: Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski has played in the Majors for 17 seasons. To put that in perspective, he made his big-league debut before Total Request Live ever aired on MTV or Britney Spears released her first single. The guy’s been in baseball for that long, and you can’t get a model that looks a thing like him? I’m hoping SCE San Diego puts as much effort into improving player models next year as they did the stadiums, because a game that prides itself on verisimilitude should not be this pathetic when it comes to the athletes on the field.

At least the roster updates take into account the fact that players can change their look over the course of the season: Braves centerfielder B.J. Upton’s newly acquired hipster specs and Giants centerfielder Angel Pagan’s flowing locks and full beard are present and accounted for after installing the latest download. Granted, Pagan now looks like a long-tressed Bollywood leading man possessed by the bloodthirsty spirit of Kali, but it’s good to know SCE San Diego pays attention to the various facial-hair fads and uniform tweaks that highly superstitious MLB players regularly adopt throughout the sport’s grind of a schedule.

One area that did receive nice some tweaks, though, is the prime draw of the series: Road to the Show, which sees players create their own player (in my case, the slingin’ Neanderthal known as Unfrozen Caveman Ballplayer) and take the hard road from the minors and places like Corpus Christi, Texas, and Binghamton, New York, to the bright lights and big cities of New York and L.A. Past versions of Road to the Show did a nice job of simulating most of that experience, but it was really tough to live the life of a can’t-miss prospect given the limited parameters of character creation. Instead, your would-be MLB superstar usually ended up as a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.

MLB 14 fixes this in a couple of ways. One, you can focus your available ability points on a couple of specific skills, giving you more of the elite tools scouts look for. And two, Road to the Show now includes a three-game showcase after character creation that affects your overall prospect rating and draft position. Just like in real life, you can reject the team that drafts you (if, say, you’d rather not go through life as a New York Met), head to college for up to four years, and re-enter the draft after that as a more polished prospect. Meanwhile, the new Player Lock feature allows you to take your favorite pitcher or position player and only take control of their at-bats or pitches (while the rest of the contest is simulated), bringing some of the Road to the Show flavor to the rest of the game for the first time.

The other major debut in MLB 14 is Quick Counts. Now, I’m somewhat of a baseball purist, but even I tend to hack at the first pitch that looks decent. Quick Counts automatically starts each batter with a random number of balls and strikes—say, two balls, two strikes or three balls, no strikes—which means that it’s more manageable to work the count like a real Big Leaguer. It might sound counterintuitive, but I feel like Quick Counts makes the The Show play more like an authentic MLB game, with walks and strikeouts now playing more of a central, realistic role.

In fact, Quick Counts is a godsend during online play, an element that’s been an issue with The Show in past years. Based on my experience, this iteration sees some slight improvements, at least from a connection standpoint. Besides the fact that Quick Counts brings the game time down to between 30 and 40 minutes instead of more than an hour, I’ve never had a game drop on me with MLB 14—a vast improvement from last year, when I couldn’t finish a single online contest due to constant dropped connections. The ever-present lag is still a factor, however, with pitchers regularly racking up close to 20 strikeouts in a game. I recognize that since timing is so imperative in baseball, it makes lag more of an issue than in other sports titles, but along with the subpar player models, this is one area that really needs addressing going forward.

SCE San Diego does as good a job as any sports developer at making the audio flow without many noticeable “seams”—and the pace of baseball naturally makes this easier than in videogame versions of other sports—but The Show’s commentary team is just brutal at times. MLB Network host Matt Vasgersian is generally likable, and based on interviews, he seems to enjoy doing the game’s play-by-play (and as a West Coast native, he’s better informed about teams west of the Rockies than most broadcasters), but he really needs better partners in The Show. Eric Karros is as bland as they come, and Steve Lyons is so well-regarded that the Dodgers unceremoniously dumped him from their pre- and postgame shows after the end of last season.

But I’m here to offer possible solutions, not just complaints, so I’ll recommend a couple of potential replacements who might work: Gabe Kapler is an example of an up-and-coming national commentator who has the respect of baseball’s more cerebral fans (what’s more, he’s also part of the new breed of sabermetric analysts that approach the game from a more stats-based mindset), and he’d be a nice change of pace from the endless clichés that pour out of the mouths of Karros and Lyons. Meanwhile, John Smoltz—Vasgersian’s real-life broadcast partner on Fox—would bring the respected voice of a future Hall of Famer and offer the pitcher’s perspective, something sorely missing from ex–first baseman Karros and former utilityman Lyons.

Just, please, whatever you do, SCE San Diego: Do not hire Harold Reynolds.

While MLB 14: The Show isn’t an impeccable transition to the new generation of consoles, it also isn’t a straight port of the last-gen incarnation, which I appreciate (after all, other sports franchises have been known to phone in the first version on a new console). The core game is still strong, it’s my favorite annual sports release by far, and the new ballparks really do add to the in-game experience. Like a prized rookie coming up for a September call-up, I won’t judge it too harshly in its PS4 debut. But if the player models, online modes, and commentary don’t see significant improvements, I won’t hesitate to call for a triple-A demotion next year.

Developer: SCE San Diego Studio • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 05.06.2014
7.5
The Show was clearly on its last legs on the PS3, and the revamped, more true-to-life ballparks infuse some much-needed atmosphere in the series’ PS4 debut. Meanwhile, Road to the Show includes several tweaks that help you create a more dominating prospect. Unfortunately, the player models don’t receive the same level of care, and the game’s online components aren’t on the level of most other sports franchises—issues that absolutely must be addressed going forward.
The Good Revamped stadiums really add to the ambiance and authenticity; Road to the Show tweaks help make your hitter or hurler a true can’t-miss stud.
The Bad Most players look more like grotesque jocks than real-life MLB standouts; online play is still an issue.
The Ugly The vacant, homicidal stares from so many MLB stars. (Except, ironically, from Zack Greinke.)
MLB 14: The Show is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PS Vita. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.
Andrew Fitch, Managing Editor
Andrew Fitch, a proud Japanese RPG and serial-comma enthusiast, has been attending E3 for close to a decade now. His least-proud moment? That time in 2004 when, suffering from utter exhaustion, he decided to take a break on the creepy, dilapidated—and possibly cursed—La-Z-Boy at Konami’s Silent Hill booth. Follow Andrew’s adventures in avoiding cursed furniture at his Twitter feed: @twittch. Meet the rest of the crew.

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