After two days of play, there’s no doubt in my mind that MLB 14: The Show is the best next-gen sports game I’ve seen. And while The Show isn’t scheduled to hit the PS4 until May 6, here’s a quick rundown of what makes this year’s title so groundbreaking.
Field of (Virtual) Dreams
Look out at the stadiums, the scoreboards, the players, and even the fans, and you can instantly see the dramatic improvements PlayStation 4 technology brings to the game. While PlayStation 3 stadiums only feature a total polygon count of about 150,000, the PS4 stadiums now boast over 1 million, including four times the texture resolution. “In the PS3 game, we only have 42 people in the crowd, and those people are just duplicated all over the stadium,” explains Ramone Russell, the game’s producer, as we get our hands on The Show for the first time. “You’ll see the same fans over and over again and they’re always wearing the same clothing. In the PS4 version, we have 1,000 people, so there is just so much more variation, including kids in the stands for the first time. It’s crazy, our fans in the PS4 game are made of about the same amount of polygons as the players in the PS3 version.” Add to that new lighting effects, new PS4-specific dust particles, and more natural looking blades of grass, and you can see why Russell and crew can’t wait for baseball fans to see the striking difference the new hardware makes. Adds Russell: “We rebuilt all of our stadiums from scratch for the PS4, and for the first time, we even have the ability to simulate how sunlight reflects off different surfaces throughout each of these baseball cathedrals.” Breathtaking.
Diamonds Are Forever
In terms of the actual gameplay, I was only able to compete head-to-head and against the CPU (online isn’t ready yet), but I have to say, the PS4 version is not only looking better than its PS3 counterpart, it’s playing better as well. Over 200 new fielding animations were added exclusively to the PS4 field, and I saw everything from a ball ricocheting off Matt Cain’s leg only to be barehanded by (a now slimmer-looking) Pablo Sandoval as he gunned the runner out at first, to all new catcher animations showcasing the masked men jumping out from their crouch to pounce on bunts out in front of the plate. Other new animations include helmets flying off sliding runners and the Ichiro slap swing. Says Russell: “We even added lean animations for baserunners so they don’t look so robotic. Everything about the game just looks, feels, and plays more natural.”
Looking through Sony’s online data, the stats proved that Road to the Show career mode is the most played feature in the game. “We narrowed this popularity down to two reasons,” says Russell. “Number one, it’s your guy with your name on the back of the jersey. And two, they are really quick experiences. So we thought, what if we could bring that Road to the Show experience throughout the entire game, and that’s what Player Lock is.” With Player Lock, gamers take control of their favorite player throughout an exhibition or franchise mode game, controlling only their fielding attempts and at bats. “The advantage you have over Road to the Show is that you can also control all of the managerial aspects of the game,” says Russell. “In Road to the Show, they can pull you out of the game. But since you’re now using Player Lock in these other modes, you can make sure you’re always in the thick of the action.” Add the fact that you can go in and out of Player Lock throughout franchise mode, sometimes playing as the entire team, other times taking control of your team’s best player, and it really helps add variety through 162 games. Adds Russell: “All of the Player Lock games only take about nine minutes, so it really makes playing through your season a lot quicker.”
What’s the one thing holding baseball video games back from being best sellers? According to Russell, the biggest drawback they hear from casual gamers and sports fans alike is the time it takes to complete a game. “You can play a game of Madden in 30 minutes. You can play a game of FIFA in 20 minutes,” the producer says. “But if you sit down with a friend to play The Show, you might be sitting there for an hour.” To speed up the game, Sony decided to add a feature where batters enter the box with the count already started. For example, you might be leading off an inning with a 1-2 count, or step up to the bases loaded with the count already 3-1, adding pressure to both the pitcher and batter depending on the situation. This really changes the complexion of the game, and if you’re not paying attention, you might strike out on one swing, or walk a batter on one pitch. And while it took away some strategy (you’re not bunting with a man at first if you already have two strikes), this isn’t the default way to play, so think of it as a fun variation rather than the norm.
Road to The Show
In an effort to make the game more realistic, gone is Road to the Show’s arbitrary advancement goals, like having your coach tell you to hit four home runs in a series. “You will never hear your manager ask you to do that in real life, so they won’t ask you to do it in our game,” says Russell. “Your manager will ask you to put the ball in play, get good wood on the ball, and that’s all we ask you to do now. On a year-to-year basis, we look at the game and tweak it in order to make it more realistic. We remove things that don’t make sense or add value, and this was one of those instances.” And while the goals are gone, one welcome addition is the new Topps Amateur Draft Showcase. “The genesis of this is that in previous years, you always started out as this A+ prospect,” explains Russell. “The organization always saw you as the next Bryce Harper or Buster Posey. But that’s not realistic and it didn’t give the mode any depth.” So now when you start the Showcase, you have D potential and you have three games to showcase your talents, giving you the ability to dynamically improve your grade through your skills on the field. Do really well and you might get drafted in the first round. Make some errors or strikeout too much, and your stock will slip, forcing you to make a decision that will alter your entire career. Sure, you can still enter the minors as a lower-tiered prospect and try to grind out a spot, or you can choose to go back to college in order to raise your attributes, boosting your numbers, but costing you in terms of player age. Adds Russell: “Now you have a decision to make., and we feel like this really adds a lot of depth to the experience that we just didn’t have before.”