The baseball season is officially upon us, but Katfish Bailey is a long way from the big leagues. Sporting a mullet and some serious sideburns, he is currently toiling with the Jackson Generals — the Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners.
In another life, Katfish made it all the way up to The Show, where he joined the Minnesota Twins as center fielder. But then it became clear that I wouldn't easily be able to get my save from the PS3 version of MLB 14 to MLB 15 on the PS4, at least not without having a PS4 version of MLB 14 on hand to serve as a bridge. In many ways, though I don't mind starting over. Sony's baseball sim has changed a fair amount over the years, but its core strengths have remained relatively constant, and Road to the Show continues to be a pleasure to play. Of course, MLB: The Show has its weaknesses as well, and those too have remained constant over the years.
With the series now in its second year on the PlayStation 4, Sony San Diego have largely opted to stay the course with MLB 15: The Show, tweaking the gameplay and adding additional animations while continuing to optimize the game's backend. The largest changes have been reserved for Diamond Dynasty — The Show's take on the enormously popular card collecting mode, which has become ubiquitous across the sports game landscape. Much like the sport that they represent, Sony San Diego have proven rather conservative in the way that they approach yearly updates, confident that they have a strong product that doesn't need much in the way of an overhaul.
Much of that confidence is earned, though. Other sports games have caught up a bit in the graphics department, but it's still strikingly beautiful, and its physics engine is one of the best around. It's a strong all-around simulation, if a tad dry in its presentation, and worth playing even if baseball isn't your favorite sport (full disclosure: I've only peripherally followed baseball since the Twins fell apart in 2011). That said, there are certainly areas in which it can still improve.
A Budding Dynasty
As I noted earlier, the bulk of Sony San Diego's resources this year have been devoted to making Diamond Dynasty a viable mode — hardly surprising given how much money the FIFA equivalent is raking in for EA these days.
Most of the improvements to Diamond Dynasty are addition by subtraction.The cumbersome contracts and budgets of previous iterations are gone, and the user interface has been refined. As befits a baseball game, the familiar player cards are represented by Topps baseball cards, and they are laid out in a manner reminiscent of an album. I found the overall effect to be rather nice, and that combined with the constant stream of cards that have been thrown my way has made me want to keep logging in on a semi-regular basis — something that I've rarely been able to say about other Ultimate Team modes.
As in similar modes in other sports sims, the overall goal is to build the best team possible by beating other players and acquiring new cards, though with a few key differences. Rather than going with the typical auction system, Sony San Diego has seen fit to build their card economy around a commodities market, with the cheapest available card in a given set being available for purchase immediately. The Show also eschews established teams for player-created teams, the captain being a customizable character who grows by literally eating his teammates (the command is "Feed me." Yum.)
These are all welcome changes, and despite being something of an Ultimate Team skeptic myself, I'm inclined to give MLB 15 the benefit of the doubt. After all, it does a really good job of weaving the cards into the rest of the game and making them a desirable collector's item, with the ultimate reward for catching them all being a legendary player like Harmon Killebrew. And even without having played a ton of the mode myself, I already feel like I'm on my way to a solid team.
So why haven't I been inclined to dump more time into Diamond Dynasty? Well, if you want to know the truth, it's a little too time-consuming. The mode doesn't support Quick Counts, so online games can take up to an hour to complete, making it tough to get into a real groove. It also lacks the offline challenges and tournaments found in other sports sims, largely limiting the mode to online play.
Incidentally, the slow pace of Diamond Dynasty is an issue that has haunted MLB: The Show throughout much of its history. It's the nature of the sport to be slow, languid, and time-consuming; and indeed, many veterans hate Quick Counts not just because they can feel unbalanced, but because they disrupt the flow of the duel between the pitcher and the batter. But while I get why The Show and Diamond Dynasty are structured the way they are, and I acknowledge that most of my objections are a matter of personal preference, I can't shake the feeling that Diamond Dynasty is going to be doomed to once again cater to a relatively small niche of super dedicated fans. The games just take too long to finish, and there aren't enough solo alternatives. That's a pity, because with the other changes in place, I could see myself really getting into Diamond Dynasty. Maybe next year.
On the Road Again
In the meantime, I've mostly drifted to The Show's classic standby mode — Road to the Show.
Admittedly, there aren't a ton of upgrades to be found in this year's version of the classic superstar model. Structurally, it's much the same as last year, but with the added bonus of being able to unlock and equip gear. There are bats, mitts, gloves, and even superstitions to acquire, all of which confer individual stat bonuses. It's not what you would call an impactful addition, but purchasing a hat for your bat does a degree of charm to the otherwise very dry presentation, and it's nice to be able to pump up your stats early on.
Despite the relative lack of meaningful additions, Road to the Show remains my favorite mode in MLB: The Show. It's almost perfectly paced, with a handful of at-bats and fielding opportunities taking at the most 15 minutes to complete, the reward being a bounty of training points. It also gives the graphics engine a chance to shine. I love looking up into the stands from the field and seeing the reporters in the press box, the vendors walking up the stairs waving hot dogs. The incredible amount of detail put into even the Double-A stadiums goes a long way toward making you feel as if you are actually playing baseball on a warm summer evening.
Road to the Show doesn't have the ambitious storytelling of NBA 2K's MyPlayer mode, but I'm consistently impressed by its balanced pacing, as well as how enjoyable it is to play as both a pitcher and a hitter. I've had some people tell me that they're burned out on Road to the Show after playing essentially the same mode for several years in a row; but for me, at least, it still feels fresh and vibrant. It's one of those modes where it's dangerous for me to start playing because I'll have a game where I go 1-5, and I'll suddenly lose a whole night trying to get better.
But even Road to the Show is affected by the issue I alluded to earlier — it's just too dry. The presentation and the announcing are both in desperate need of a meaningful overhaul, as they've become dreadfully boring over the past few years. The same can be said for the franchise mode, which picks up a radio show and GM Goals, but is otherwise little more than a glorified spreadsheet. The players have no personality and the games feel sedate even when you're winning, making it tough to build up the momentum for a "True 162," even with the ability to take control of one player and knock out games quickly. The sense of ownership is missing.
This has been an issue for The Show for a while now, and I'd be surprised to see Sony San Diego do a complete 180 virtually overnight. But after five years of what feels like pretty much the same presentation, it's time to freshen things up a bit.
Ultimately, what keeps me playing The Show is a mix of my affection for Road to the Show, the insane amount of detail that has gone into the stadiums and animations (if not necessarily the character models themselves), and the fact that, yes, it's still a very good baseball game. Of all the sports out there, baseball is probably the hardest to get right due to the way that even small changes can throw everything out of whack, but Sony San Diego has managed to nail it on a pretty consistent basis. From the way the ball leaves the bat to the way it caromes off the wall, it just feels good to play.
Again, like most everything else this year, the changes are pretty minor across the board. Pitchers get the benefit of angle projection, which makes it much easier to locate a breaking pitch in the strike zone. Fly balls, meanwhile, are much harder to catch due to the lack of a "pull effect" that drags players toward the ball, which has the benefit of feeling more realistic, but at the expense of some frustrating errors.
As a sidenote: If you're brand new to MLB: The Show, be prepared for some heartburn. It's an unforgiving game, and even with the benefit of several years of experience, I still get fooled pretty regularly by offspeed pitches. Once again, this is where Road to the Show shines — it lets you focus on one particular aspect of your game and hone it in an environment where you're not consistently staring at 7-0 deficits.
Putting that aside, the quality of MLB: The Show's gameplay trumps my issues with the difficulty curve and the various modes. Sony San Diego has even gotten the online play to the point where its playable and fun, which is a miracle in light of how much trouble they've had in the past with lag. There are still some weird glitches when playing online, but at least the timing feels right when hitting now. It's prompted me to play quite a few more games online with friends.
For the most part, MLB: The Show continues to be what it has been since I started playing — a really strong baseball sim that can nevertheless be stuck in its ways. Going forward, I would really love for Sony San Diego to balance out the pacing in Diamond Dynasty, liven up their in-game presentation, and add some depth to their franchise mode by giving the players some sort of personality. As usual, there's still work to be done; but with many of The Show's biggest issues behind it, there's no reason to miss out on what is once again a very strong sports game.
The character models are straight from the uncanny valley, but the stadiums and crowds are second to none, and the animation is sharper than ever. MLB: The Show continues to be one of the best-looking sports games around.
The announcing is mostly accurate, but also incredibly drab. The music that accompanies the in-game presentation is similarly grating. On the plus side, the crowds feel reasonably realistic, and the sound effects are uniformly excellent.
Features like player lock can be a little obscure, and certain menus are buried out of the way, but MLB 15's interface nevertheless feels far more intuitive than in years past. Bonus points for doing such a good job of making it easy to earn Diamond Dynasty cards.
If you're relatively new to MLB: The Show, Road to the Show will last you a very, very long time. Otherwise, its lasting appeal is hurt a bit by the fact that a normal game can start to really drag after a while.
MLB 15: The Show doesn't bring a lot of really impressive upgrades to the table, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a really good baseball sim. I'm consistently impressed by its strong physics engine, the attention to detail afforded the stadiums, and the tight design of Road to the Show. If you have even a passing interest in baseball, you owe it to yourself to play MLB: The Show at least once.