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MLB 14 The Show review: sliding into first

MLB 14 The Show improves its offline game. @owengood's review:

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Sony's MLB The Show 14 is the latest in a franchise that is reliably one of the best sports titles made each year, despite a pretty tough set of circumstances.

No other sport is as ridiculed, even by its fans, for the time to finish a game. The patience baseball demands of participants and spectators is particularly burdensome to any video game tasked with representing the sport. Conventional wisdom holds that if baseball had been conceived after television was invented it wouldn't survive because programming executives wouldn't allow something so slow-paced and filled with routine on the air. Well, as a video game, baseball's turn-based combat system is one to which even the most ardent JRPG fan would turn up his nose.

Somehow, given this hand, Sony's MLB The Show series is one of the rare sports titles that is capable of selling a console. And this year, MLB 14 The Show delivers a profound structural improvement that grasps what so many who complain about baseball do not: The National Pastime cannot be sped up, but it can be made to take less time. Developer Sony San Diego's game features a series of bold improvements that absolutely justify one more inning.

The game-changing, time-shortening feature introduced by MLB 14 is not "Quick Counts," an option that allows you to fast-forward to a more decisive count in an at-bat. Quick Counts still bring a nine-inning game only down to 45 minutes or so, and the inability to work the count — to get a good pitch to hit, as hitters are always told — may not be worth it to some. The real solution to the time problem comes in the form of "Player Lock," a feature that should be envied by any sports video game with a career mode.

Editor's note: The screenshots in this review are from the PS4 version of the game

Player Lock allows you to control the actions of a single player, playing only his at-bats and taking only his fielding chances, with the rest of the game proceeding in a rapid background simulation. In MLB 14, it lets you swap between playing a game in the excellent Road to the Show career mode — with its completely different, close third-person fielding view and AI controlling all other actions, including manager strategy — and playing with control of the entire team and all of its decisions.

If Player Lock let you pick anyone on the club, or play as the entire club, but held you to that choice for the entire game, it would be little more than a gimmick. This is no gimmick. You may enter and exit Player Lock with any player at any time, even between pitches in an at-bat if you wish. Do you want to stand at first base and take throws from shortstop for an inning? Fine. Go back to playing as the entire team? No problem. Is your big hitter coming to bat next inning? Take control of him, then enter the game as the pitcher. And when you get tired, the AI manager will warm up a reliever in the bullpen and make the substitution himself.

Player Lock should be envied by any sports game

The feature does not speed up MLB 14 per se, but it makes an entire game with it take less time depending on who you're controlling and how much action he sees. More importantly, it expedites a staggering 162-game season considerably without cheapening it. One of the biggest conundrums in Franchise and Season modes in years past was the fact I always felt like I was robbing myself by putting so many games through a wholesale simulation. Here, if I only had time for four at-bats, I had time for today's game. And when I knew I was only going to hit with one player, I thought about the pitch more intently, rather than swinging at everything to make something happen.


Player Lock is not without its shortcomings. MLB 14 lacks information about how to get what you really want from Player Lock. For example, it's not immediately apparent that to switch between players with Player Lock in the middle of the game, you must do so through the substitutions menu even if you don't intend to substitute a player out.

It also takes some familiarity with the gameplay settings specific to Road to the Show, and then some tinkering from there. For example, if you wish to call pitches while playing catcher, the "Road to the Show Game Watch" menu option needs to be set to "All Fielding." Of course, if you leave the catcher to take another position, you would then be obligated to watch every pitch while you are on defense whether or not your player is involved. Fortunately, these options are adjustable mid-game.

Player Lock isn't available in any multiplayer mode in MLB 14, online or local, for understandable reasons. This series has had enough problems getting the basics right over the years. Multiplayer remains the same under-delivered experience despite rote promises of improvement. If Sony San Diego did rebuild the netcode, it wasn't enough to prevent the problems seen at launch in prime-time. Even in off-peak games, there still is enough lag and disruption to timing to keep MLB 14 from living up to its promises of realism.


Foul ball

A peculiar and even more bothersome disconnection issue can occur when you're playing a CPU-controlled team in an online franchise. Even that matchup, which appears to play offline, requires a constant connection throughout the game. I saw it happening to others and tested it for myself. Sure enough, pulling the plug on my modem not only disconnected me — it sent me into a good 3- to 4-minute freeze from which not even the XMB was accessible. That kind of a crash appears to be a hardware issue, and not triggered by The Show's servers, but it is very troublesome, especially if it takes place in a game many will assume is offline.

MLB 14 does introduce a new mode of online play, called Online Franchise, in which a player and several friends may play out a schedule of games, with playoffs and even some player management decisions. But with none of the time-shortening tools, to say nothing of the inexplicable disconnections that force players to start games all over, Online Franchise seems more like an obligatory inclusion rather than any breakthrough, offering little reason to try it over an offline franchise.

Longtime players of Road to the Show may wonder if there is much reason to continue in that mode, too, if its key appeal — play as a single player — is now available in a Franchise mode that effectively gives you 25 ready-made major leaguers. But Road to the Show still is distinctive and worthwhile, beginning with changes to player creation. You can now start a career with a true phenom who has recognizable all-star potential in one area — like a pitcher's blazing fastball — at the expense of other abilities that need to be worked on. There's a more reasonable exceptionalism to the superstars you now play in the mode.

Past versions of Road to the Show would start you with a minor leaguer whose skill set was suited to his job description, but average across the board. In MLB 14 I brought a fastball that topped 96 mph in the minor leagues and felt more like a can't-miss kid who still had work to do elsewhere. The monthly requirements to improve certain skill sets — which disappeared once you made the Major Leagues anyway — have also been removed. Combined with a streamlined experience point system, players are more able to immediately improve critical attributes, rather than spend time buffing up a pitcher's bunting ability just because a coach said so.

The Show tends toward blandness despite best-in-class visuals

Also new to MLB 14 is a dynamic difficulty setting that Road to the Show shares with all offline modes. This setting doesn't baby you with an unnaturally weak opposition; it starts you against an average difficulty and then either raises or lowers the challenge based on how you respond to it. Though I often fancy myself an All-Star-level pitcher, that can be a tough challenge for a minor leaguer with mostly low ratings. Dynamic difficulty smooths out that debut considerably.

Quick Counts are absent from Road to the Show, however, but they're not really missed when you're only directing one player. And if you truly want to shorten up MLB 14, that means has been available for years through presentation options that allow you to cut the chatter and cutscenes and hurry up the pace of the pitches.

This isn't such a sacrifice. MLB 14's commentary and presentation, once again, remain a disappointment for a game so solidly pleasing in nearly every other phase. Play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian is one of my favorite announcers in real life, but he's drained of personality next to the wooden line-reading of Eric Karros and Steve Lyons. Their new lines replace old ones that are no longer timely, but they're still painfully generic in too many places, especially in minor league games full of ringers. Coupled with glaringly repetitive cutscenes — particularly after foul balls — The Show still has a tendency toward blandness despite best-in-class visuals.

MLB 14 The Show's shortcomings are ones that I understand and have forgiven. The core of the game is greatly changed; it is not merely a fresh coat of paint. This will not be the last edition for the PlayStation 3, but when it hands the torch to the PlayStation 4 in May, it admirably closes the book on one of the most consistent successes in sports on the last console generation. MLB 14 still exhibits the kind of structural improvement that makes all preceding versions obsolete — a critical expectation of an iterative sports series that so many titles, even good ones, fail to accomplish.

MLB 14 The Show was reviewed using final retail code provided by Sony. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

Update: 05/09/2014

MLB 14 The Show review update — PS Vita

The PlayStation Vita version of The Show 14 is useful mainly as an adjunct to the console experience. I knocked out two full months of games on a couple of long flights recently and came home to a start in the All-Star game. The Vita edition is essentially identical to the PlayStation 3 version, mainly lacking the Online Franchise and Online Challenge modes. Yet if all things are equal, I would have played those two months of games on a console, not in seat 21D on American Airlines.

The small thumbsticks are part of the trouble — the relative distance they travel is still so short that analog hitting, which uses a gesture on the right stick, is not recommended (buttons are better.) Precision pitching also is difficult to execute with the left stick, and pulse pitching — in which a player presses a button when a pulsating circle is at its smallest — requires different timing than on a console thanks to the screen's small size.

Perhaps the biggest drawback facing The Show 14 on PS Vita is the fact Dynamic Difficulty isn't portable along with your cloud-saved games. If you're playing on Dynamic Difficulty, you will start at bottom and work your way up, even if your Road to the Show player has been improved to the point he can handle a much tougher difficulty. This can lead to some really cartoonish results — like the consecutive one-baserunner shutouts I threw, something that has only been done once, in 1925. (Yes, I looked it up.) Your only alternative is to play a bunch of one off-games to beef up your Dynamic Difficulty, or simply set it to a higher level and stay there.

The Show 14 on Vita may be a full partner in the sense it offers all the features most console players use. However, it is not a preferable option to them, and the smaller format not only alters core gameplay, it also strips out some of the game's already barebones broadcast presentation.

Update: 05/08/2014

MLB 14 The Show review update — PS4

Released on PlayStation 4 a month after its PS3 launch, MLB 14's next-generation offering was expected to be little more than a better-looking version of its sibling, and that's what Sony has delivered. It's good that the two versions share all of the core features and improvements described above, but the PS4 edition doesn't add enough to make it feel like a distinctly different game.

Worse, those who were hoping the added computing power of the PS4 might improve the online experience are going to be sorely disappointed. That's if they can even get in the door. Launch-day online support for MLB 14 on PS4 was just as much of a disaster as it was on PS3, with hard freezes common before matchmaking even could begin, and the Online Franchise still functionally useless. Worse, it also affected access to one's cloud-saved Road to the Show and Franchise profiles, throwing cold water on a big benefit for upgrading — the ability to bring a career save from one's PS3 or Vita into the PS4 (and vice versa, if necessary.)

There are differences between the two games, but they're very subtle and they surface after long playing sessions. The crowd is more detailed and diverse (and includes children, even). The lighting is crisper and more varied, really apparent at dusk or in overcast conditions where the field is lit by the sun and the light towers. There are some new animations, including more interactive bat- and ballboys, of all things, but just not enough to be more than a fresh coat of paint on the same stuff you've been watching. Broadcast audio and presentation is just as lifeless and repetitive as ever.

It's disappointing that next-generation visuals in MLB 14 do not accommodate, for example, sleeveless, vest-style jerseys, or button-less pullovers, both of which are common in several teams' wardrobes. Sleeveless jerseys are still essentially regular shirts with the arms colored to look like an undershirt — which still leads to players wearing two undershirts. Anything with straps — a catcher's chest protector, or a hitter's shin guard — also floats off the player unnaturally, even casting shadows in a recognizably last-gen way. Caps display the same sweat pattern from the first inning onward, stirruped hose is still painted on to the sanitary socks and there still is no texture to cap emblems.

These are petty complaints, but the fetishization of minute details has been practically the only selling point for MLB 14 on PS4, and there simply aren't enough fulfilled here to make it a compelling experience above what the PS3 already has established. With cloud-saved Franchise and Road to the Show files transferable to future editions, baseball fans who have already begun on the PS3 can wait 'til next year.

Initial Review: 04/07/2014

MLB 14 The Show review: sliding into first

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