Set to cruise control.
April means it’s baseball season again, and while my beloved Cincinnati Reds may be picked by several *ahem* experts to finish dead last in their division, my hope springs eternal. Even if the Reds do pack it in by the end of May, at least I always have the warm comforting embrace of MLB: The Show. As consistent as it gets in this industry, The Show has been at the top of its game for a long time now. In fact, in many ways it gets so much stuff right most years that it has to be tough to find things to build on. Luckily for us the developers have managed to squeeze in some improvements to major modes, visuals, gameplay and the overall presentation. While I appreciate some of the things that they’ve managed to accomplish this year, I can’t help but feel like this year isn’t as much of a leap as last year managed to be.
Off the field, the full mode list makes its return with some obviously getting more attention than others. While the crown jewel of the franchise, Road to the Show, has remained largely the same, we do get a major improvement that has a dramatic effect on the mode. Year to Year saves make their debut in 2015 and I can’t help but wonder why this is just now debuting in a sports game. Year to Year saves allow players to pick up their Franchise, Season, or RTTS mode right where they left off in 2014. The fact that I was able to start off my RTTS mode with my player that I spent so many hours building through the minors and into a force of nature at the MLB level is a revelation and makes investing the hours all the more worth it.
MSRP: $59.99 (PS4) $39.99 (PS3) $19.99 (Vita)
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Vita
Multiplayer: Online and local
Speaking of the Franchise mode, there is a lot of new stuff to love here if that is the mode of choice. Goals for the GM position (similar to the advancement goals from RTTS in previous years) ensure that players have clear alignment on ownership’s expectations, and will also determine whether or not they get a shiny new big contract. My favorite addition to Franchise is the new Trade Finder feature. This allows players to specify either the people on their team that they are looking to deal or get, and the game will suggest who should be on the block. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of trades and allows even those who aren’t that familiar with the Franchise mode to pull of blockbuster trades easily.
One of the first things players will notice when booting the game up (on PS4 and PS3) is the new Universal Rewards system. This system allows players to earn items just from playing the game in whatever mode they choose. These items include cards for the Diamond Dynasty mode and brand sponsorships, as well as the all new licensed equipment. This equipment can be used in Diamond Dynasty, Franchise, or by the RTTS player. While the concept of the reward system is solid, I found it pretty superficial.
One draw that the rewards system does have is it gives players incentive to play the newly revamped Diamond Dynasty mode. For those unfamiliar, Diamond Dynasty is a mode about collecting player cards to build the best team possible. Honestly, I spent very little time in this mode last year, because it was almost prohibitively complicated. This year though, the combination of some simplification and automatically earning cards while playing other modes makes it much more accessible. Even with the accessibility though, some flaws tarnish the experience and will again make it a very rarely played mode for me. Microtransactions have been present in MLB: The Show for a while now, but they have managed to stay relatively non-intrusive. I feel like based on my play time it would be very difficult to progress very far in Diamond Dynasty (at least in a reasonable amount of time) without paying for some stubs. Also, while load times are improved in just about every mode on PS4 the Diamond Dynasty mode ran very slowly in my experience with major delays even for fundamental items like roster control.
On the field the visuals have been dramatically improved through new lighting and skin color systems. Players look much more realistic, and the stadiums are the best I’ve ever seen. Animations have always been a strength for the series, and this year adds even more for a very silky smooth experience.
The gameplay has also seen some improvements in the way of both major mechanics and minor tweaks. The ability to slide-step and manually cut-off throws both add a degree of strategy that is present in the real sport but has been missing from the digital representation. The biggest change is the new directional hitting control that allows players to influence (using the left stick) where they want the ball to go. I could influence fly or ground balls, opposite field slaps, or pulls on inside pitches. In practice I found this system easy to use and very useful in certain clutch situations. I also liked the new Quick Shift feature for shifting my defense around, and it successfully saved me a couple runs in a tight playoff game.
On the Vita, players get the Franchise and Diamond Dynasty upgrades mentioned above, but the game looks and plays almost the same as last years. I’m disappointed in the lack of visual upgrade year over year, and the missing universal rewards system takes away what little appeal Diamond Dynasty had. Players do get the Directional Hitting system which is nice, but overall the Vita version continues to only be a solid back-up if I needed to continue my Franchise or RTTS on the road.
Let’s be honest here, many of you are going to upgrade every year regardless of what is added or changed. For those of you that look for major changes before jumping on board, I do think this year’s changes on PS4/PS3 are well worth the purchase. I’d love to see the series invest time next year in adding features to the Road to the Show mode and continuing to focus on making the most accurate simulation possible. On the Vita, I’d really like to see a major upgrade on the visual side and incorporation of many of its big brothers features.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.