MLB 14: The Show review: Changeup

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MLB 14: The Show review: Changeup
The term "simulation" is appropriate for MLB 14: The Show, but not just because of its beautiful presentation, a defining trait of the series that's become a benchmark for other sports video games. Rather, MLB 14: The Show earns its simulation stripes by continuing the series' tradition of challenging players with mechanics and statistics that mirror the real sport. While MLB's gameplay has changed little this year, no matter what option players select for pitching, fielding and hitting (we'll get to that later), they will fail or succeed as regularly as athletes do in the big leagues.

Yet much like the faithfully-recreated and wildly differing batting stances of hitters in the game, MLB 14: The Show truly makes its mark in the baseball sim series by being one thing: dynamic.Among this year's improvements, developer Sony San Diego introduced a new difficulty system. By switching to "dynamic" difficulty, which can be enabled independently within separate gameplay segments like pitching and hitting, players begin at an easier "rookie +" mode and gradually work their way up with each half-inning of play. Over the course of two successful career mode games, I graduated to the veteran difficulty level and instantly walked more batters and missed the strike zone more regularly, just as a minor league prospect might. After a few at-bats I became accustomed to the new difficulty settings, which felt much more in tune with my abilities as a player.

One way to ease gameplay is through MLB 14's myriad tuning options, accessible on-the-fly during games. Don't like baserunning or fielding? Set those actions to automatic and focus on pitching and batting. MLB 14 offers enough methods of play in every category that I achieved maximum comfort with the game within a few hours of tinkering. The term "dynamic" also applies to one small, but noticeable improvement in the game's default cameras when hitting and fielding. Now, instead of physically following the ball, the camera "watches" the ball from a fixed position. It's a slick, albeit minor change that makes the action more pleasant on the eyes and places the player more or less "in" the game.

MLB 14: The Show also picks up the pace this year with two brilliant options: Quick Counts and Player Lock. With Quick Counts enabled, you no longer throw every pitch, instead jumping directly to a algorithmically-generated count during every at-bat. For example, I entered a 2-2 count when using Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum and managed the one-pitch strikeout on my own. Even if the occasional circumstance (like a 3-0 count) put me at an aggravating disadvantage, every pitch felt that much more important and true to the abilities of the player I was using. The increased speed of the game outweighed any feeling that I wasn't impacting every pitch of the game.

The even speedier method of playing is to use Player Lock. This option allows players to use just one athlete at any moment in any single-player match, with MLB 14 simulating and skipping any part of the game that doesn't involve said athlete. In one case, I jumped into a game as Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista and paused the game in the seventh inning to switch to Edwin Encarnacion on the fly. I didn't play every moment on defense either, as MLB 14 only stops simulating when it knows you'll be involved in the upcoming play. While it's not well-stated that you need to head to the "substitutions" menu to select your locked player, the option instantly livens up the game on both offense and defense, and it makes a sub-15-minute match a definite possibility.

Player Lock builds off MLB's popular mode, Road to the Show (RTTS). Career modes in sports games are at their best when your player's development is defined in grander terms than leaderboards and burgeoning abilities but, unfortunately, that's the extent of my experience in RTTS. It's enjoyable to climb my way into the MLB through a franchise's minor league system, beginning with a new three-game amateur showcase to impact my player's draft position. However, without pieces of dialogue to tell your player's story early in his career, something that series like FIFA attempt through generated news clips, RTTS is like any other empty, stat-grinding RPG. It's fun – if all you want is to improve the numbers that represent your skills.

The other career option in MLB 14: The Show is franchise mode, in which players take over an organization and run it top-to-bottom. This year's addictive, strategic franchise mode cleans up the interface with a helpful notification system. It might be a little overwhelming for newcomers, so the developer has also included a pleasant number of options that can be toggled to "auto" in the event that you'd rather play ball instead of micromanaging your double-A minor league players. The bigger change this year is the addition of online franchise, which is accompanied by an endless combination of options. MLB 14: The Show allows players to manage teams with up to 29 other friends (enough to cover every team in the league) setting custom schedules and league formats as they see fit. While it's markedly similar in many ways to offline franchise mode, it's a solid addition to The Show's feature lineup.

At least, it would be if online play in MLB 14: The Show were remotely reliable. I experienced many instances of dropped frames, causing both myself and my opponent to miss hanging pitches wildly. During one online game, my system locked up entirely, mid-pitch. After performing the recommended 10 GB installation and connecting my PS3 directly to my modem, I was able to get through full games, yet still fell victim to mistimed swings. Overall, MLB 14's online play has been a stuttering mess so far.

MLB 14 has a few smaller issues as well. When playing "Live" matches, games that mirror the day's real-life MLB matchups, I noticed an instance of incorrect commentary – specifically, commentators calling out the first-ever Major League hit for the Milwaukee Brewers' Mark Reynolds, despite the fact that he's played in the majors since 2007. Stats for Live matches were also off the mark, or missing entirely, even several games into the season. Additionally, sacrifice bunts seem a little too easy to pull off – not fun when your online opponent knows as much.

The Vita version of MLB 14 serves as a good companion piece to its big brother. Transferring my RTTS and franchise saves via the cloud has been a seamless process, though it's worth noting that the Vita version lacks online play. The joysticks on the Vita are pretty touchy when pitching too, and aiming changeups took much longer than it would on PS3. The handheld generally offers a fine presentation – with a nice touch-based UI – though the crowd behind the batter looks awkwardly pixelated. Overall, while the ability to transfer saves is a nice feature, I wouldn't recommend the Vita version by itself.

In particular, the Vita version lacks my favorite mode: Community Challenges. This mode allows players to craft specific game scenarios and upload them for the rest of the community to attempt. For example, you might challenge others to hit a walk-off home run as Red Sox star David Ortiz against Rays reliever Grant Balfour, a scenario you can easily create in just a few minutes. Meanwhile, completing other players' challenges earns you in-game currency to spend on things like extra jerseys and boosts for your Road to the Show athletes. Community Challenges are a fun excursion, one I enjoyed jumping into frequently.

On the whole, MLB 14: The Show is as dynamic as it's ever been; if any aspect of a mode isn't to your liking, you can tweak it to your heart's content to find your own sweet spot. The execution of online offerings is the biggest letdown this year, souring the addition of online play in franchise mode. Still, while Road to the Show is starting to show its age, MLB 14 picks up with novel methods of play like Community Challenges, Quick Counts and the game-changing Player Lock options. MLB 14 might have its rough edges, but it lives up to the term "simulation" in the truest sense, offering players the means to realistically succeed any way they choose.

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of MLB 14: The Show, provided by Sony. The PlayStation Vita version was also tested. Images: Sony.

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