It’s time once again for baseball and as usual, Sony has anted up with their annual simulator. MLB 15: The Show was purported to faithfully represent our national pastime better than any previous entry but while improvements have been made, I was honestly expecting a bit more. This ultra-realistic sim is still in need of a little tweaking and balancing, even though it’s arguably the best-looking and most authentic baseball video game we’ve ever seen. I guess our expectations are just that much higher any time a new era rolls around, and that goes double for annualized sports franchises.
Unsurprisingly, the latest iteration of The Show looks fantastic. I still say some of the character models come across as plastic-y (and a little creepy), but the rest of the presentation is top-notch. Baseball lovers will appreciate excellent animations along with exquisite stadium and crowd detailing. The multiple camera angles allow us to see various angles of the field, and each one is just downright breathtaking. It’s not perfect – a few minor graphical errors can be spotted in the dense crowds – but it’s certainly impressive, even if it’s not necessarily pushing PlayStation 4 to its prodigious limits.
The audio is a tad disappointing for me, mostly because I fully anticipated a commentary and soundtrack overhaul. I didn’t get that with Sony San Diego’s new effort; it sounds like they’re using a lot of the same tired commentary we’ve heard over and over, and the music just seems unnecessarily prominent during our micromanagement endeavors. Even so, the effects are awesome and as gameplay remains the most critical aspect of any simulator, I can forgive the lackluster color men and iffy soundtrack. The crowd sounds are especially engaging and authentic and the crack of the bat is plenty satisfying. They just need fresher voice recordings for next year’s title.
The structural mechanics of this franchise are mostly intact; veteran followers won’t have any trouble diving into the gameplay. It’s a double-edged sword, really: On the one hand, you don’t want to mess with a winning formula too much, as you invariably lose your hard-earned fans. On the other hand, adopting an overly conservative approach to a yearly franchise makes each new entry feel tired. In this case, we do get some significant changes and improvements in regards to the ridiculously in-depth Diamond Dynasty Mode, and we’ve heard a lot about the new licensed equipment, which you can unlock. You can even unlock specific superstitions for players, which will have an impact on their base stats.
We should start with Diamond Dynasty because it’s bound to appeal to hardcore baseball aficionados, and it received the most significant upgrade. Basically, it’s stripped down without being simplified; it’s a more streamlined and ultimately more accessible mode. On a personal note, being a big baseball card collector back in the ‘90s, I loved the interface that involves Topps player cards. Heck, Topps was my brand (forget silly Donruss or Fleer). It also reminded me of the little games I constructed on my own, which involved either my cards or my baseball action figures (or both), and building a team with these virtual cards really made me smile. It’s all the more rewarding to find a card for one of the Legendary players.
But even with this streamlining, Diamond Dynasty is still a touch too tedious. Games can take over an hour and if you don’t have a lot of free time, those rewards are slow to arrive. Plus, we don’t get offline challenges and tournaments – that we really should have – and of course, that’s one of my biggest pet peeves in gaming today. The good news is that the hardcore faithful should be pleased and if they too were – or still are – card collectors, they’ll probably dive in with gusto. I also have no problem with new features like Quick Counts not being included in this particular mode; it’s supposed to be authentic and Quick Counts is an arcade-y option designed only to speed things up.
Then there’s Road to the Show, where unlocking and equipping gear has become a staple. The game really shines here, as it’s a well-paced and decidedly involving simulation mode that offers a huge amount of gameplay and depth. Earning training points lets your player advance and you seem to get the full and total experience; no other mode better captures the essence of the sport. If you ever wondered what it might be like to be a professional baseball player, Road to the Show is your best bet. Yeah, they didn’t really alter much here and the addition of licensed equipment isn’t exactly a game-changer, but this remains the bread-and-butter of the series. Step into the shoes of a big-leaguer and hone your craft!
Franchise Mode adds a radio show and GM Goals, both of which enhance the overall appeal. The only problem is that it still feels exceedingly dry; even statistic-hounds must get bored looking at endless scores of stats over and over. Yes, you can control one character and move through games at a ready clip, but this mode has always lacked personality and unfortunately, that hasn’t changed in this year’s title. To be perfectly honest, I wonder how many baseball fans would choose Franchise over Road to the Show or Diamond Dynasty, as both offer more engaging and ultimately more rewarding experiences. I have a relatively meticulous nature and if Franchise doesn’t click for me, I have to question who it does click for.
In the end, though, I invariably return to Road to the Show, and messing around with my card collection in Diamond Dynasty still makes me feel like a kid again. And besides, the core gameplay is still great: The hitting and pitching mechanics feel just about right (even though pitching can still be frustrating) and the physics are excellent. The ball reacts as it should, whether it’s glancing off a glove, bouncing off a wall, or flying high from a well-swung bat. Those familiar with the series will find a welcoming, challenging system that rewards practice and patience, and above all else, feels very realistic. This is the core of any sport and as such, the core of any sports simulator. Hence, you really can’t take anything away from the developers; they’ve done a great job.
Just remember that this isn’t a game for novices. In other words, if this is your first foray into Sony’s baseball simulator, you need to be ready for a steep learning curve. If you’re a die-hard fan of the sport, you’re probably up for the challenge. A higher difficulty should be expected from any simulator, anyway. As for the online play, it seems better than before, with virtually no lag or other serious technical issues. A few bizarre hitches and glitches can still pop up every now and then but aside from that, you shouldn’t run into too many problems. When you consider the entire package, and understand that despite the lingering drawbacks in a few of the modes, you have to appreciate the end result.
MLB 15: The Show doesn’t really launch us into a new stratosphere of simulation gaming. The upgrades and improvements are there but a lot the game still feels underwhelming, simply due to its age. Even so, it’s impossible not to recommend this game to baseball lovers, as the purity and authenticity of the mechanics and physics, engrossing Road to the Show Mode, and unrestrained depth can keep you entertained for many months. The licensed equipment is appreciated, as are the various gameplay tweaks and the streamlining of Diamond Dynasty. If they could only freshen up the rest of the production next year, we’d see a full-on return to glory for this esteemed IP. Go for broke, Sony San Diego!
The Good: Beautifully designed and detailed stadiums. Excellent animations on all fronts. Road to the Show is still the star of the production. Streamlined, more accessible Diamond Dynasty. Core gameplay mechanics, including pitching, hitting and fielding, remain mostly great. Pretty darn realistic.
The Bad: Commentary and music need a definite update. Franchise Mode just feels tired and even unnecessary. The pacing of some modes still feels off.
The Ugly: “It’s only ugly if you’re unprepared and ill-equipped for the learning curve.”