MLB 15: The Show
The 2015 New York Yankees look like a team frozen in time. From the soon-to-be-over-the-hill Alex Rodriguez to a lineup filled with 30-somethings like Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Mark Teixeira, the roster screams of yesteryear. Until these players’ lengthy contracts expire, the Bronx Bombers won’t see much young blood on the roster. This year’s MLB 15: The Show parallels the aging Yankees, offering a familiar package of gameplay and modes, but little in terms of exciting new content.
And that’s where developer Sony San Diego runs into a bit of a dilemma: Should the focus be on improving the foundation of modes like Road to the Show, Franchise, and Diamond Dynasty, or should more effort be applied to delivering new experiences? Seeing that this year’s top additions in The Show are players trotting to first base on sure outs, licensed gear, collectible loot, user-initiated cutoffs, reduced load times, and improved trade logic, it may be time for Sony to experiment again – like 2K Sports did with the story mode in its NBA series.
And why not? The core of this baseball experience is fantastic, offering a wide variety of finely honed gameplay mechanics that embody the realism of the sport. It also looks better than it ever has. New fielding animations bring exciting new possibilities to the field, like players throwing their bodies in harm’s way to knock down wild hops or doing their best Neo impressions from The Matrix to avoid getting hit by them. In years past, Sony honed in on the lifelike details for star players, bringing their stances, batter's box waggles, and swings to the game. This year, many of these players' personalities are included in the game, and they often add a little more excitement or tension to a particular play. Anthony Rizzo takes a few extra seconds to gloat after clobbering a ball, and Yasiel Puig always seems to be fired up. These sequences don't occur often, but I'd recommend not pressing buttons to speed up the presentation when the game is on the line.
The improvements on the field unfortunately shine a brighter spotlight on the series’ little visual problems. After a first baseman makes a beautiful backhanded grab and control is handed to the player to run to first, the shift in weight and momentum looks awkward – like someone hit fast-forward on a DVD player. The transitional animation from a player roaring out of the batter’s box and slowing to a trot also has a little hitch in it every time. These are minor complaints, but they do stand out in a game that goes the extra mile to nail the little nuances of the sport.
The visual presentation is often riddled with problems for online matches. Latency and lag create a number of puzzling throwing animations this year. The animation that reoccurred the most for me was a double-play attempt ending with the second basemen flipping the ball to first with the velocity and height of a slow-pitched softball.
On-field control offers a number of significant, little tweaks. A simplified menu for defensive shifts allows players to deploy strategies with ease. I used it for most batters. As I mentioned earlier, user-controlled cutoffs are a huge addition. Let’s say you throw the ball to home, but realize you have a better chance of cutting down a runner at second; you can tap a button to have your infielder snag the ball mid-air and hurl it to second. It's a small addition, but a serious game-changer.
The battle between the pitcher and batter is mostly the same this year, but players have one new option to explore when standing at the dish. Directional hitting, a batting mechanic that allows players to influence where the ball is hit by looking for a specific pitch location, can be immensely satisfying...when it works. It has an incredibly low success rate, and is mostly for veteran players who are great at reading pitches. I would only switch to it when I wanted to expose a defensive shift or try to direct a bunt down a baseline. Even if you guess a specific pitch location correctly, it doesn’t work every time, mind you; timing and number crunching are factored into its success rates.
Outside of these little enhancements, the tweaks to this year’s on-field performance are hardly noticeable. A.I.-controlled players take more realistic routes to balls and no longer look like Cylons that know exactly how a ball will bounce off of a wall.
When it comes to this year’s selection of modes, simplification is the name of the game. Franchise mode offers a streamlined trade system that finally boasts a handy finder option. In my numerous simulations of the game, I was able to put together a number of blockbuster trades that put my team into immediate contention (but I often had to give up young talent to get there). While I saw less CPU-controlled offers come in, the trade logic is improved, factoring in the needs of the teams, not just if the players are of equal value.
My favorite addition to Franchise mode is a radio show that plays after a day of baseball is played. The radio show walks through the daily match-ups, highlights the notable stats, and gives plenty of analysis for divisional battles. The amount of dialogue here is ridiculous.
Transferable saves was the one feature I looked forward to the most when I booted up this year's game, but I ended up not using it. Yes, it’s great that you can continue a career from MLB 14 with all of the new gameplay and graphical perks in tow, but the roster holds true to your franchise or Road to the Show career, and doesn’t accommodate the trades or signings made in the real world. I found I’d much rather have up-to-date rosters than carried over statistics. Here’s hoping Sony can add an option that lets players tweak the rosters in next year’s game.
Road to the Show is the same song and dance as last year, but does veer into the territory of fantastical magic through collectible gear that gives your player significant and immediate boosts in attributes. The gear is a part of The Show’s new collectible trading cards, which come in purchasable packs using the in-game currency. Given that Road to the Show is about honing a player’s skills through play, it’s odd that the fastest way to improve his skills is to throw on a new pair of shoes.
Trading cards also have an odd usage in Diamond Dynasty. After assembling a team of players, leftover cards can be “fed” to your created player. Eating other players (this is really a thing) gives your player stat boosts, which feels out-of-place in a game so focused on getting the details right. The new streamlined menus for Diamond Dynasty make it easier to get into, but the overall online performance continues to be erratic and unreliable, making this mode a tough sell as a destination. When lag is prominent, fielding and base running have all sorts of problems, including fielders not applying tags as runners round the bases. After a tag is missed, the lag in input can be so severe that they don’t throw the ball to the next base in time, something you don’t even see in Little League ball. When lag wasn't a problem, I did participate in the cleanest online matches I've had in franchise history. Unfortunately, those games were the minority. Some kind of interference affected most games.
MLB 15: The Show is a game of little touches that you may not even notice. A good example of this is the sun's placement is now authentic for the time of day and year, making shadows creep realistically across the field and rays of light shine through the cracks in the bleachers. Most of the additions along these lines enhance the look of the game, but little else.
As Sony continues updating the legacy features of this game – tweaks that undoubtedly make the game better and more user friendly – a long-time fan of the series like me can’t help but look at the innovations occurring in other sport games and wonder why Sony hasn’t taken more chances. It's still a hell of a game, but if you come back to it year in and year out, this season's offering doesn't have much of a spark.