Despite over a dozen years of baseball experience from my youth, I can't say I was particularly excited for Sony's introduction to MLB 14: The Show at Monday's media event. When it comes to player names or even stadiums, I'm about as useful as cricket player here. While I respect what Sony's done with The Show and the recognition its received in the industry simulation baseball has never been of particular interest to me.
Yet what was shown during the preview event was enough to turn even my head. It had little to do with the basic gameplay mechanics of pitching and hitting the ball, but rather the attitude with which the developer seemed to recognize why gamers like myself might have passed on the game. This recognition alone, that games can be faster, can work better to tie experiences between the yearly releases, and perhaps first and foremost look better with the additional power the PS4 affords, is worth its weight to me in tweaks and additional simulation features.
Where does that start? With Quick Counts, a feature that has the potential to cut game length in half while also adding a really interesting strategic element to batting. Quick Counts is an option that can be turned on across the game, if I heard correctly, that switches batting counts from an initial 0-0 to an intelligently calculated mid-to-late batting count. According Sony San Diego the goal of Quick Counts is to recapture the attention of gamers who are disappointed with current game length.
While I'm not persuaded that Quick Counts will pull in a new audience in itself, I do find it an extremely intriguing new mode. Every at bat becomes a strategic challenge -- almost a puzzle. The player is tasked with evaluating their situation, gaging how aggressive or defensive they should be and then must take advantage of the situation as best they can. More than that, perhaps, is that each at-bat is over quickly and never lasts long enough for the tension of a high-stress situation to fade away (or never build in the first place).
A member of the audience was pulled up to prove just how fast Quick Counts can make the game. He wrapped up three at bats without getting on-base in just a minute or two. I'd imagine pitching could talk a bit longer, but still it was a dramatic example.
Several other features for MLB 14: The Show were mentioned but not discussed at length. Those include Player Lock, which allows players to play just a single player throughout the Road to Show season. It's another way to speed up overall gameplay without sacrificing the core experience. Year-to-year saves will also begin with MLB 14: The Show, allowing players to carry their saves into MLB 15: The Show in order to continue their progress. Other features are planned to be more clearly detailed in the future.
After going over Quick Counts we moved onto the good stuff -- we switched from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4 version of MLB 14: The Show. Let's take a moment for some straight from the heart honesty. MLB 14: The Show on PlayStation 3 isn't an outstanding looking game. It looks good enough, but graphics aren't the game's strongest suit. That said, they do have solid animations, lighting effects and acceptable art for each player's likeness.
With the PlayStation 4 much of the game has been upgraded to a degree where it's entirely acceptable to say this game looks great. The funny thing is, many of the textures and models don't seem to have been upgraded to any noticeable degree. Instead the upgrades come from other, less prominent areas. Lighting specifically has been upgraded, adding subsurface scattering to make skin look more realistic and casting shadows in a more realistic manner. Just today the lead graphics artist on the team confirmed he made another big breakthrough on lighting, making it even more striking.
Other areas of drastic visual improvement include the fans in the stadium who now have over a 1,000 models where in the PS3 version they have just more than 50. Fans are also built of more than 10,000 polygons versus the PS3's 1,600, making fans on the PS4 as highly detailed as the players on the PS3. Stadium detail was also drastically better on the PlayStation 4, where old flat textures now had depth and shadowing. Oh, and did I mention grass? Grass now is grass, as opposed to being a flat green texture. Every piece of grass is visualized and players' feet will sink into it as they run. It's enough to make a grown man cry.
Did I mention beards, because Sony's San Diego Studio developers certainly did. On the PlayStation 3 many player's beards could easily have been mistaken for the player having just fallen in mud, or perhaps eaten a box of chocolates much too quickly. On PlayStation 4 players' beards are fully rendered, strand by strand. It's not exactly Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, but it's a huge step up. Considering how many baseball players take their beards seriously, I'm sure they'll appreciate the efforts of The Show's art team.
MLB 14: The Show is still 100% a game focused on the purity of the simulation. As much as I've rambled about how I'm excited by the changes they're making, for the most part those changes are either optional or tuned to accent the simulation experience. The work that must go into how Quick Counts calculates how a pitcher would fare against a batter and providing a count based on that has to be impressive.
Road to the Show is still the primary mode in the game and while it can be played with Quick Counts, Single Player and who knows what else the core experience is still available for dedicated fans. In fact, much of MLB 14: The Show's additions seem designed to build players further towards that true, absolute simulation experience rather than providing a completely alternate option.
If PlayStation 4 is a viable option for you as a console, then pick up MLB 14: The Show on that. Yes, the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3 games are feature-mirrored, which means there's no difference between the games when it comes to how they are played. The PlayStation 4 version really does just look that much better. It's kind of a shame that it's released later than the PlayStation 3 version, but I believe it'll be worth the wait.
I haven't played MLB 13: The Show, or any other baseball game for years, but I don't doubt that MLB 14: The Show will continue the pedigree of the franchise. The Show is the best baseball game available and it looks like it's just become better than ever.
As a final note, I wanted to make clear that we were shown MLB 14: The Show being played in the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation 4 version of the game was only used for visual comparison. In fact, the PlayStation 4 version, despite only having the camera being repositioned, had extreme frame lag, pop-in and just a general un-polished appearance. We were assured by the developers that this was consistent with the development timeline and that the game would absolutely be coming together in the weeks to come.